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Mazsihisz President András Heisler: Something changed

The Beacon asked András Heisler, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary (Mazsihisz), about their discussion and conflicts with Hungary’s government, the new museums on Holocaust and Jewish history, and challenges the Hungarian Jews face in the near future.

Budapest Beacon: When we arranged this interview, the Jewish Roundtable was just concluding. Are you satisfied with what you achieved there?

András Heisler: What we heard there was reassuring. The government made very visible and tangible gestures towards the Jewish community at the roundtable discussion. This broke the long silence in communication between the government and the Jewish Federation (Mazsihisz). There was no discussion whatsoever in the preceding six months.

BB: What were these gestures?

AH: Well, first of all let us discuss them in detail: what is really important is that these gestures were provided to the Jewish organization without asking for any immoral compromise, or anything for that matter. This is clearly important, because we would not have accepted any compromises. The fact that empowered us was that we were consistent in insisting on a standpoint we held right during the whole year, and we do not plan to change this. The gestures of the government were the following: the government accepted our ongoing infrastructural difficulties, that we do not have the means to deal with them alone. This concerns the renovation of our synagogues. Government regulations were accepted in the case of three of them formally: the Miskolc synagogue, the last great and operating Orthodox synagogue in the country is in a terrible shape, with one of its walls sinking into the ground, and is on the brink of collapse. Such a renovation exceeds our financial abilities. The other one is the Szeged synagogue, probably one of the most beautiful in Central-East Europe, which has another technical problem that requires outside financial assistance.  We have been ensured of such an assistance in the form of another government regulation. The third one is the greatest gem, the Rumbach Street synagogue, presently one of the shameful spots in Pest’s Jewish district, as it stands there virtually as a ruin, despite being the only work of Vienna architect Otto Wagner in Hungary. The government will renovate this too, and in addition it supports our plans to place the “House of Coexistence” in there.  Renovation of an Orthodox Jewish old-age home and taking care of abandoned Jewish cemeteries are also on the agenda.

BB: Concerning the “House of Coexistence” project in Rumbach synagogue, you received a statement of intent from the government on that. This is a long-time plan. When the initiative for a Holocaust Center started in Budapest, Rumbach synagogue was one possible location for it. Is this new plan a plan for a Jewish History Museum?

AH: We originally suggested this project to the government as an alternative to the House of Fates. We think that if Budapest already has two Holocaust centers, in Páva utca and the House of Fates, under construction, and this is quite enough, maybe it is one more than is needed.  But the fate of Hungarian Jews is not identical with this dark patch. The Holocaust is a definitive tragedy of the Jewish people, as well as the foundation of their common fates. But this is not the only phenomenon in the history of Hungarian Jewry.  There was a very serious value production as well. Before the Shoah, the Jews of Hungary contributed very significantly to Jewish-gentile coexistence in the country. They were present in culture, literature, fine arts, architecture and in the development of the sciences. If we take a convenient walk in Budapest’s inner city, then we will constantly run into the work of notable Jewish Hungarians, architects. We cannot ignore this value production completely. If we really would like to present Hungarian Jews as they are, then it has to be about a lot more than the Holocaust. Value production will be the main focus of our proposed “House of Coexistence” project that together with the Holocaust centers could offer a realistic picture about the life and fate of Jews in Hungary.

BB: Are there any detailed plans already available about how this House of Coexistence will look like?

AH: Our starting point is the government regulation, and the work on the details has already begun. We are at the moment working on a concept of what should be done at the Rumbach synagogue. We would like the synagogue to remain ritually functional, we want a living synagogue, but naturally the building will be open for visitors as well. The other planned function is the museum, the House of Coexistence. There is a courtyard of the temple that will get a glass-ceiling. This closed courtyard would create a relatively large exhibition space that would present the life and history of Hungarian Jews. This can be a place where we could present what values Hungarian Jews contributed to Hungary in the industry, fine arts, culture and for example with regards to the Nobel prizes. The synagogue itself is a huge building. It has an office section on the street front, this is where an education room for school groups and a research room for scholars would be placed. Our planned Central-East European Jewish Cultural and Education Center would operate under suitable professional supervision.  This integrated institute would guarantee the educational and research functions of the facility. We would like to involve the Budapest Rabbinical Seminary – University of Jewish Studies, the Jewish Museum and Archives in the work of this institute, together with their very rich archival holdings. We do not imagine this as a stand-alone institution, but as an expansion of our already existing archives and museum, working out a unified touristic concept for the new museum also involving the Dohány Street synagogue, cemetery garden and the memorial wall.

