In Hungary, a Belated Holocaust Memorial

Times Staff Writer

For Hedwig Pataki, the opening of Central Europe's only Holocaust museum offered a chance finally to commemorate the family she lost more than half a century ago.

A wall in the courtyard of the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest is inscribed with the names of 60,000 of Hungary's approximately 600,000 victims of the genocide.

Pataki, an 86-year-old Hungarian Jew who survived the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, had provided the names of her father and an aunt, both of whom died in Nazi camps. She clutched an application to add the name of her uncle, slain in Budapest, his body thrown into the Danube.

"I learned that there is a wall and a place for names. That is why I am here," she said. "It is my obligation."

The Holocaust Memorial Center, which opened April 15, is part of the country's belated efforts to grapple with its role in the Holocaust.

"We show that people are missing, and we ask how did these things happen and why haven't we talked about them?" said Andras Daranyi, the center's executive director. "The Holocaust is part of Hungarian national history. It is not just something that happened to the Jews."

The state-funded facility, the fifth national Holocaust museum in the world, incorporates a 1923 synagogue on Pava Street. The second floor of the synagogue holds an exhibit dedicated to the Romany, or Gypsy, victims of the Holocaust. The first floor will house the museum's permanent exhibition, a comprehensive history of the Hungarian Holocaust, scheduled to open next year.

The complex also includes a research and documentation center and a public database to aid people looking for the names of Holocaust victims inscribed on the memorial wall. Daranyi said names would be added as research continued.

Another hall houses the center's inaugural exhibition, "Auschwitz Album," which features photographs of a transport of Hungarian Jews taken to Poland's Auschwitz concentration camp in May 1944. The pictures, found by an Auschwitz survivor after liberation, document the arrival in the morning and the wait outside the gas chambers later that day.

The exhibition brought back painful memories for Ica Lendvai, an 83-year-old Hungarian Jew who was held at Auschwitz for seven weeks.

"For whoever survived, whoever lived through those times, it was shocking to see those pictures," she said. "It was a shock to be made to remember again."

But there was also a sense of relief in being encouraged to speak about what happened, she added. "For decades no one talked about this, not even inside the family," Lendvai said.

During the war, Hungary was allied with Nazi Germany. About 825,000 people legally classified as Jews lived in Hungarian territory in 1941. In August of that year, about 17,000 "stateless" Jews -- most of whom came from territory that had been recently annexed by Hungary -- were deported, and 11,000 were subsequently massacred by German forces.

But Hungarian authorities resisted Nazi pressure to carry out further deportations, and in March 1944, Germany occupied Hungary. The Nazis, with the assistance of Hungarian gendarmerie and army units, rounded up Jews into ghettos, and the deportations began.

In just 56 days, 437,402 Jews were deported, all but 15,000 taken to Auschwitz. The deportation was the largest and fastest of the Holocaust. More than half a million Hungarian Jews died during the war.

After the war, Hungary showed little desire to ponder its role in the Holocaust. The Communists came to power in 1948, and the new government, aligned with the Soviets, who had liberated Hungary from Nazi occupation, did not feel compelled to address the country's wartime role.

"No one in Hungary really faced their past," Lendvai said. "Hungary basically put the responsibility on the Germans. But the Germans would have been unable if the Hungarian police and army hadn't helped them."

Efforts to deal with the past have intensified since the end of Communist rule in 1989. But a recent battle to erect a statue in honor of a former prime minister underscores the continued lack of consensus.

Pal Teleki served as prime minister of Hungary from 1920 to 1921 and from 1939 to 1941. During his first tenure, laws restricting Jewish enrollment at universities were passed; during his second term a law limiting Jewish access to jobs and widening the definition of who would be considered Jewish was put into effect.

Teleki committed suicide on April 3, 1941, rather than assist Germany in invading Yugoslavia. He is viewed by some Hungarians as a patriot who chose to die rather than collaborate with the Nazis.

"The debate over Teleki is the debate over Hungary's role in the Holocaust: Is it the Germans forcing the Hungarians, or is it the Hungarians actively collaborating?" said Michael Miller, a professor of history at the Central European University in Budapest.

The Alliance of Jewish Communities in Hungary opposed honoring Teleki, saying he symbolized "institutional, nationalistic anti-Semitism," and the Jerusalem branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said it would be "extremely incongruous" for Hungary to open a Holocaust museum and pay tribute to Teleki at the same time.

After the protests, the Budapest city government revoked the Teleki Memorial Committee's permit to put up the statue in Buda Castle. But in early April the committee found a new home for the statue -- in the courtyard of a Catholic church near Lake Balaton, southwest of Budapest.

The Hungarian Holocaust was "a heinous crime that was committed by Hungarian people against Hungarian people," Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy said at the memorial center opening.

Lendvai praised Medgyessy's directness. "No one acknowledged that before," she said. "I know how little of this history has been taught. This is a time when people are being introduced to the past."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday May 06, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction Concentration camp -- An article in Section A on April 27 about the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest, Hungary, referred to "Poland's Auschwitz concentration camp." It should have made it clear that the camp, although in Poland, was run by German Nazis.
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