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Hungarian Officials Attend Landmark Jewish Hanukkah Celebration - 2002-12-07

Former Communist and current Government officials in Hungary have attended a landmark Jewish Hanukkah celebration in front of the Parliament. The ceremony is seen as another step in a new era for the country, which is still coping with its legacy of Communism and years of cooperation with Nazi Germany.

An 81-year-old Hungarian born Holocaust survivor sang a prayer Friday after he was lifted with a special elevator to light the candles of what organizers call the largest Menorah in Europe.

The emotionally charged ceremony to observe Hanukkah was held in front of the same Parliament building where Hungary introduced one of Europe's first anti-Semitic laws in the late 1930s.

Soon after, the country became a close ally of Nazi Germany during World War II, when an estimated 600,000 Hungarian Jews were massacred. Attacks against Jews continued after the war and under Communism.

But officials including former Communists as well as Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, attended the eight day Hanukah celebration.

The chairwoman of the Hungarian Parliament, Katalin Szili, said the celebration sends an important message to post Communist Hungary. "This day is not only the light celebration. It is a celebration of liberty also," she said.

Hanukkah, the Hebrew word for "renewal," was first observed in 164 BC when Jews got back their Temple in Jerusalem, after a revolt. They discovered one bottle of olive oil that they used to light the the Menorah. However, the oil is said to have lasted for eight days, an event that became known as "the miracle of Hanukkah."

Salamon Berkowitz, the founder of the Mechon Simon Foundation, which organized the Budapest ceremony, says Hanukkah is more than a religious holiday.

The 55-year-old, whose brother and sister died in Nazi concentration camps, said the celebration shows that Hungary's Jewish community will overcome difficulties within the European Union and beyond. "Hanukkah basically stands not as a religious celebration as such. It is more a sign of survival and desperation and commitment to maintain ones culture, more than ones religion. And that is a very important part in an EU structure," he said. "I think it is a message for unity but at the same time for self identity."

However, anti-Semitism has not disappeared in Hungary. Earlier this week hundreds of skinheads interrupted a Hanukkah ceremony in Budapest.

The recently elected Socialist-led Government has vowed to introduce new legislation to punish hate speech or those who deny the Holocaust.