BB: For all this, you need the government to allocate public funds after its regulation. The events of this year, for example the controversial memorial on Szabadság square, or the comments of Sándor Szakály, caused serious harm and humiliation to many in the Jewish community. This was exactly why Mazsihisz did not take part in the Holocaust Memorial Year organized by the government. You set a number of pre-requisites for this situation to change. Has any of these been fulfilled so far?

AH: I think that the past few weeks serve as a proof to the idea that conflict needs to be replaced by agreement – this is where I agree with some of the statements made by (Chancellor) János Lázár. I argued from the first moment that this conflict situation is unsustainable: it is bad for the government, bad for the Jews and bad for the country. When we agreed to the motion, often called boycott by the journalists, of not taking part in the government Holocaust Memorial Year, we clearly set the conditions for ending it. These were the removal of Sándor Szakály from Veritas Institute, cancellation of the memorial for the German occupation, and involvement of Mazsihisz in the House of Fates project. But at the same time we also made clear the framework of our boycott. We did not say that we will not speak or cooperate with the government at all, we said that we will not take part in official Holocaust commemorations or apply for public funding for Holocaust year programs until these conditions are met. This is exactly what has happened.  We did not take part in commemorations held by the government, and we returned the funds already received from the state for our projects. Let me make one thing clear: it is not our intention to fight with the government, and we never said that we will not communicate with them at all. It is a fact, however, that our questions regarding the boycott have not been addressed by the government, and so we will carry on with our previous decision. But as Hungarian citizens, we have an obligation to cooperate with the administration in other issues.

Of course, the question of how successful this boycott on our behalf was, has emerged in the last days. At first glimpse it appears unsuccessful. But if we analyse it further, I think that we can arrive to a quite different conclusion. We were of course unsuccessful in preventing the establishment of the monument. We naturally have no bulldozers to physically prevent this. But the resistance we partially brought about with our boycott decision was taken up by civil society, indeed prevented Szabadság square  becoming a place for unworthy commemorations. A monument becomes a memorial when it is unveiled during a ceremony complete with speeches and the national anthem. None of this has happened in the case of the occupation memorial, partially following our opinion, and partially as a result of active civil resistance. For me this memorial is not a memorial at all, only an ugly object on the street. It will never become the subject of an unworthy commemoration but will stand there as a memento of this conflict.

On the question of Veritas Historical Institute’s director, Sándor Szakály. We discussed this issue in person with the prime minister. He made it clear that the government categorically refuses to act on outside pressure in personnel questions. Consequently Sándor Szakály is still in his function. However, Veritas recently held a conference in the parliament. I was not invited to that, but was able to take a look at it, as I was in the parliament for another dicussion. At the conference, Szakály admitted to Miklós Horthy’s responsibility in the Hungarian Holocaust during his lecture. I consider this an important step forward. According to media information he used quite a different tone than in his previous statements. And at the same conference leftist historians were also featured besides the so-called mainstream rightist researchers and scholars. Therefore, even though Szakály is still in his place, our opinion had a serious effect in public life. Something changed.

The third issue is the “House of Fates”, the new, government-funded Holocaust Center. János Lázár made a clear promise to us concerning this and he confirmed this in several media appearances. According to this they will only open House of Fates if there is an agreement about it with the Jewish organizations. This is a really solid political commitment on his behalf. If he keeps his promise, then we will be successful in this issue as well.

BB: Mária Schmidt, director of professional programs at the House of Fates project, published a lengthy English essay a few days ago in which she attacked this possible consensus. She said that her freedom of speech is restricted by organizations like the British International Holocaust Remebrance Association or by Mazsihisz itself  and that her authority over House of Fates project should not be restricted.  János Lázár refused to react to her words, saying he has no time for op-eds. Do you think it is possible that after all this, House of Fates would even be jeopardized?    

AH: This is the competence of Mária Schmidt and János Lázár, they are to solve this controversy. We have been promised something, that we are paying attention to, and expect this promise to be kept.

BB: When will discussions continue in the case?

AH: Mr. Lázár made three statements in connection with House of Fates that are especially important. I already mentioned the first, that they will not open it without a consensus. The second is that the construction will be completed within the competence of the government, and Jewish organizations raised no objections against it. By the way, in terms of architecture, in my opinion, this project will be a success story. It is thoughtful and innovative. Concerning the inner contents, Lázár said to us that he is still not familiar with it. But that part of the project has no specific deadline, therefore we plan to wait until it is ready to add our opinion to it before the museum could open.

BB: There are already informations about inner contents that are public. Zsuzsanna Toronyi, director of Budapest Jewish Museum, gave an account of what she had seen on a presentation by Schmidt in the House of Terror about the designs.

