Son of Saul’s Géza Röhrig, church leaders speak at Budapest’s annual “Life March”

April 18, 2016

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Carrying signs, banners and balloons proclaiming “Never again!” thousands participated in Budapest’s annual“Life March” on Sunday.  For the first time, representatives of the major historical churches participated, addressing the crowd from a stage erected in front of Saint Stephen’s Basilica.

The high point of the event, which promotes interfaith tolerance and understanding between Christians and Jews, was the speech given by the actor and poet Géza Röhrig, the star of “Son of Saul”, the Holocaust film which recently won the Golden Globe and Academy Award for best foreign film.

Röhrig called for solidarity among Christians and Jews in the face of the growing threat of intolerance and discrimination.

The Kossuth prize-winning actor said that Auschwitz, the concentration camp to which some 437,000 Jews — mostly women, children and the elderly — were deported over the course of four months in 1944, permanently changed norms in two respects.

“On the one hand, it became apparent what we are capable of doing to each other, people, how much and in what manner we can debase others.  And it also became painfully obvious just what can take place without the Heavenly Father intervening,” Röhrig told the crowd.

The actor/poet said the Holocaust forever changed perceptions of ourselves and God. He said Auschwitz was to history what relativity was to science — something no one understands but which applies to everyone.

For the first time this year representatives of Hungary’s historical churches spoke at the event.

Country head rabbi Róbert Frölich pointed out that the basilica is only a few minutes away from the Dohány Street synagogue, whence the march began, but that there were times when the two houses of worship were so far from one another that the “sounds of the synagogue failed to reach the basilica”, the latter having “closed its doors and turned a deaf ear to the cries for help on the part of the Jews condemned to death”.

“Today the basilica’s gates are open and today the Jewish voice reaches the Christian church,” said the rabbi, adding that “Christians and Jews march together and give belated respect to the martyrs. Today we built a bridge on which we embark together.”

Frölich said one of the lessons of the Hungarian Holocaust was that “it would not have been possible to send millions to slaughter if they had guarded the bridges”, adding that “we would not mourn the lost and the unborn if the gates had been open”.

“Looking at the past but moving in the direction of the future, we must step together if we do not want the tragedy and shame of this period to repeat itself,” warned the head rabbi.

The chairman of the Christian-Jewish Countil, Catholic bishop János Székely, stressed that the steps of the Life March need to take place on the heart by honestly confronting the past and recognizing the other cultures and other people with respect and love.  The Catholic bishop cited the fact that not long ago a group of orthodox rabbis publicly declared, among other things, that “Christians and Jews must work together to solve the ethical challenges of our times . . . and to improve the world.”

He said the rabbis in question felt the historical moment and the “will of the Heavenly Father” to open a new chapter in the history of Jews and Christians and to extend fraternal hands towards one another”.

The head of Hungary’s Reformed Church, István Bogárdi Szabó, said that over the course of the few hours when the streets become memorial places “we reflect that those who were taken away on death marches” and “deported like sacrificial lambs” and “cast into the incomprehensible hell of war” could be “walking here with their grandchildren”.

The head of Hungary’s Evangelical Church, Bishop Péter Gáncs, said: “I believe God regards the Life March with eternal happiness.  We ask his blessing that we can be intermediaries of the creator and protector of life in this world which, in many respects, is oriented around death.”

Israel’s Ambassador to Hungary, Ilan Mor, said the most important message of the Life March was that “being different is not an illness, and hatred of others is not a cure”.  In today’s democracy it is not only equality but the right to be different that is given, and so long as anyone persecutes others on the basis of race, religion, sexual identity and violent acts arising from hatred taking place, “ it is our responsibility to march together from one year to the next”.

The participants held a half-minute of silence for the Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertész who passed away at the end of March.  Kertész won the prize for “Fateless,” an autobiographical novel about being deported to Auschwitz as a teenage boy and returning to Budapest the following year only to discover that he is the sole member of his family to survive that terrible ordeal.