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Israeli President Visits Opening of Europe's First  Holocaust Memorial Center - 2004-04-15

The president of Israel was in Budapest Thursday to open Central Europe's first center memorializing the Holocaust.

An estimated 600,000 Hungarian Jews died in Nazi concentration camps during World War Two. On Thursday, some of those who survived, as well as the relatives of many of those killed, gathered to pray in a synagogue in Budapest that is now part of the just-opened Holocaust Memorial Center.

Located on a narrow street in Budapest, the center is surrounded by a marble wall containing the names of many of the Hungarian Jews who died in Nazi camps. The center also includes a museum and education center, which is now showing an exhibition of photographs of Hungarian victims arriving at Auschwitz from the northeastern village of Bilke, which is now part of Ukraine.

In his remarks inaugurating the center, Israeli President Moshe Katsav said he hoped it would help to combat the re-emergence of hatred toward the Jewish people. Underscoring those worries was news that Hungarian police on Tuesday arrested three suspects who allegedly wanted to blow up a Jewish Museum, although police officials have denied it was the Holocaust Memorial Center.

The main suspect, a 42-year old Hungarian citizen and Imam of an Islamic community, is in police custody, but two other suspects identified as Syrians have now been released.

The Israeli president also made clear how moved he was by what he saw at the center. Mr. Katsav said it was difficult to put his thoughts together as he saw pictures and other documents about the Hungarian Holocaust. He added that it was hard "to see the trembling of a hand, the shaking of knees, the anguish of suffering" among those being deported to concentration camps. He urged Hungarians to remember those who are depicted in pictures, as well as the many thousands more who are not.

His opinion was shared by Hungarian-born American Tom Lantos, the first Holocaust survivor to be elected to the United States Congress.

Answering a question from VOA ahead of the ceremony, Mr. Lantos said he hopes the Holocaust Memorial Center will help Hungarians to remember their country supported Nazi Germany during most of World War Two.

"I deeply regret that there are still elements in Hungary who wish to blame the Holocaust entirely on Germany, which is inaccurate," he said. "Vast numbers of Hungarians personally participated in the most outrageous, murderous acts."

Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy, who was also at the ceremony, said he was ashamed that Hungary had actively participated in the Holocaust.

Mr. Medgyessy said whole families were exterminated. He said there was "no excuse and no explanation for the "heinous and unforgivable crimes" committed by Hungarians against Hungarians."

Hungarian officials also said it was time to guarantee a better future for all people and ethnic groups, a view reflected by other politicians who joined the inauguration via video links from Auschwitz and the Holocaust Memorial in Washington.