AH: Yes, we have seen designs. We have seen architectural plans, and Schmidt told us about the content of the exhibition. In the beginning it would be about Jewish life, family and values, then the visitor would have to go up to a tower and pass an enormous star of David – I think this will be the biggest one in Europe – to descend into a presentation of horror, Holocaust and persecution on the other side. According to Mária Schmidt there will be a lot of oral history material within the exhibition, and according to her, this will put an end to the debate of how accurate the presentation will be. This is the statement that is debated by Zsuzsanna Toronyi, as oral history could be edited and grouped in any way. It is therefore really important that the exhibition should have a detailed script as soon as possible. Designs are very colorful and spectaculous, but in style it very much reminds to the House of Terror: a little bit theatrical and tries to influence your emotions. This is all that we know about it at this point, not a word about the professional inner content so far. There will be no consensus without us examining the script.

BB: Not so long ago, Schmidt also talked about a “wall of perpetrators” in the new Holocaust museum, similarly to the one in the House of Terror. What is your opinion about such an idea?

AH: At present, I am not a member in any committees in connection with House of Fates. Experts say, however, that in such an exhibition the most important thing is a sense of proportion. This is why we want to see a detailed script of the exhibition before forming an opinion. The role of the rescuers is really important in the history of the Shoah. Hungarian Jews will always be grateful to each and every one of those who saved lives: this equally applies to Raoul Wallenberg and Angelo Rotta as well as to ordinary Hungarians. Proportions should be respected though.

BB: Yet Mária Schmidt’s timeline of the Holocaust center stretches from 1938 to 1948 up until the total Stalinist takeover of Hungary.

AH: Yes, she mentioned this when we were there. She chose these dates completely on her own without any consultation. This might not be a problem in itself providing the exhibition is accurate. But there is a problem with ending the story in 1948, because this offers an opportunity of relativizing the Nazi regime by comparing it to Communism. Every single cataclysm in human history is a tragedy in its own right.  But we should not take the Holocaust out of context by applying unfounded comparisons.

BB: As far as we know, the issue of progressive, liberal Jewish congregations in Hungary was raised at the Jewish Roundtable. Yet after it, we have not heard about the issue, despite this being a largely discussed topic from Israel to the US.

AH: I think it is already a positive phenomenon that the issue itself has been raised. At the roundtable it played a quite peripheral role. The progressive Jewish congregations of Hungary – Sim Shalom and Beit Orim – talked about their problems, and the impossible situation of not being able to obtain registered religious status in the country. The complaints have been heard out, there even were a few remarks, but there was no substantial debate of this issue. The case was really interesting as a few hours after the roundtable, a Strasbourg court issued a ruling that supported their rights to register as official religious organizations in Hungary. Their appeals however were not supported by already registered Jewish communities.

BB: There were some amongst those protesting against the Nazi occupation memorial who accused Mazsihisz of not taking an active part in the protests.  Some even accused the federation of prohibiting rabbis and other colleagues from taking part in the protests.

AH: Our strategy concerning the protests was the following: the memorial is a bad idea, it should not be built, the general assembly of Mazsihisz voted for a hard and straight resolution in the case. This decision largely contributed to a strong civil protest being formed against the memorial. From there Mazsihisz passed initiative to the civilians, as it was not our intention to present the protests as conflict between “the Jews” and those in power. It is a much wider social issue than this. This is why Mazsihisz said that it will not be officially present at the protests on Szabadság square. I have been criticized to a large extent because of this by the leftist opposition. The claim that we did not let our colleagues participate is simply not true. A number of them were present and even spoke on these protests.

BB: Do you have any official relations with János Lázár’s new advisor, Gusztáv Zoltai? Has he started working yet?

AH: We have no relation and we do not even seek it. If Mazsihisz wants to speak with the government, it needs no intermediaries or advisors and can do so directly.

BB: You are the president of the Jewish Federation since Spring. What are the major challenges the Hungarian Jewish community faces in your view?

AH: We have a number of challenges to address. We should organize our own religion classes in public schools, we should involve the younger generation in our work, and we should strengthen communities outside of Budapest. Because of historical reasons, these communities ended up in a terrible situation during the twentieth century. Mazsihisz has 24 member congregations, out of which the Budapest congregation is by far the largest, together with the Autonomous Orthodox Congregation. We also have two or three stronger communities in other cities, such as Debrecen, Miskolc and Pécs. All the other communities are quite small, and in a difficult situation, and Mazsihisz aims to support them in everything.

Migration of the younger generation is also a serious problem in the whole country, and of course it affects the Jewish community to a large extent. Even though we have no official statistics in this case, we know that many young Jews live abroad. Yet for example in the last year, our organization managed to increase its income originating from 1% tax contributions. This signifies that our work is recognized, and this is something our community should be proud of.

Csaba Tóth :