It is almost exactly seventy years since the deportation of Jewish Hungarians began. By the time these deportations ended, after just a few months, the Nazis had exterminated three-quarters of Hungary’s Jewish population. It is this horrific event that we gather to remember, to mourn, and to learn from today.
It is easy for me to say, but surely painful for Hungarians to admit, that the Nazis did not carry out these deportations alone. Here in Hungary, as elsewhere in Europe under their occupation, the Nazis required local help to perpetrate their atrocities.
It is sometimes said that things were fine for Jewish Hungarians before the spring of 1944. I am not sure that is quite true.
Between 1938 and 1941 Hungary enacted race laws modeled on Germany's Nuremberg Laws. These laws defined "Jews" in racial terms, forbade intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews, and excluded Jews from full participation in professions, the civil service, and the armed forces. Just like that, the equal citizenship status granted to Jews in Hungary in 1867 had vanished.
In 1940 Hungary joined the Axis alliance. That same year it required all able-bodied male Jews to join forced labor battalions. At least 27,000 Hungarian Jewish forced laborers died before the Germans arrived in March 1944.
On the other hand, in 1942, when the German government began to pressure Hungary to deliver Jews who were Hungarian citizens into German custody, Prime Minister Miklos Kallay refused to go along. But this respite was brief.
In mid-May 1944, the Hungarian authorities, in coordination with the German Security Police, began the deportations. Hungarian police rounded up Jews and put them onto the deportation trains. In less than two months, 145 trains transported 440,000 Jews to concentration camps—mainly to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Roughly 825,000 Jews lived in Hungary in 1941. Before the Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944, about 63,000 of them had perished. Under German occupation, more than 500,000 more died.
I mention all this not to place particular blame on the people of Hungary, most of whom were not even alive when these atrocities occurred. I acknowledge, too, that most of these atrocities took place under an unwanted occupation.
Instead I mention them to illustrate why it is important for all us to come to terms with our past and to learn from it. As Proverbs puts it: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.” We all need this knowledge of the holy. We need, in other words, to be clear about what happened in the Holocaust before we can come to terms with it and learn from it, so that it does not happen again.
In my own country we continually struggle with the legacy of our on past. Debates still rage today about how and even whether to teach many things of which we are not proud: slavery and the subsequent discrimination against African-Americans; the military campaigns against the Native Americans; even our internment of Japanese-American citizens in the Second World War. I must admit, too, that my own government did little specifically to rescue Jews in the Holocaust until we created, rather late in the day, the War Refugee Board, which was one of the mainstays of Raoul Wallenberg’s heroic activities here in Budapest.
We have in the United States a non-governmental, educational organization called “Facing History and Ourselves.” Its name, I think, says it all. This organization is premised on the view that: “The educator’s most important responsibility…is to shape a humane, well-educated citizenry that practices civility and preserves human rights.”
This is an educational goal to which any democracy—yours and mine alike—would surely be wise to aspire. Among other things it requires that educators, government officials, and influential voices in society facilitate open, honest, and factual assessments of the bad as well as the good in their history. This goes no less for my country than for yours.
But when it comes to the Holocaust, Hungary has taken on a special responsibility. It has declared this year a year of Holocaust commemoration. It has also sought and—with the backing of my government, over the opposition of many voices in the United States—won the Chairmanship next year of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The Hungarian Government has, in other words, voluntarily assumed certain obligations toward setting the record about the Holocaust straight.
One of them, of course, is to encourage the proper study of the Holocaust in Hungary.
Examining the Holocaust provides an effective means to consider the basic moral issues that confront all societies and nations and to ponder what it means to be a responsible citizen in a democracy. By studying the Holocaust, one can learn that democratic institutions and values require appreciation and protection, for without both democracy can suddenly and sometimes violently slip away. Studying the Holocaust shows how silence or indifference to the suffering of others can lead to disaster and even to genocide.
The Holocaust, after all, was not simply an accident of history. It occurred because individuals and governments legalized and actively abetted discrimination against certain groups of people. There followed demonization, hatred, and ultimately mass murder.
I do hope that the Hungarian government will keep these things in mind as it prepares its new curriculum for its schools, builds monuments and memorial sites devoted to events that occurred here seventy years ago, and proceeds with its plans for this Holocaust commemoration year. As it does all this, I would also hope that it remains open to the concerns of Hungarian citizens, whoever they may be. As a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Budapest put it recently: Constructive engagement between a government and its citizens is a hallmark of good democratic governance.
Finally, I would be remiss if I concluded these remarks without thanking the March of the Living Foundation for allowing me to speak here today and, much more important, for its contributions to our understanding of history and its decisive stance against racism and exclusion. I can do no better than to close with a recitation of its “universal goals,” which I believe sum up the thesis of my remarks today more eloquently than I have so far been able to do:
To remember those who perished and to be a witness.
To pay tribute to the courage of those who survived the Holocaust and who rebuilt their lives.
To recognize and learn from the altruistic actions of the “righteous among the nations,” who teach us to never be a bystander in the face of oppression.
To honor the heroic veterans of World War II who fought to liberate Europe from the hands of Nazi tyranny.
Never again to allow for the unchecked rise of the menace of antisemitism.
Never again to allow any kind of racial discrimination directed by any individual or group against another to gain strength.
To inspire participants to commit to building a world free of oppression and intolerance, a world of freedom, democracy and justice, for all members of the human family.