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Nobel Winner Elie Wiesel Concerned About Hungarian Extremism

  • Stefan Bos

Nobel Peace Prize winner, author and activist Elie Wiesel has urged Hungary to consider banning Holocaust denials to improve its image and has expressed concern about growing extremist parties in the country and Europe. Wiesel spoke to VOA News at ceremonies 10 December marking the revival of Jewish culture since the collapse of communism in 1989.

A group of youngsters sing Israel's anthem near the monument 'Shoes on the Danube Promenade' in Budapest.

The memorial depicts shoes left behind by Hungarian Jews after they were shot to death and dumped in the river Danube by forces of Hungary's pro-Nazi regime during World War II.

About 600,000 Hungarian Jews died in the Holocaust, most of them in Nazi death camps. During the communist period that followed the war religion was discouraged.

During the 10 December ceremonies, however, Hungarians remembered the revival of Jewish culture following the collapse of communism in 1989 and the 20th anniversary of the Orthodox Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch movement in the country.

Hungary's Jewish population of 100,000 is Eastern Europe's largest outside Russia.

Yet, Nobel Peace Prize winner, author and human rights activist Elie Wiesel, who survived the Holocaust, has mixed feelings about returning to Hungary, from where he and family members were deported to Nazi camps.

At a recent symposium, he urged Hungary to make denial of the Holocaust a crime amid concerns about growing extremist groups and parties. That has not happened because of concerns in courts and parliament that it conflicts with the country's new found freedom of expression.

However Wiesel tells VOA News that he is concerned about parties such as Hungary's Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik) known for its rhetoric against minority gypsies, also known as Roma, and perceived anti-Semitic statements.

The Nobel laureate says he regrets that the party got about 15 percent of the vote during recent European Parliamentary elections and is expected to do even better during upcoming general elections in Hungary.

"What does it say about Hungarian society? Wake up Hungary, wake up," he said. "Don't you know that those who speak, at one point, [their] words can get dangerous. Their words are words of hatred and therefore [of] violence. And I think they should know who they are and the people should know and not vote for them. I know I am interfering in the domestic affairs of Hungary. But as a former Hungarian who loves, whatever I remember in my childhood before the war, I can say that: 'Be careful.'"

Wiesel regrets that Jobbik recently established an alliance in Budapest of several European far right parties, including the French Front National party of firebrand politician Jean-Marie Le Pen.

"Yes with Jean [-Marie] Le Pen. And Le Pen is the one who denies the Holocaust," he said. "So how dare they?"

Jobbik has defended its actions saying it works for Hungary's interests.

Concerns over extremism have overshadowed key ceremonies and meetings marking the Jewish revival in Hungary.

Speaking at a special symposium in parliament with hundreds of Jewish and other representatives from Hungary and abroad, Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai admitted that his government was unable to limit extremism in the country.

Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai makes clear that all forces of Hungary's left and right must unite in the fight against the far right. He says extremists are misusing the current economic crisis in Hungary for an ideology of hatred, the same way as this happened in the 1920s and 1930s. This eventually led to the Holocaust. Hungary was a close ally of Nazi Germany during most of World War II. Mr. Bajnai says that therefore "every constitutional means" must be used to isolate the far right.

Mr. Bajnai has promised Wiesel to open archives containing names of Hungarian Jews who were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp, including Wiesel's family members.

In addition, Hungary seeks the extradition from Australia of Karoly Zentai, one of the most wanted Nazi war crimes suspects still alive.

As an officer of Hungary's pro-Nazi military, Zentai allegedly killed a Jewish teenager during the war for not wearing the obligatory yellow star for Jews at that time.

Shlomo Koves, who in 2003 was the first Orthodox rabbi to be ordained in Hungary since the Holocaust, does not believe that Zentai, who is 88, is too old for prosecution.

"As far as he is still living and as far as he is a person, he has a responsibility," he said. "If he passes away, then only goes his responsibility in front of God."

Wiesel says he hopes Hungary will learn from its turbulent past. Although he is 81, he intends to continue his human rights work.

His Foundation for Humanity lost millions of dollars because of fraud by now jailed American investor Bernard Madoff. Despite the setback, Wiesel says he will not allow anyone to destroy his life-long work.