Hungary assumed chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in March 2015, for the second time in the history of the intergovernmental organization.
“IHRA is a mirror which allows us to be confronted with our history, with our past,” said Hungarian Ambassador Bálint Ódor at a concert hosted by his embassy in June. “This is true for all countries participating and especially for those chairing the organization. This mirror helped Hungary look back to what role the Hungarian administration played during the tragedy of the Holocaust.
“The tragedy of the Holocaust remains a national trauma for Hungary. Every third victim in Auschwitz was a Hungarian Jew. Close to half a million Hungarian Jews died there. About 560,000 Hungarian Jews and thousands of Hungarian Roma were murdered during the Holocaust. This is one of the most shameful episodes of Hungarian history. Within a few weeks of the Nazi German occupation of Hungary, Jews were herded into ghettos with systematic cruelty and deported to Auschwitz with the collaboration of the Hungarian state’s administrative bodies.”
The ambassador’s words were appreciated by the Hungarian Holocaust survivors who attended the concert. They had rarely had the opportunity to hear such a clear acknowledgment from a high-level government official of Hungary’s collaboration as an ally of Nazi Germany.
Recognizing that the Holocaust “challenged the foundations of civilization,” the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance was established in 1998, with a view to peacefully combatting the on-going scourge of genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia in many parts of the world. IHRA is an intergovernmental body through which political and social leaders can give their support to Holocaust education, remembrance and research, nationally and internationally. Its member countries share a firm commitment to the mandates of its founding document: the Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust. To promote remembrance, member countries pledge to strengthen their efforts to educate and encourage the study of the Holocaust in all its dimensions, to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and to honour those who stood against it.
IHRA has 31 member countries, 10 observer countries and seven permanent international partners. Each year, a different member country takes responsibility for its chairmanship. The country holding the chairmanship appoints a chair who is responsible for the activities of the alliance. Responsibilities include organizing and financing the plenary meetings that take place during the year of its chairmanship.
In 2002, once it recovered from the grip of Communist rule, Hungary joined the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. But two years before that, it introduced a Holocaust Remembrance Day in public schools. In 2006, Hungary assumed its first chairmanship of IHRA.
In March 2015, when Hungary assumed chairmanship for the second time, Ambassador Szabolcs Takács, its chairman for the year, described his vision. “During our chairmanship, special focus will be placed on cultural events in order to address people through the language of culture and raise awareness about the principles of the Stockholm Declaration.”
Since member countries of IHRA are encouraged to develop multilateral partnerships and to share best practices and because of the large number of Hungarians in Canada, several activities were held across Canada during Hungary’s chairmanship year, in keeping with its main goals: to promote and intensify Holocaust remembrance and education; to make IHRA, its activities and educational services more widely known within the member countries and the rest of the world; to recognize the heroes who saved Jewish lives in Hungary during the Holocaust and to increase awareness that the Roma were also victims.
The strong Hungarian presence in Canada (there were more than 316,000 Canadians of Hungarian origin living in Canada in 2011) is largely due to an influx of Hungarian settlers in the last decades of the 19th Century, and the close to 40,000 refugees who fled to Canada in 1956 and 1957 during and after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution against the USSR. Many of these settlers, refugees and their descendants have made considerable contributions to Canada’s cultural landscape. Amongst them are renowned musicians, architects, film directors, doctors, scientists and lawyers.
The Hungarian embassy in Canada has played an active role in promoting the IHRA goals. In Ottawa, Ambassador Ódor has hosted a number of events at his residence, featuring speeches, discussions and musical performances. Many representatives of Canadian society attended these functions, including Jewish and Hungarian community members, religious leaders of various faiths and a variety of artists, academics, jurists, journalists and business leaders.
Ódor hosted a major commemorative concert titled Remembering Through Music at the Canadian Museum of History in June. More than 500 people, including ambassadors, church leaders, politicians and representatives of numerous ethnic groups attended the concert and heard some of Hungary’s foremost Klezmer and Jewish folk musicians. Ódor reminded the audience that music is a universal language that speaks to the hearts of all people and is therefore an appropriate medium for uniting such a multicultural group.
In November 2015, the embassy in Ottawa and consulate general in Toronto participated actively in Holocaust Education Week events organized by their local Jewish communities.
Meanwhile, the exhibition Synagogues in East-Central Europe is an ongoing display in various venues across the country. The 20-panel exhibition is a joint project of the government of Hungary and the Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association. It commemorates the 70th anniversary of the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Nazi death camps. It depicts synagogues from 1782-1944 that were destroyed during the Second World War and coincides with the government of Hungary’s current rescue program of four endangered synagogues.
The screening of the film Carl Lutz — the Forgotten Hero combined with the exhibition Carl Lutz and the Legendary Glass House in Budapest, hosted by the Hungarian and Swiss embassies in October, was another occasion for remembrance, this time a remembrance of the heroism of a man who had the courage to stand up for the humanity of the Jewish people and undermine and defy the Nazis. Carl Lutz saved the lives of more than 60,000 Hungarian Jews.
“Today’s event,” Ódor told the audience at the screening, “is one of many that we organize during the Hungarian IHRA presidency, by presenting great human characters that stood out in an era when many were numb to humanity.”
Zsuzsanna Toronyi, director of the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives, presented public lectures in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal and the embassy screened the documentary, There Was Once…, a film by Gabor Kalman about the city of Kalocsa and its Jewish population during the Holocaust. A panel discussion commemorating the genocide of the Roma during the war years, as well as their current challenges, is to be another focal point in the early months of 2016.
Szabolcs Takacs, state secretary of European Union Affairs and the current chair of IHRA, was scheduled to deliver a keynote speech at an IHRA conference in Toronto’s Simon Wiesenthal Holocaust Centre in January, followed by consultations with leaders in Ottawa.
In March 2016, IHRA’s chairmanship will be handed over to Romania.
The attention given in Canada to Hungary’s admission of its complicity in the murder of great numbers of its Jewish and Roma citizens during the Second World War and the recent attempts to make reparations and curb ongoing anti-Semitism, inspired Peter Munk, a Hungarian immigrant, to accept Ódor’s invitation to the Remembering through Music concert. There, he delivered a moving speech in which he said “I, for one, was embarrassed and ashamed of being a Hungarian. I am now proud of being able to help you and recognize that what you do today just may be that one necessary step to make sure that this will never happen again.”
Kathy Clark is a Hungarian-born Canadian author whose two novels for young adults are based on events that took place during WWII in Nazi-occupied Hungary.