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Good Jews Make Great Hungarians

Binyamin Rose, Budapest

Hungary’s recent appointment of a top Ministry of Justice official as state secretary responsible for Jewish community issues is both unprecedented inside Hungary, and widely praised by Hungary’s Orthodox Jewish community and the thousands of Hungarian Jews living abroad. Both parties have great expectations for Dr. Andras Levente Gal, who accepted the appointment, and who explained what he expects to accomplish during an exclusive interview in his office in Budapest.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hungary’s 1956 Revolution was snuffed out by the Soviet Union in a few weeks, but since the fall of Communism more than twenty years ago, Hungary’s post-Soviet leadership has made significant strides in providing a better life for their people.

The 2011 Index of Economic Freedom, compiled by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal, noted that Hungary emerged from 40 years of Communist rule more open, both politically and economically, than most of its former Communist neighbors. The index ranks Hungary the 51st freest nation in the world, with an overall index of 66.6, well above the global average.

Hungary today is ruled by the center-right FIDESZ party, who won a two-thirds majority in the April 2010 parliamentary elections.

While the Hungarian government traditionally has appointed state secretaries responsible for relations with religious communities, the appointment of Dr. Gal to deal directly with Jewish communities is unprecedented, and was warmly welcomed in Hungary’s Jewish community and in the Diaspora.

Dr. Gal, along with David Bohm, Hungary’s consul in Romania, visited the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn this past June, as guests of the Satmar and Munkacz communities.

“The Jewish community is not only a religious community; it is a cultural one as well,” said Dr. Gal. “The more Jewish you are in the practice of your religion, the better Hungarian you can be as well. The more a person lives a family life, within his traditions and religion, the more he can offer the Hungarian culture. For sure, if someone doesn’t honor or live his tradition, that’s a handicap.”

I mention that my mother’s family hails from Hungary and left shortly after World War I. Dr. Gal’s interest spikes.

“Where was she from?” he asks.

When I name the town as it was known then, and as it is called today in Slovakia, Dr. Gal, who is sitting beneath a map of Hungary, rises and strides toward a different map hanging on a wall that shows Hungary’s borders before World War I. “It was a much bigger country, then,” he says wistfully.

“After World War I, Hungary lost two-thirds of her territory,” says Dr. Bohm, whose Israeli-born father now lives in Ashdod.

Dr. Bohm is stationed in the Transylvania region of Romania, where he is a consul in the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, helping Hungarian citizens abroad.

“It’s very important to realize that among the many tragedies that the 20th century brought, when the Hungarian Jewish community was wiped out, we lost part of the Hungarian culture,” said Dr. Bohm. “Someone who goes out to Munkacz and tries to see the old Hungarian life soon realizes something is missing. We can’t turn the clock back, but we can try to preserve mutual traditions.”

Rabbi Moshe Aaron Hoffman of Williamsburg, who arranged the June meeting between Dr. Gal, Dr. Bohm, and Brooklyn community leaders from Satmar, Munkacz, and Pupa, said he has no doubts about the sincerity of the Hungarian government.

Subsequent to their June meeting, Rabbi Hoffman says he asked Dr. Gal to do everything in his power to afford legal protection to Hungarian Jewish cemeteries.

There are between 1,500 and 3,000 Jewish cemeteries in Hungary, mostly located in places where the local Jewish community was annihilated, according to Professor Andras Kovacs, in his recently  published Institute for Jewish Policy Research report on Hungary. Professor Kovacs notes that the maintenance of these cemeteries incurs great costs, but because many of the descendants of the people buried there live abroad, the costs are largely incurred by the Hungarian Jewish community.

Recently a Hungarian citizen stole some Jewish tombstones, and used them to help pave his driveway.

“We would like to see these cemeteries preserved in a way that we don’t have to be nervous and fight over each and every one and the only way it can be done is if the government takes control and takes charge,” said Rabbi Hoffman.


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