András Simonyi, Hungary's ambassador to the United States, made his first visit to the Museum of Tolerance Feb. 11 to plan a spring memorial marking this year's 60th anniversary of the Nazi deportation of Hungarian Jews in 1944.
A trim man who speaks in the short but thoughtful answers typical of a seasoned diplomat, Simonyi, 51, became the Washington, D.C., ambassador in 2002, after seven years of representing Hungary at the European Union and NATO.
Raised an atheist in communist Hungary, Simonyi's mother was Catholic and his father was Jewish; his paternal grandparents died in Auschwitz. He talked with The Jewish Journal about anti-Semitism, Israel and how Hungary's 1956 revolt against the Soviet Union relates to Iraq's liberation.
Jewish Journal: How will the 60th anniversary of the deportations be observed in Hungary and in the United States?
András Simonyi: We'll have a couple of major events in Budapest. Two will stand out: One is on the 15th of April, which is basically the day the deportations started in the countryside in Hungary, [and] a Holocaust museum in Budapest will be inaugurated.
I, as the ambassador to the United States, will also commemorate the event at a reception given in Washington, D.C. We will have a major event in New York. I am here partly to discuss with the Jewish community in Los Angeles the way we will commemorate the event in Los Angeles.
JJ: Hungary's first Holocaust museum opens this year. Has Hungary's debate over its Holocaust role been missing until now due to the communist years? The French debated France's Holocaust role in the 1950s and 1960s, but the 1990s debate in post-communist Hungary was about communism. Did that contribute to this delay?
AS: I think so. But the important thing is that when you look back at history, all dictatorships are bad, and you don't start discussing which dictatorship is worse, because you have to do justice to all, whether they're victims of the Nazism and the Holocaust, whether they're victims of communism and the gulags. For us, we have to remember that one life is as precious as another life.
JJ: Hungary has not seen the rise of anti-Semitism that has gripped France in the past few years. What do you attribute that to?
AS: Unfortunately, anti-Semitism exists everywhere, even in Hungary. Some of the anti-Semites in Hungary are very noisy, but the government is very clear on cracking down on anti-Semitism. There is a strong and vibrant Jewish community in Hungary, which is a sign that Jews in Hungary feel confident about the present and their future.... Slowly, but confidently, Hungarians are facing the darkest moment of history, and I really think the 60th anniversary should be marking this facing of the past.
JJ: Far-left parties worldwide have pro-Palestinian stances often so strong that they exclude Israel's right to exist, and the problems of far-right anti-Semitism are well-documented. What is the state of Hungary's far-left and far-right political parties?
AS: It is quite obvious that the democratic parties, left and right in Hungary, have a huge responsibility in making sure that they [anti-Semites] are pushed aside. They're not in the Hungarian Parliament, which means that Hungary, the overwhelming majority of Hungarians, say no to an anti-Semitic party.
JJ: How does Hungary balance its relationship with Israel and with European Union-wide concerns for the situation in the Palestinian areas?
A.S.: Hungary was the first country in the Eastern bloc to re-establish [after the fall of communism] diplomatic relations with Israel. It was just before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
On the other hand, it is very important to send a clear signal that we in the international community, with the European Union, with the United States, want to be part of assisting a solution to the conflict in the Middle East. Hungary has held hands with the United States as it went to war against Saddam Hussein.
JJ: Most Hungarians have not used Hungary's anti-Soviet revolt in 1956 to make comparisons in support of the Palestinians' intifada.
AS: I think that would be most ridiculous to draw any parallels. Honestly, fortunately, this is not a very popular belief. Hungarians in 1956 stood up against dictatorship, stood up against Soviet Russian occupation.
I would draw the parallel with what we wanted to achieve in 1956 with the war on terrorism and against Iraq. Partly why we thought we had to get rid of Saddam Hussein and do it together is because we remember what it means when democracies fail to act.
Hungary is a hard-core democracy, and we have learned the hard way, through Nazism, through communism, what it means when a country embraces radical ideas that exclude others. In 1944, Hungarians were deported; as far as I'm concerned, they were Hungarians. Hungarians deporting other Hungarians.