Behind Hungary’s ‘Potemkin Village’ antisemitism flourishes

Seventy years after the murder of 600,000 Hungarian Jews, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government appointed an ambassador to Italy who declared that Jews were “agents of Satan” and has erected a monument in Budapest with the aim of denying Hungary’s role in the Shoah. It is a surreal turn of events for a government that sought to use the Holocaust commemorative year to clear its sullied image, by proving that it neither tolerated anti-Semitism, nor was in alliance with the far-right Jobbik Party. Yet rather than easing the fears, the commemorative year has turned into a mockery of the tragedy that it was meant to solemnly remember.

A few weeks ago, an elderly woman with a cannister of spray-paint defaced public property. “I survived the Holocaust. I still want to live.” These were the words that the frail Budapest resident spray-painted onto the canvas that concealed a newly erected monument erected in Freedom Square. The statue convinced the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities to boycott the Holocaust commemorative year altogether, as it portrays war-time Hungary as the Archangel Gabriel and Germany as a fiendish eagle, swooping down and victimizing all Hungarians. The monument, which ostensibly aims to memorialize “all victims” of German occupation, reinforces the ruling Fidesz party’s policy of passing on culpability for the murder of the country’s Jewish population to the Germans.

Yellow stars in Budapest remind Hungarians of the Holocaust and the houses where Jews were forced to live after June 1944. Photo: C. Adam.

Yellow stars in Budapest remind Hungarians of the Holocaust and the houses where Jews were forced to live after June 1944.

Following the March 19, 1944, occupation of Hungary, Hungarian authorities were surpringly zealous in deporting the country’s Jewish population.

The blatantly misleading monument sparked more than 100 days of protests. Activists took matters into their own hands and erected a “living memorial” to the victims of the Holocaust. Hundreds of shoes, candles, stones, photographs of murdered grandparents, poignant letters and poems, and the presence of committed protesters gave Freedom Square new meaning. Their presence also managed to delay the completion of the monument and convinced authorities to station dozens of police officers around the statue.

When the monument was finally completed, Archangel Gabriel was installed in the dead of night.

Soon after, the Orban government sounded the commemorative year’s final death knell by appointing an anti-Semite as the country’s ambassador to Rome. Peter Szentmihalyi Szabo, a far-right publicist, did not mince his words:

“It is not difficult to recognize them because they are cowardly and impertinent. Money is their God. Dark circles under their eyes, flabby skin, clammy palms, cold feet, freakish smiles give them away. They can be found everywhere on the earth. They are the agents of Satan,” wrote Szentmihalyi Szabo in a far-right weekly.

After days of international scandal, Szentmihalyi Szabo announced that he no longer wished to be ambassador, though he never apologized for his anti-Semitism, nor did the government explain why it nominated him.

Hungarian anti-Semitism is different than that seen in Western European countries, where racist acts are perpetrated by a small minority of citizens. In none of these countries do Jews have to worry about the state fanning the flames of hatred.

Approximately 6,000 Holocaust survivors still live in Hungary. The ingrained hatred that fueled the Holocaust and the denial that continues to plague Hungarian society is now culimating in the appointment of high-ranking officials who no longer feel any need to conceal their anti-Semitism.

If Western leaders finally demolish the Potemkin Village that still conceals state-sanctioned anti-Semitism in Hungary from the outside world, they will see the signs of a liberal democracy that has almost completely unraveled.

Christopher Adam is a historian based in Ottawa, Canada.

(This article appeared in the July 30th issue of the Washington Jewish Week.)

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