Holocaust commemorations, public memory and antisemitism in Hungary: A video interview with András Heisler

HFP’s Hungarian-language sister publication, the Kanadai Magyar Hírlap, published a lengthy and–we think–insightful interview with András Heisler, the President of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz), during his official visit to Canada this week. Mr. Heisler was coming alongside Deputy State Secretary Csaba Latorcai and spent five days in Canada, meeting with various levels of federal government, including the Prime Minister’s Office, as well as visiting with Jewish and other religious communities. During the Ottawa leg of his journey, Mr. Heisler sat down with András Göllner, the founder and spokesperson of the Canadian Hungarian Democratic Charter, and agreed to an interview.

The video interview was conducted in Hungarian and we encourage those of you who understand the language to view it. Mr. Heisler emphasized on several occasion his belief in having a “nuanced” view of the current Orbán government and of political events in Hungary, in general. Mr. Heisler noted that there are approximately 100,000 Jews in Hungary today, while before World War II this community numbered over 800,000. Some 600,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust and another 100,000 either did not return to Hungary, or emigrated between 1945 and 1956. Many settled in Canada.

“Hungarian Jews feel a very close affinity to Hungary–to Hungarian culture and to the Hungarian landscape,” said Mr. Heisler, noting that relatively few Hungarian Jews decided to take advantage of Aliyah, the right of people of Jewish descent to immigrate (or “return”) to Israel. Mr. Heisler raised this point in relation to a question and comment by Prof. Göllner.

“The Orbán government proclaims that Hungary is performing much better and that it is Europe’s success story. How can it be that some 600,000 Hungarians have left Hungary in the past five years,” asked the Charter’s spokesperson. Mr. Heisler responded that he believes that economic reasons are behind this troubling wave of Hungarian seeking a better life elsewhere, as opposed to political factors.

Mr. Heisler applauded Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s speech at the World Jewish Congress, as well as a speech by the Minister in charge of the Prime Minister’s Office, János Lázár.

“I can tell you a great many positive things about the Hungarian government, things that even within all of Europe–when seen from the perspective of the Jewish  community–are truly outstanding”, said Mr. Heisler. “Viktor Orbán gave a great speech at the World Jewish Congress and he declared zero tolerance for antisemitism,” he added, also noting the synagogues and Jewish cemeteries that have been restored through government assistance.

“But Viktor Orbán is also famous for telling us not to pay attention to what he says, but to what he does, ” noted Prof. Göllner. “And this is what is incompatible. He and his government do things that are not in keeping with what he says. For instance, if a Canadian prime minister had an official historian, and this civil servant travelled to a different country to celebrate with people who spread hatred against Jews, he would be dismissed from his position without delay. We cannot make even a single exception when it comes to condemning hatred,” added Prof. Göllner.

Mr. Heisler noted that there had, indeed, been some tension between Mazsihisz and the current government’s politics surrounding the public memory of the Holocaust.

“We always have to respond calmly. But we must also respond in some cases with force and always coherently. Mazsihisz is essentially an advocacy group, supporting the interests and development of Hungary’s Jewish community, as well as guaranteeing its survival. Many people expect us to adopt a type of political opposition approach. No, this is not our job. Our responsibility is advocacy. If possible, we must cooperate with the government of the day, which in this case is the Orbán government. But there are questions where we must not make any compromises,” noted Mr. Heisler. He added that one such red line is the memory of the Holocaust. Last year, Mazsihisz boycotted government-led Holocaust commemorations out of principle, but then added that overall, Hungary’s year of commemorations was commendable, including events organized by municipal governments, nearly 80% of which are tied to Fidesz.

The interview, which includes quite a dynamic discussion on the often duplicitous nature of the Orbán government, also touches on how Fidesz voted for Jobbik MPs to chair key parliamentary committees, including the committee overseeing cultural and education-related issues, as well as the recent refugee crisis and how it impacted the Jewish community.

If you understand Hungarian, it is well worth watching!

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