By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Budapest, Hungary
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)-- Hardly seven decades after millions of Jews were killed, Europe is once again experiencing an "alarming resurgence of anti-Semitism ", international leaders warned Tuesday, October 1.
Hundreds of government officials and other delegates from more than 50 countries gathered in Hungary's capital Budapest to discuss ways to tackle the spreading hatred towards Jewish people.
Up to a third of Jews in nine European Union countries experienced "verbal or physical anti-Semitic violence" recently, according to a survey of the EU agency for fundamental rights (FRA).
Amid international pressure, including from the World Jewish Congress, EU member state Hungary pledged Tuesday, October 1, to crackdown on the rising number of anti-Semitic attacks in this former East Block nation.
Hungary's "democracy will defend itself against anyone who wants to incite hatred," added Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics.
Yet, Israeli Minister of Finance Yair Lapid, whose father survived the Holocaust, said he had mixed feelings about attending the conference on 'Jewish life and anti-Semitism in contemporary Europe' in Hungary's former Upper House of Parliament.
"There is a stain on the honor of this House," he declared in an emotionally charged speech reverberating throughout the neo-Gothic building, where legislators once voted for Europe's first anti-Jewish laws.
"Seventy years ago there was a sign hanging from this beautiful building saying: 'no entry for dogs and Jews,'" the minister said.
"We will miss the whole point behind this event if we will renounce that the genocide of this scope could not have happened without the help of tens of thousands of Hungarians and without the silence of millions of other Hungarians," Lapid added.
Some 600,000 Hungarian Jews died during World War Two, most of them in 1944, when many were deported to death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.
Lapid also recalled that in February 1945 his father and grandmother were among those summoned by Germans and Hungarian fascists to walk to the Danube river where they would be forced to dig holes in the frozen water, before being shot.
When the "death convoy" reached Budapest's Margit bridge, a Russian plane was flying low triggering Germans and Hungarians to shoot at the aircraft. Amid the chaos, his then 13-year-old father was hiding in the lavatory with his mother, the minister said.
"She told him to pee, but it isn't easy to pee when it is freezing, people are shooting and the world is hating you," Lapid explained.
Ten minutes later nearly all 600 people were killed, except his father and grandmother. "With nowhere to go, they went back to their basement in the Jewish ghetto, hoping the approaching Russians would liberate them before the next death convoy would arrive."
His father, Yosef "Tommy" Lapid survived, moving to Israel where he became a famed journalist and politician till his death in 2008.
He once returned to Hungary showing his son the lavatory that saved his life. "My father cried and told me: 'this is where my Zionism was born, where I was reborn and where you was born'," Lapid said.
"There we stood, two grown men, stroking the lavatory. Pedestrians thought we were nuts, but we weren't nuts. This was the place where my father survived. He was a statistical error. My father was supposed to be dead, and I wasn't supposed to be born," the minister told a captivated audience.
Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics agreed that Hungarians were responsible for the massive killing of Jews. He made clear that under the previous regime his generation was taught at school that Regent Miklós Horthy's fascists were responsible for the Holocaust. "Only [after the collapse of Communism] in 1990 we learned that the Hungarian state was itself responsible."
He said his government will help organize the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust next year and is increasing pensions of Holocaust survivors.
It comes at a time when Hungary's center right government has been urged by EU leaders to distance itself from the far-right Movement For a Better Hungary (Jobbik) party, where a parliamentarian recently called for drawing up lists of Jews "who form a danger for society."
Jobbik is linked to paramilitary groups marching through Roma villages and contributing to an atmosphere of hatred in which Jewish people, including a prominent rabbi, were physically or verbally attacked, Israeli flags torched and Holocaust monuments vandalized.
In one of the latest known cases, bars of soap were nailed to the fence of the main synagogue in Szeged, Hungary's third-largest city, on September 17, following allegations that Nazis made soap out of the victims of concentration camps.
Despite Jobbik's influence, Hungarian State Secretary Zsolt Németh told BosNewsLife that his ruling Fidesz party won't seek a coalition with Jobbik, whatever the outcome of the 2014 elections.
"I cannot speak for the government, but as a member of Fidesz I can say that will not happen."
That was music to the ears of Kyriakos Gerontopoulos, Greece's deputy foreign minister, who announced on loud applause that in his own country authorities "arrested all leaders" of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party.
Such moves were welcomed by Malcolm Hoenlein, executive chairman of the New York-based Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
He warned governments to stand up against ignorance. "We see a United Nations that can't stop the massacre of a 100,000 people in Syria, or the killings of thousands of Christians from Malaysia to Lebanon, and other massive violations of human rights. But it certainly can find time to condemn Israel."
The two-day conference was organized by the recently opened Tom Lantos Institute (TLI) named after the Hungarian-born late Congressman, the first Holocaust survivor to be elected to the House of Representatives.
His widow, Annette Lantos, who also escaped death in Hungary during World War Two, said she was shocked to see a resurgence of anti-Semitism in her native nation.
She told BosNewsLife that she is also concerned about statues emerging for Miklós Horthy, the war-era regent who oversaw the introduction of anti-Semitic laws.
"He didn't do anything to stop the Holocaust," she said.
Her daughter Katrina Lantos Swett, who leads the Lantos Foundation, told BosNewsLife that the TLI would organize a "Solidarity Sabbath" in Spring next year, when world leaders will attend Sabbath services in different synagogues. "This will show all stand together against anti-Semitism."
That also gives hope for the future, suggested State Secretary Németh. "Many of us believe that life is the gift of the Eternal One," he explained to delegates, including several church leaders.
"We read in Bible verse Deuteronomy 30:19: 'This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live'."
Németh said he wished that in that spirit "all deliberations would lead to a better world that is characterized by an unconditional respect for life."
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since 2004).
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