Historical Commissions and Reconciliation

Írta: Szombat - Rovat: English, Politika

What Hungarian Jews Need to Learn

Ágnes Peresztegi

This paper was delivered at The International Conference on Confronting History: The Historical Commissions of Inquiry  that discussed the various historical commissions appointed by different governments to deal with the role of their country during the Second World War.  Although Hungary failed to establish such a commission thus far, this does not mean that there were not debates about historical research; or that no studies were completed related to the issues of expropriation, looted property, refugees, war crimes and other relevant aspects of the Holocaust.

Most of the participants at the conference were historians or representatives of historical commissions. I am neither one of those. However, for the past 12 years as a lawyer, I have been following the Hungarian and international legal developments redressing the injustices that the historical commissions are expected to uncover.  We lawyers argue that restoring unjustly taken property rights is itself a legal correction of the wrongdoing.  However, we also know that restitution alone is insufficient to remedy past injustices.  After a human rights violation is committed, there are four subjects that address the possible ways to restore justice: (i) restitution, (ii) compensation, (iii) retribution, and (iv) reconciliation.

Reconciliation (some authors go as far as calling it forgiveness ) is usually mentioned last and receives very little attention, but in a way it is the most important element.  Many victims have difficulties accepting compensation because they feel that by accepting what the offenders are willing to give, they would have to forgive them without the offenders seriously considering their own wrongdoings.  Their fear is justified; if the compensation process is not carried out simultaneously with a process of reconciliation.  However, there cannot be reconciliation without uncovering the hideous acts of the offenders.  Therefore, a restitution program without real “truth searching” is almost meaningless.  The work of the historical commissions fill this role: it gives an opportunity for governments (i) to acknowledge the deeds of their predecessors and to confess the truth; (ii) to state the commitment to lead their country based on legal and moral rules; (iii) to restitute past injustices; and (iv) to help the process of reconciliation.  By publicizing their findings, the historical commissions educate future generations and also preserve the memory of the victims.

The historical commissions of inquiry on Holocaust victims’ assets are the results of the negotiations and lawsuits between Holocaust victims and different countries.  It is surprising that Hungary, who had one of the largest and wealthiest Jewish communities in Europe before the Holocaust; who actively participated in the annihilation of its Jewish people; and is today home to approximately 150,000 to 200,000  of those, who, if living in 1944, would have been persecuted based on their religious or racial origin, has no such commission.  This is especially startling, because an entire system of Compensation Laws have been enacted in Hungary since 1990, and the Hungarian Jewish community negotiated both communal and heirless property claims with the Government.

In the next pages I will give a summary of the historical and political background of Hungary’s participation in the Holocaust and the refusal of the Hungarian government to face its past, and I will also talk about the historical and political preconditions of the Hungarian Jewish community’s failure to pressure the Hungarian government to establish a historical commission.  The isolated work of certain institutions and historians, who fill the need for information that the works published by the historical commissions should fulfill, will also be discussed.  While describing the Hungarian experience, I wish to make only one point: without the work of a historical commission no restitution program could be effective, no reconciliation is possible; and without “truth searching” we may not look forward to a fruitful Jewish-Hungarian co-existence.

I.  Background

1. Hungary’s Participation in the Holocaust.

Although Hungarian Jews were the last to be deported to Auschwitz, Hungary enacted its first numerus clausus legislation as early as 1920.  The different so-called “Jewish Laws” served the purpose of the annihilation of Jews from all segments of Hungarian life.  Between 1920 and 1944, Jews were first restricted from university education, then from participating in social and economic life, which deprived many of their living.  Later on, Jews were deprived of their property, then of their liberty, then of their life.

Hungary was a German ally during the Second World War.  It is also recognized that Hungary was under Nazi control after the October 15, 1944 Nazi coup.  However, responsibility for the period between March 19, 1944, when the Germans occupied Hungary, and the October Nazi coup may be questioned.  It was during this time, under the Sztójay government, that Jews had to wear the yellow star, were forced to deposit all valuables, were moved to ghettos, and were deported.  Although, before October 15, 1944, Hungary was occupied by Germany, the Hungarian Governor, Admiral Horthy appointed the government.  Therefore, the Allies did not consider the Sztójay Government a German puppet government, and thus held Hungary responsible for its wartime activities between March and October 1944.

