Nationalist parties and governments across Europe are investing a lot of effort to cultivate their narrative, or to put it more simply, to rewrite history. In particular, they understate their countrymen’s role in the Holocaust.
This is the backdrop for Hungary’s Holocaust museum scheduled to open next year, another link in the chain of attempts to whitewash Hungary’s collaboration with the Nazis. Now it turns out, as Channel 10 News has reported, that representatives of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are negotiating with Hungary “to create a consensus regarding the museum’s narrative.”
Narrative? Consensus? Why should Israel have anything to do with this whitewashing? There’s no “narrative.” There’s nonnegotiable historical truth.
These are the facts. Hungarian anti-Semites had a lot of support dating back years before the war. With Miklos Horthy’s rise to power in 1920, limits were placed on the number of Jews in higher education. Later Horthy forged an alliance with Hitler and openly sympathized with the Nazi regime.
In 1938 Hungary’s First Jewish Law was passed, setting quotas for Jews in various fields; a year later the Second Jewish Law defined a Jew by the origin of one parent, a decisive step on the road to disaster.
In joining the offensive against the Soviet Union in 1941, Hungary handed over around 18,000 Jewish refugees to the Nazis. These Jews were murdered at Kamianets-Podilskyi in today’s western Ukraine. Then the Third Jewish Law banned marriages between Jews and Christians.
The equality Jews had won at the end of the 19th century had been abolished and they were listed as a lesser race. Jewish farmland was confiscated on the grounds that the Jews were considered a foreign race with no ties to Hungary. Horthy forced around 100,000 Jewish men into labor battalions, 40,000 of whom died. He did, however, refuse to hand over all the Jews to Germany.
But with the Nazi conquest of Hungary in March 1944, Adolf Eichmann arrived as head off an SS team known as the Eichmann commandos, which numbered about 150 to 200 people. Within two months they concentrated half a million Jews from rural areas into ghettos.
The process of their annihilation began on May 15. Over an amazingly short period of 56 days, 424,000 Jews were shipped by train to the gas chambers at Birkenau, in what amounted to the most intensive deportation of the Holocaust. Eichmann’s small team couldn’t have done it without the help of the authorities and the wider population. The Hungarians did in fact collaborate.
Amid the mass murder, President Franklin Roosevelt threatened Horthy that the United States would act if the transports didn’t stop. A few days later, 600 American bombers attacked Budapest. Horthy halted the transports on July 6, ahead of the planned date for the deportation of the capital’s Jews.
This was proof that when the Hungarian government wanted, it could stop the deportations. But for most of Hungary’s Jews it was too late. Outside the capital there were no Jews left. These lands were judenrein.
More than 150,000 Jews were left in Budapest; Horthy held them as a bargaining chip with the Allies. In October he was overthrown by the Nazis and replaced by the anti-Semitic Ferenc Szalasi, head of the fascist Arrow Cross party. Eichmann, who couldn’t get ahold of trains, sent tens of thousands of Jews on death marches toward Austria. Thousands were killed by Arrow Cross gangs. The Russians liberated the ghetto in January 1945.
In less than a year, 564,500 of Hungary’s Jews had been massacred. Most of the slaughter was committed by the Germans, but the Nazis wouldn’t have been able to commit all these murders without the massive cooperation of the Hungarians.
This is a terrible truth, but it’s the truth all the same. Will Israel be the one to lend a hand to this distortion of the facts? No diplomatic or economic rationale could justify doing so. It would be an unforgivable act for Netanyahu to cooperate with such a whitewash.
Published in Ha'aretz.