The Accidental Hungarian

We had our friendly ongoing debate for almost a year. What happened to all those Hungarian Jews during World War II? Who did what? And who, if anyone, is responsible?

One thing we do know: Somehow, 600,000 Hungarians, who happened to be Jewish, were removed from their country in a relatively short period of time toward the end of the war and murdered. We go back and forth during the 10-months. What role did the Germans play? How much of the accounting, removal, and abduction of Jewish property, was conducted by Hungarians?

My Hungarian colleague looks at me. Maybe she’s read my posts. She sees an older American English teacher who happens to be Jewish and perhaps leans a bit too strongly into this topic: Hungary and its Jews. After all, Hungary was once a popular home for Jews. Budapest was more than 20% Jewish in the decades prior to the second world war. It’s leading universities enrolled more than 30% Jewish students. Neighborhood synagogues were everywhere. Today, you can see former synagogues being used as sports training centers, some lay vacant, a number are still fairly active, but quiet. Some Hungarian Jews don’t even know they are Jewish. For others, there are only distant memories and stories. There is, of course, some denial. “Are you Jewish?,” I occasionally ask Hungarians here and there. “Well, sort of,” or “It’s a long story.”

Please show everyone how happily Jews can live in Hungary

I thought our ongoing dialogue had reached its end–I am leaving Hungary after completing my teaching contract here…But, she offers one last exchange via email:

“This is my last present to you. My husband was shopping in the Central Market the other day, and he took notice of this elderly Jewish man walking home from the same place peacefully, really unnoticed. (Could he be an orthodox rabbi?) However, he took the opportunity to take some pictures of him, so you can show everyone in the US how happily Jews can live in this country.”
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After reading her note, I put my heavy heart aside for a few days. My Hungarian friend genuinely thinks that spotting an old Orthodox Jew walking the streets of Budapest is proof that Jews live happily here. I should, she suggests, show this photo to everyone in the U.S. as evidence.
Though I am not Hungarian, I know this man. I know his story
I write back:
“These photos are truly beautiful, especially when I slowed down and took a few minutes to appreciate them. Please thank your husband for me. Ironically, I am sitting in a coffee shop directly across the street from the Dohany Synagogue as I write this. My wife and two American friends are visiting the Synagogue right now.
I hope your assumptions about how the other people view this Orthodox Jew are as positive, if not innocuous, as you suggest. In all likelihood, however, given the actual history here, most of this man’s older family members were killed during WWII. It’s quite likely his grandparents, one or both of his parents, older brothers and sisters, aunts or uncles, were amongst the 600,000  Jews killed here in Hungary. Perhaps he’s even reflecting on their lives as he’s walking along this street today.
You are lucky. You are privileged to be able to view these photos and make positive attributions about him and his life. Though I am not Hungarian, I know this man. I know his story. It’s the same story of so many of my family members, and friends’ family members who lived across Europe for centuries.

This truly was a lovely gift from you and your husband. My gift back to you is one of humility. It is true this man walks safely today on the streets of Budapest. But please don’t make too many assumptions about the difficult journey he’s had to endure to get here on this day. Best always,

Steve  
                                                                                                                                                                      

The holocaust was a horrific travesty, but it wasn’t an accident. “Accidents,” they say, “do happen.” They continue to occur every time we deny what is real.

 

11 thoughts on “The Accidental Hungarian

  1. Very interesting, enlightening, and well-written…as usual. Thanks for giving me a taste of Budapest, of Hungary, and of your experiences there. I look forward to seeing you soon.

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  2. Hungarians know their past. For whatever reason, this woman is incapable of acknowledging it. Is it shame? Denial? An unwillingness to acknowledge Hungary’s role in the genocide of its Jewish population? It can’t be so hard for her to find out the truth, if she wants to.

    On a personal note, I remember once when I was checking into a motel in Key West, Fl, in 1980. The manager/owner was about in his fifties. I detected a slightly East European accent though he didn’t say much. As we were signing the register I noticed he had a number tattooed on his left arm. I stared at it for a second; I knew what it was. And, I remember feeling a sense of shame. There I was, an American who had nothing to do with the Holocaust, but I felt shame for what he had been through.

    For some reason, this woman just doesn’t want to know about what happened to the Jews in Budapest, and therein lies the problem, in my opinion. It should be discussed and acknowledged. Hungarians and others need to admit their own culpability. People need to be aware and, I personally believe, they need to feel shame.

    Shame is a valuable emotion. We not only need to feel shame for having done something wrong but also for not having done anything to prevent wrongs from occurring. Not even acknowledging that these types of horrendous events have transpired and just glossing them over and the effect they have had on generations of families and a whole group of people is disgraceful. Shame makes us reflect on our behavior and that of others. It can actually empower us to prevent atrocities or injustice in the future because shame makes us aware.

    Your lady friend would do well to feel some shame, not necessarily for what her countrymen/women did or didn’t do less than a century ago to prevent the genocide of the Jews of Budapest, but for the fact that she can’t seem to acknowledge it.

    Anyway, Steve, all the best on your next adventure in the world. Take care, Edie

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    1. Thanks for responding, and for doing it so eloquently, Edith. Your story about the man in Florida is both poignant and so deeply personal. I think many people can relate to seeing those tattoos from the concentration camps. You expressed it as “shame.” I was especially moved by this: “Shame is a valuable emotion. We not only need to feel shame for having done something wrong but also for not having done anything to prevent wrongs from occurring.” -Regards, Steve

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      1. Shame? Correct, indeed, to feel self-shame, as the onrush of history hits one in such a manner. But it is entirely different to ask of large groups, foreign societies, that “they are not saddened in the correct manner.” I feel for the young girl, and am fond of her desires, knowing of it well. Our president, Áder János, uniquely put to word, “Hungarians were the victims. and Hungarians were the perpetrators.” Immediately one must add to Jewry on America’s shores –totally agree, and understand their view that this is not enough. Shame is useful, as it can lead to an appreciation of mutual sorrow. But too often it remains condemnatory –As when one sits shiva, and a bunch of goatherds have been known to rush into the living room, “You guys are simply not sorrowful in the correct manner.”