2. Redressing the Injustices After the Holocaust.

Although the first laws redressing anti-Jewish legislation were enacted in 1945, these laws providing restitution to Jews whose property had been confiscated during the Second World War were rarely implemented.  Not only did the Hungarian Government refuse to return Jewish property, it took more from its citizens.  After the war, even before the Communist takeover, gold, jewelry and hard currency had to be turned over to the government; land, heavy industry and banking were nationalized.  During the Communist era, after 1949, besides additional classes of personal property, most of the Jewish community property was also taken, and after a brief existence of the National Jewish Restitution Fund,  heirless Jewish property also was defaulted to the Hungarian state.

3. Rewriting Hungary’s Participation in the Holocaust During Communism.

During Communism, Hungary successfully shifted the responsibility for its treatment of its own citizens to Germany, and portrayed the Red Army as the savior of humankind.  Lost wealth was no subject for remorse, and restitution or compensation payments from abroad either eluded Jews living in Hungary, or mostly ended up in the government’s coffers.

4. The Lack of Accountability and the Desire to Limit Retributive Justice since 1990.

After the collapse of Communism, the first demands for justice came from groups of former political persecutees.  However, Hungary enjoyed a rather slow transition from the totalitarian regime of Rákosi, through the so-called “Goulash-Communism” of Kádár, until the fall of the Iron Curtain.  Hungary had no Ceausescu to execute, and the Hungarian secret service of the 1980s  was not comparable to the East-German Stasi.  The most horrendous Communist atrocities formed part of a historical past, and Hungarians felt no need for a speedy and wide-scale retribution.  Without the collective will to punish the Communist perpetrators, accountability did not become such an important issue either.  While the collective need for historical truth about the Communist regime could have helped in an effort to pressure for similar research on the Holocaust — although the Holocaust in Hungary may not be compared to the Communist years — lacking such a desire, no space was created for public discourse about the Holocaust in Hungary.

One of the major elements of the transition period of the 1990s was the regulation of private property.  Privatization through compensation for nationalization seemed a workable idea, and most political parties  agreed on offering some type of compensation to victims of the Communist regime.  However, none expected that the first compensation law opened Pandora’s box, and has been living a life of its own through the amendments and through further compensation legislation enacted as the result of a series of Constitutional Court decisions.

The first draft of the Compensation Law prepared hastily in 1990 was obviously discriminatory and was challenged both by the Prime Minister and the President.  The Constitutional Court held  that the provision arbitrarily setting the start date for expropriation claims at June 8, 1949 was unconstitutional, and under the amended First Compensation Law, the time scope of eligible claims was extended back to May 1, 1939.  That way, it effectively covered most Holocaust-era property violations.

5. The Missed Opportunities to Establish a Historical Commission of Inquiry

Simultaneously with the First Compensation Law that offered partial compensation for private property losses, the Hungarian government also enacted the law on the partial return of church property.  While Hungarian Jews were researching their private property claims, the Hungarian Jewish community looked into the loss of Jewish community properties.  The next year, 1992, the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) was established to centralize and co-ordinate the efforts of international Jewish organizations in their attempt to help recover individual, communal and organizational Jewish assets in countries including Hungary.

The closest Hungary ever got to establishing a historical commission was in the mid-1990s, when the Hungarian Jewish community joined by the WJRO, entered into negotiations with the Hungarian government regarding heirless assets.  The Jewish organizations submitted a short-lived proposal to form a joint commission with participants both from the government and the Jewish community.  The government was not interested and none of the local or international Jewish organizations ever followed up on this proposal.

Hungary was Germany’s ally during World War II.  The Hungarian Government did all it could to keep away from Germany and save for itself the confiscated and looted property of Jews.  The Hungarian Government did not willingly return looted assets after World War II.  Hungary kept and concealed the loot and the proceeds from the sale of the loot for close to sixty years.  No Hungarian Government since 1990 felt that it would serve its interest to reveal the role of Hungary in the economic annihilation of Hungarian Jews, and in the Holocaust in general.

