News & Events

Hungarian Anti-Semitism: An Interview with Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, PhD.

By Sara Abosch, PhD.
September 10. 2012

In June, to protest anti-Semitic developments in Hungary, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel returned an award he received in 2004 from the Hungarian government. In a letter to the Speaker of Parliament Wiesel decried the “whitewashing of…the wartime Hungarian governments’ involvement in the deportation and murder of hundreds of thousands of its Jewish citizens.”[1]

Wiesel’s comments come in the wake of the recent rehabilitation of a number of political figures involved with the wartime Hungarian Fascist regime as well as the rise of public expressions of anti-Semitism. The Hungarian government has also demanded that the Claims Conference, responsible for aiding elderly survivors, return $8 million in funds previously committed to poor Hungarian Holocaust survivors. Further worrying observers of the Hungarian scene have been the emergence of streets, statues, and plaques dedicated to Admiral Miklós Horthy, the wartime leader of Hungary who was responsible for the transport of 20,000 so-called “foreign Jews” to the Ukraine in the summer of 1941 and the deportation of 437,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in 1944.

Other recent developments include the desecration of Jewish cemeteries in Kaposvár, Székesfehérvár, and elsewhere, and the discovery, in Budapest, of Laszló Csizsik-Csatáry, a 97 year old Nazi war criminal on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s ‘most wanted’ list. Csizsik-Csatáry lived openly in Hungary for the past 15 years and was ‘found’ by the British Sun tabloid.[2]

I spoke with Dr. Zsuzsanna Ozsváth of the Ackerman Center for Holocaust Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas, a Hungarian survivor and DHM/CET board member, about these developments. Dr. Ozsváth attributed some of the current anti-Semitism to historical factors in Hungary including the recurring foreign occupations over the centuries, to which the Magyars (ethnic Hungarians) reacted with ever-growing nationalism.

Following WWI, Hungary was severed from Austria and reduced to one third its former size. This, along with other factors, led to the resurgence of a fiery Hungarian nationalism. The government that emerged in the immediate wake of the war (known as the Hungarian Soviet Republic) was headed by Béla Kún, a Communist of Jewish descent. In fact, this government was roughly 80% Jewish in its make-up. Thus the Jews of Hungary came to be associated with the dismantling of Hungary’s “rightful”, “thousand year-old borders” and the growth of ‘foreign’ influence in the country. This again created feelings of tremendous resentment among the Magyars and led to an increase in anti-Semitism and the murder of several hundred Jews after Kún’s Communist government fell. Jews were also extremely successful professionally in interwar Hungary (as they had been during the later 19th century), which led to additional anti-Semitic sentiment.

Ozsváth noted that Admiral Horthy, the leader of Hungary from the overthrow of the Kún government in 1919 until October 1944, spent much of the 1920s trying to recover ‘lost’ Hungarian territory. His desire to reclaim this territory, as well as his fear of Soviet expansionism, led Horthy into alliance with the Nazis who promised the restoration of territory from Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Rumania.

Horthy enjoyed support among his countrymen and was an active anti-Semite. Partly to please the Germans, and, partly to please pro-Nazi members of the Hungarian leadership, his government passed a series of anti-Jewish laws between 1938 and 1941. Under his rule, Hungarian troops entering Yugoslavia in 1941 killed some 1500 Jews and 1500 Serbs. He was also responsible for shipping 55,000 Hungarian-Jewish men between the ages of 18 and 40 to the Russian front as slave labor. There many were tortured and killed by their own Hungarian ‘protectors’ (fellow Hungarian soldiers). Only 5,000 of these ‘labor servicemen’ survived.3

In response to warning letters from FDR, Pius XII, and the King of Sweden, Horthy called off the deportation of Budapest’s Jews in the summer of 1944. However, he did nothing to stop the countryside deportations from May to July 1944. These resulted in the deaths of nearly 437,000 Jews, most murdered in the gas chambers and burned in the ovens and pits of Auschwitz. Young Elie Wiesel was deported to Auschwitz with his father during this time. Ozsváth stresses that the Hungarian government has never accepted any responsibility for the Holocaust, continuing to blame the Germans and ‘outside’ forces for these deaths.

Hungary has a long history of anti-Semitism based both in Christian and ethnic notions of Magyar identity. Jews are not ethnically Magyar and thus cannot truly be part of the nation. The nation is intensely Christian, and so, again, Jews cannot belong. As continuing evidence of this, Ozsváth sites the new Hungarian constitution passed April 25, 2011. The preamble states: “[O]ur country [has been] a part of Christian Europe [for] one thousand years…” It further notes “[w]e recognize the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood.” Ozsváth stresses that this same constitution explains away Hungarian culpability in the Holocaust, blaming “foreign occupations” for “the inhuman crimes committed against the Hungarian nation…“4 This ignores completely the role played by Horthy and his countrymen in the murder of Jews, both Hungarian and foreign.

In today’s Hungary, roughly 66% of the population “believes the Jews are too powerful” and “only 40% of Hungarians between the ages of 18 and 30 know about the Holocaust.“5 Despite Hungary’s long and difficult history this is not as complex and insoluble a problem as some might argue. Simply put, until the subject of Hungary’s past is openly and honestly addressed there can be no resolution of the war years or genuine discussion concerning the nature of national identity and/or Hungarian-Jewish identity and no solution to Hungary’s continuing “Jewish question”.

  1. Letter from Elie Wiesel to László Kövér, Speaker of the Hungarian National Assembly, June 7, 2012.
  2. Brian Flynn and Ryan Parry, “The Sun finds Nazi who sent 15,700 to Die,” The Sun, July 15, 2012.
  3. Information in this section drawn from an interview with Dr. Ozsváth, August 14, 2012.
  4. Quotes are from an English translation of the 2011 Hungarian constitution found at:
  5. Quoting Dr. Ozsváth, August 14, 2012
    (text: Q&A With DHM/CET’s Senior Director of Education, Sara Abosch)