In defence of a maligned state

Hungary, the country of my birth, gets a fairly bad press in the antisemitism stakes. Naturally, the recent rise of the ultra-nationalist Jobbik Party - blatantly no friend to Jews or Gypsies - hasn't helped. But, last spring, when a Jobbik MP gave a pointedly antisemitic speech in parliament - citing a 19th-century "blood libel" - he was fervently denounced by politicians of all stripes, and Prime Minister Viktor Orban reacted by inviting a prominent Budapest rabbi to parliament and pledging his government's support for the Jewish community.

The Catholic, Reform and Lutheran churches followed with a joint statement in a Jewish magazine, declaring: "It is our duty to protest against incitement of hatred."

In another positive step, in July, Hungarian authorities arrested 97-year-old Laszlo Csatary, a "most wanted" Nazi war criminal accused of sending 16,000 Jews to Auschwitz. It may or may not be true that the arrest came about due to international pressure, but the point is that it took place.

This brings us to Hungary's Holocaust record. I don't deny that, in common with the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, there was an ingrained, centuries-old antisemitism in Hungary that was effectively tapped by the Nazis. But it's a matter of degree. For most of the war, Hungary was in fact a refuge for Jews (except for the poor souls in the labour battalions). Despite its being an Axis ally, under the regent, Miklos Horthy, Hungarian Jews were not deported, put into ghettoes or made to wear the yellow star. All that happened only after March 1944, when the Germans occupied the country and Adolf Eichmann arrived, determined to implement the Final Solution where Hungary had failed to do so.

For most of the war, Hungary was a refuge

The German arrival marked the start of deportations. From May to July 1944, some 440,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to Auschwitz, and the majority perished. But, before the planned mass deportation of Budapest's Jews could take place, a newly emboldened Horthy halted it. He was toppled that October and the Nazis put a rabid Arrow Cross antisemite in charge. But the Jews had gained a precious three months. By then, the Red Army was closing in, the Germans were on the run and there were no more trains for transports to the death camps.

Some 120,000 of Budapest's Jews survived the war in large part thanks to Horthy's reluctance to implement German orders. In the summer of 1944, New York Times correspondent Anne McCormick wrote: "As long as they exercised any authority in their own house, the Hungarians tried to protect the Jews."

Today, the small nation has continental Europe's third largest Jewish population, after France and Germany - up to 100,000 people, mostly living in Budapest. The capital's many shuls include the beautifully restored Dohany Street Synagogue. There is a much-lauded Holocaust museum, as well as the "shoes along the Danube" memorial to Jews killed by the Arrow Cross.

Budapest has a kosher pastry shop and kosher butcher - even a kosher pizzeria - and a Jewish theatre group. The city hosts an annual Jewish Summer Festival with a book fair, art exhibits, Jewish gastronomic delights and a "kosher cabaret". Each winter, there is a Chanucah festival in the flourishing Jewish district (site of a wartime ghetto), where hip young Hungarian Jews scoff latkes and listen to ethno-fusion-klezmer-punk bands.

These are hardly indicative of a society in which antisemitism plays a dominant role. So let's look at the broader picture. Hungary is not such a bad place to be a Jew.

Monica Porter is a journalist and author

Last updated: 10:45am, September 30 2012