In the last ten-plus years, the press played an important role related to both the recovery of the Jewish victims’ stolen property and to help face the truth about the plunder of Europe’s Jews.  Unfortunately, neither Hungarian Jews nor the international Jewish organizations used the media to advance their desire for “truth searching” related to Hungary’s involvement in the Holocaust, nor do they use the media to pressure for more restitution.  Instead of voicing their demands, both praised Hungary’s efforts to offer compensation for Holocaust era property losses.  As late as 1998, Hungary was applauded in the United States for its compensation legislation.  By 2000, as a result of the politics of the governing party, Fidesz, the WJC finally voiced its disapproval of Hungary’s treatment of restitution issues.   There was only one area of the entire compensation scheme that was repeatedly condemned on international forums: the ill-famed “$100” (or “30,000 HUF”) payment offered for the loss of life during the Holocaust.  However, the disapproval was more related to the general right-wing performance of the Hungarian government than to the issue of restitution.   Once Fidesz lost the 2002 election, and talks were renewed with the Hungarian government about fighting anti-Semitism in Hungary, the WJC stopped  criticizing Hungary for its non-compliance with the international norms on restitution.

The Hungarian government, at the same time, effectively uses the media to dispel images of unequal treatment of Jews.  Its representatives also disseminate false information in the Hungarian media and abroad.  Why did the main Hungarian daily, Népszabadság refuse to publish a correction when the chief of the Hungarian delegation to the Vilnius Forum on Holocaust Era Looted Cultural Assets claimed that Hungary complies with international norms regarding the return of looted art when at the Vilnius Forum Hungary was the only country singled out for its non-compliance with the international norms? Or why did the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States list the non-existent Hungarian Historical Commission  as one of the state Commissions of Inquiry into Holocaust Issues?

There are somewhere between 80,000 to 150,000 Jews in Hungary. The representation of Jews in Hungary was artificial during the Communist years.  Since 1990, some people tried in vain to establish some sort of a new organization that would represent Hungarian Jewry, or at least form an umbrella organization combining the numerous newly formed mini-organizations. Lacking such a general organization, MAZSIHISZ, the Alliance of Hungarian Jewish Communities, claims to represent Hungarian Jews (without any contest effectively) on the national and on the international level. However, MAZSIHISZ has about 3,500-4,000 members. This number itself would not pose such a large problem if MAZSIHISZ had a real program. However, MAZSIHISZ has no program, and Jews who choose not to be members of a religious organization are not represented at all.  The Government effectively has no serious negotiating partner. Neither have the international Jewish organizations a serious local partner to aid in restitution talks.  However, it should be added that most of the international Jewish organizations also seem to lack a clear agenda regarding the Hungarian Jewish community.

Jews may internally reconcile their choice to live in Hungary, a country that aided the annihilation of their parents and grandparents, a country where pogroms were possible after 1945.  There are no all-encompassing answers; everyone has to make a decision whether to stay in a country where the Holocaust happened, or whether to chose the complicated and difficult life of an emigrant. However, it is the non-Jewish Hungarians who need to learn the truth of what happened. We may lobby the government to enact stricter laws on hate speech, but anti-Semitism cannot only be combated through legislative changes. Without the work of a historical commission in Hungary, it is highly unlikely that any issue important for the presence and future of Jews in Hungary will be successfully resolved. Not fighting for the establishment of a historical commission robs Hungarian Jews of their past, makes the current compensation scheme inadequate, and does not facilitate reconciliation between Jews and non-Jews in Hungary.

II. Completed Research

Lacking a Hungarian historical commission of inquiry into Holocaust-era looted assets, different organizations still carried out historical research to answer questions that emerged during the drafting and execution of the compensation scheme and during the international restitution negotiations.

From the Government:

1. The Ministry of Justice compiled historical information when drafting the different Compensation Laws.

There is no information available on this research.

2. The Constitutional Court requested that the Hungarian National Bank examine its wartime holdings of gold and precious materials.

Petitioners asked the Constitutional Court to determine whether the Compensation Laws giving partial payments for the compulsory deposits of gold and other valuables in 1944, instead of either returning the still existing deposits or giving compensation for these valuables under the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty, is constitutional.  The Constitutional Court examined documents and admitted other evidence in order to clarify what happened to the Holocaust era confiscated valuables of Hungarian Jews that were transferred abroad and subsequently brought back to Hungary.  The Court heard testimonies from the Minister of Finance and the President of the Hungarian National Bank.  “It acquired, examined and evaluated contemporary documents, inventory lists and notes (4 volumes) made available by the Minister of Finance, the inventory lists of valuables brought back from Paris (4 volumes), the documentation of the inquiry conducted thus far by the Finance Institute Center (Pénzintézeti Központ), the documents submitted by the Hungarian National Bank, minutes and notes of economic and political decisions made available by the National Archive’s Contemporary Collection.  The Court also processed the evidence unearthed by the petitioners and their experts, including correspondence and the result of their professional enquiries.  The Court also utilized a few secondary sources related to the issue at hand.”