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    2. Edie, I think many of us, Hungarians do not really know our past. Why? What we learn at school, that does not make too much sense. During the decades of communism, there was a level of denial. At school, we only learned that the “great” Soviet Union made us free from the German occupants. There were a few words about jews, but that was mainly focused on deporting Jews (“just” physical relocation), but not really exploring what the holocaust was. After 1990, teaching history became different. A little bit more open, but still transferring the responsibility on nazis in Germany. Still a kind of denial. “Something bad happened around us, but it has not much to do with us” – this is the approach. Those times, not in the media, not in public speaking, but you could still hear from people that jews are bad, they make the world worse. No facts, no details, just some kind of generic blames. In this environment average people will just keep up with their reluctance to understand the past and presence. This is why this lady, and many other people have this type of approach, unfortunately. I cannot imagine, they would ever be able to feel shame.
      Better education, better public speaking could help, but I have never experienced any level of improvement…

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  3. I wanted to reflect on this question here: “What role did the Germans play? – With not too much research you will find relevant articles on this topic: “In 1944, the Arrow Cross Party’s fortunes were abruptly reversed after Hitler lost patience with the reluctance of Horthy and his moderate prime minister, Miklós Kállay, to toe the Nazi line fully. In March 1944, the Germans invaded and officially occupied Hungary; Kállay fled and was replaced by the Nazi proxy, Döme Sztójay. One of Sztójay’s first acts was to legalize the Arrow Cross.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrow_Cross_Party#Rise_to_power)

    I know this was the last episode in this unfortunate episode of Europe, that can never ever happen.

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    1. Your question is of central concern among historians here, Iz. It can not be denied that deportations escalated quickly after the Nazi Occupation, Spring 1944. But several points –1. Eli Wiesel has noted that Eichman arrived with less than 10 bodyguards and over 300 bookkeepers! He asks, “Why did you not rush him? Take him down?” “National accountability” comes from the unusual Hungarian manpower which the Germans harnessed. “At no time had we received such cooperation,” Eichman stated. But now –another fast forward –our President Áder János has put to word, “Hungarians were the victims, and Hungarians the perpetrators.” Does that correct anything? Can it by any means undo the tragedy, even if Áder is entirely sincere? Certainly not for Jewry abroad who know largely that 140,000 Jewish children in the countryside were lost in less than 3 months. I stay with the term “complex,” it is very complicated because I understand the desires of Stephen’s young friend, also.

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      1. For some reason I was unable to reply to your post above so I am replying here.

        I agree with your comments regarding my comments on “shame.” I too understand the young lady. I was probably like her once and I hope that as she matures that she will gain insight.

        To clarify myself, and I think you understood what I meant in my post, as an individual we need to be able to feel shame as this gives us a chance to reflect on our actions. I am speaking about creating an awareness in our minds which allows us to act against injustice on an individual level, instead of turning our heads and looking away.

        When this young woman said basically, “Show Americans how happy Jews are in Hungary” she really had no idea, as Steve said, of what this man may have suffered. I suppose she is just terribly naive. I might understand her but that doesn’t mean I can excuse her ignorance.

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      2. Are you really asking me why Eichmann was not rushed and took down? – Who would have done that? The arrow party was totally loyal to them, everywhere else was afraid of their life. You have no idea what and how things happened then, in what circumstances men had to live with. I have to emphasize that The Arrow Cross party was not a democratically elected government, it was not elected anyhow at all. It was just appointed by the Germans, and who opposed it was simply killed/imprisoned.

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      3. Hi Iz. Having problems responding on this string, like others… It was Wiesel who asked, and he was IMHO correct for when Eichman entered with the German occupation in March. He is accurate in his account of how vulnerable Eichman was. The Arrow Cross leaders, of whom you speak, had not yet been let out of jail. Thióose Hungarians who know the period and time-flow of events then argue that it would not have mattered, that someone would have replaced Eichman. Do you agree?

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  4. Exe 60. Yes, I understand and agree with your clarification. Shame can be a motivating force aligned with Never Forget. But in your hopes for the young girl, “that she matures that she will gain insight,” I also see a similarity to my own shortcomings. Your insights are rare because for me they reflect a process toward depth, very like the process of depth psychology, such as Jung’s –moving from recalling facts for what happened, dried bones as dates, places, toward the memory for events and personal tragedies, that my father was a new graduate from medical schools in 1941 and, as a medical officer stationed on the receiving end in the Ukraine of the first transports to reach 5 figures: this is memory. But you have ended up –as Stephen also seems to –in a landscape of awareness: In a semi-real, perhaps at times dissociated reality as the fuller knowledge of what happened remains unspeakable, walking outside my own apartment which I just learned was a Yellow Stars House, suddenly aware of who lived there then and now, and once outside, seeing a Roni Grocer, a garage for auto works, florist,in the knowledge of the unreality that only your actions can root you in some grounded center. Therein our hopes for this young girl –that at some point she becomes like us, and rolls up her sleeves: Tikkun Olam! Why? Why begrudge her own longing, like ours, hoping she has four children and masters hip-hop as an avocation and for the joy of it.

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