When I am in my hometown of Budapest, almost every day I look up towards the breathtaking Rose Hill and see a jewel of a building on the side of the hill. The building, once the home of a famous Jewish businessman, was from March 1944 the home of Adolf Eichmann, who had come to Hungary from the Reich to organize the extermination of Hungarian Jews. He arrived with no more than 150 people, including secretaries and drivers. That's all he needed: he had the willing, world-class Hungarian state bureaucracy at his disposal to assist the deportations.
When I look at the Eichmann house, I think of my grandmother Paula and grandfather Pál, who on July 4th, 1944 were herded into cattle cars and who vanished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz a few days later. I was already a grown man when my father decided that the time has come to visit the "real thing," Auschwitz-Birkenau. As we entered under the "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign at the main gate, my father broke down and cried endlessly. He hugged me and said: the pain is simply unbearable.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust. In total, some 600,000 of the most assimilated, incredibly patriotic and loyal Jews of Europe were gassed, shot or starved to death. We feel the pain to this day, everyday. The scars even seventy years later have not healed.
Undeniably, in the last 20 or so years, some -- but hardly enough -- efforts have been made in Hungary to look into the past and acknowledge the facts: the Hungarian Holocaust was the result of long years of anti-Semitic and discriminatory policies, marked by restrictive laws from the 1920s onwards, leading to a climate that made Eichman's job easy. The Hungarian government let down its own citizens. While the German occupation brought upon the country the "Endlösung," it could not have been possible without the willing and even enthusiastic efforts of the Hungarian government, the gendarmerie and the majority of the public. A few opposed it and tried to help, but most Hungarians looked on (or looked away) in silence and indifference, while their Jewish neighbors were taken to their certain death.
That Hungarian Jews are Hungarians is not a legal issue. They were and are Hungarians, period. Hungary is their motherland. Hungarians of Jewish origin have added enormously to the greatness of the nation. Hungarian history is their history, Hungarian culture is their culture and their contributions are Hungarian contributions. The nation has never recovered from losing the hundreds of thousands of professors, scientists, engineers, architects, artists or simple teachers and workers.
The remembrance of the 70th anniversary in today's Hungary is a disgrace. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán chose to make it a point: I decide the narrative. That narrative is politically motivated, lacking the understanding for the pain, for the nightmares that still haunt. He is no anti-Semite. He is a cynic. A large part of the country religiously follows his every word. He could have chosen to tell his followers that the Hungarian Holocaust is a Hungarian tragedy. He could have said that this is the deepest wound on the collective soul of the nation, which has never healed. He could have told the nation that the Germans would not have been able to do it alone. He could have said what his foreign minister has said: in the Holocaust, Hungarians killed Hungarians. Unfortunately only his words really matter. He should have done all this, not in order to please Washington or Brussels or the "International Jewish Organizations," but out of decency and respect.
Instead, after his landslide victory at the recent elections, which once again gives him absolute and unprecedented power, he chose to go ahead with the erection of a memorial of the German occupation in Central Budapest, suggesting that "Hungary was a victim, not a perpetrator" and that "it was all the fault of the Germans." He is deaf to the uproar by the Jewish community and other decent Hungarians. He fails to show leadership and magnanimity. He is missing the opportunity to behave like a statesman. This is very sad.
The Jewish community in Hungary is as divided as the country itself, perhaps another proof of how "Hungarian" they are. Yet there are signs that a growing number of Jews reject being dragged into everyday politics. Orbán should understand their motives, which are not political: they will never forget and they will never allow this ever to happen again. They will not rest until the truth and the whole truth emerges about the Holocaust. They will never give up the fight against anti-Semitism.
It is possible to reconcile. It is not possible to forget.