The Constitutional Court found that giving a meager 300 HUF (about $1.45 at 2004 value) worth of compensation voucher for a gold ring, or 20,000 HUF (about $95 at 2004 value) for a diamond ring constitutes fair compensation under the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty.  It further added that to give full compensation or the application of a compensatory scheme based on different principles from those of other compensation methods, in the absence of constitutional justification, would be worrisome.  Therefore, Holocaust era looted property should not be treated any different than property taken during Communism.  While the Constitutional Court found justification why not to treat different the properties looted during the Holocaust from properties nationalized during Communism, one type of property seems to be the exception to this rule.  The only kind of property that was never systematically nationalized during Communism is artwork.

3. The Restitution Research Group formerly under the Ministry of National Cultural Heritage collected documents on the fate of Holocaust-era looted artworks.

In 1991, Hungary and the Soviet Union signed a co-operation agreement , and consented to “[A]ssist the return of looted art that form the national heritage of the other party.”   Then in 1992, they signed a Convention “On the cooperation between the State Committees of the Hungarian Republic and the Russian Federation relating to the restitution of cultural assets taken to the territories of their respective countries during the Second World War and the period following that.”  Based on this co-operation, the Hungarian Government established the Committee on the Return of Cultural Goods, and the Ministry of Culture and Education formed the Restitution Committee, which in turn established the Restitution Research Group.  While originally the Restitution Research Group was only supposed to catalogue the missing Holocaust era looted works of art and look for artworks in Hungary that were looted from the Soviet Union, it was impossible to separate this work from documenting looted art that is currently displayed in public museums in Hungary.

Once claimants realized that the Compensation Scheme did not cover looted art claims, they turned to the museums that held these artworks.  The museums then turned to the Restitution Research Group to research the provenance of the claimed artworks, and that way, the Restitution Research Group’s scope of research was expanded to include all Holocaust era looted artwork.

Although the Restitution Research Group has long since finished most of its research, and during the past few years the Ministry requested that all public museums complete their self examination of artworks with questionable provenances from the time of the Holocaust, neither the work of the Research Group nor the findings of the museums were publicized.

Once the research was completed and Holocaust survivors mistakenly believed that their claims for the return of their looted art would be met by the government, the Hungarian government decided that it would not comply with the Washington Principles on Holocaust Era Looted Art that it signed in 1998, but to contest claimants at court.  Currently there are several lawsuits pending in Hungary.  The most prominent one is the lawsuit for the return of the famous Herzog collection.  The judgment of the first instance court was in favor of the plaintiff, and on the appellate level, the plaintiff won all substantive legal arguments against the government.  However, instead of deciding for the plaintiff and ordering the paintings to be returned to the claimant, the Supreme Court ordered the first instance court to further examine some facts regarding the paintings, therefore, effectively postponed the final decision.

From the Jewish organizations:

4. MAZSIHISZ’s research on community property

In 1990, the Hungarian government gave back the right to the religious institutions to fulfill certain functions in society: education, social service, sport, health, child and youth protection.  However, the religious organizations had no funds to support these activities.  Therefore, the government offered partial restitution of nationalized properties to religious organizations.   Even before the Religion Restitution Law was enacted, the government notified the religious organizations (January 1990) to draft their list of claimed properties.  The Jewish community had to investigate not only what they owned before nationalization, but also what the community sold in the last 40 years.  After an extended deadline, the communities had to file their list of claims by January 1998, and the government has until 2011, to resolve them.

The Alliance of Hungarian Jewish Communities hastily prepared a list of properties, but like all other religious organizations, they were also in for surprises because their predecessors sold many community properties at prices below market value.  After a property was sold, it cannot be claimed under the Religion Restitution Law.

Under the Religion Restitution Law, less then 10 properties were restituted to the Jewish Community, but in 1999, an additional 152 properties, valued at 13,511 billion HUF (approximately: $65 million, 1998 value) were exchanged for an annuity of approximately $3 million, adjusted yearly to the HUF.

5. WJRO’s research by Yehuda Don

While the issue of compensation for lost community property was at least to some extent addressed, the government hoped to solve the issue of return of heirless property by transferring the assets of the long-defunct National Jewish Restitution Fund to the Jewish community.  Its assets amounted to approximately $10,000 in 1989, and that was supposed to represent the value of heirless Jewish assets in Hungary.

It was already in the mid-1990s, when the WJRO together with the Hungarian Jewish organizations finally entered into serious negotiations with the Hungarian government over the fate of Holocaust era heirless property.  They commissioned Yehuda Don to complete a study on the wealth of Hungarian Jewry before the war to serve as a basis for the negotiations.  His study was not published or even circulated in Hungary, but local papers printed some articles related to his work.  According to this study, pre-war real estate holdings of Jews are estimated at approximately 1 billion pengo, of which about 22.4% are considered heirless amounting to approximately $238 million in 1994.

Also related to the research of Jewish communal and heirless properties, there is the tale of a list of 3,000 or 1,600 Hungarian Jewish communal properties.   The list was compiled under the auspices of the WJRO and was, or was not submitted by it (or by it and the local Jewish community) to the Hungarian government.

The final heirless property claim of the Jewish organizations amounted only to 50-70 billion HUF ($450-650 million, 1995 value).   As a result of the negotiations, the Jewish Heritage of Hungary Public Endowment (Magyarországi Zsidó Örökség Közalapítvány, the “MAZSÖK”) was established with assets of about 1.3 billion HUF (approximately: $7.2 million, 1997 value), and the government also offered a life annuity for all Holocaust survivors.

6. MAZSÖK’s research on different aspects of Holocaust era looted Hungarian Jewish property

Once MAZSÖK was established, the WJRO chose it to assist in the distribution of the Swiss Humanitarian Fund for the Survivors of the Shoah, and later MAZSÖK also distributed a one-time payment from Germany.  Based on these works, MAZSÖK undertook to represent Hungarian Jewry in international negotiations for restitution.  At the same time, the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States also contacted MAZSÖK for information.  To help research on the Gold Train issue, and to support its work of representing Hungarian Jewry abroad, MAZSÖK commissioned the work of two historians, Gábor Kádár and Zoltán Vági.

Besides working on the history of the famous Gold Train, Mr. Kádár and Mr. Vági also researched the connection of the Swiss banks to Hungarian Jewish assets, and Hungarian Jewish property losses in Austria and Germany.  They recently published a book on the Gold Train.   However, neither MAZSIHISZ, nor the international Jewish organizations were pleased that a new organization appeared that effectively represented Hungarian Jews, although all these organizations were board members of MAZSÖK, and they could have worked together.  Instead they chose to dismantle the Legal Help Center of MAZSÖK, closed its international desk and ended all historical studies.  Mr. Kádár and Mr. Vági need about 3-6 months to finish their comprehensive work on the economic annihilation of Hungarian Jewry, however, no organization was eager to fund the completion of their research.

III. Conclusion

There are several historians who wrote about the Holocaust in Hungary: Professor Randolph Braham in New York, and László Karsai and Szabolcs Szita in Hungary, amongst others including historians at the Yad Vashem.  The Hungarian Holocaust Museum that just opened in Budapest will support further research.  However, it is the Hungarian government which should initiate the research about Hungary’s wartime activities by establishing a historical commission that may be chaired by any of the eminent history professors who already have been published on the matter.

A year and a half ago, an occasion that should have been applauded in Hungary insterad shook the public.  To the great horror of both Jewish and non-Jewish Hungarians, Hungarian Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate, Imre Kertész, when accepting the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature, had the courage to openly criticize Hungary for not dealing with its past.  He described Hungary, as a country where “the cartel of silence rules today”.  He stated that he hoped his Nobel Prize would initiate a discussion that would persuade Hungarians to deal with their past.

It is still not too late to establish a historians’ commission of inquiry on Holocaust-era looted assets in Hungary.  However, Hungarian Jews should not wait for unilateral government action to establish the commission. Hungarian Jews should step over their own shadow and come to the light and claim their place in Hungarian society. The international Jewish organizations should also realize that it is in their interest to influence the rebirth of European Jewry, instead of denying its existence. Let us all hope that Hungary’s 2004 admission to the European Union and the 60th anniversary commemoration of the Holocaust will provide enough space in public discourse to achieve the establishment of a historical commission and as a result Hungarians will finally start to walk on the road of reconciliation.