Human Rights in Budapest

SMU students, faculty and staff visited Budapest, Hungary, with SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program Jan. 7-13, 2015. Led by program director Rick Halperin, 12 undergraduate and master’s level students traveled to the country along with Vicki Hill, SMU’s Assistant Dean for the University Curriculum.

In an effort to address past, present and future identity issues stemming from what happened in Hungary before, during and after its Nazi-occupation in World War II, the group met with Holocaust survivors, witnesses and rescuers. Many of the group’s activities were organized by the Visual World Foundation and its program “Relations to power – learning about the Holocaust in Hungary.”

Laws that subjugate

An update from Richard, a graduate student in the Master of Liberal Studies program:

On Saturday, January 10, the group visited the Holocaust Memorial Center, which commemorates the 1,441 lost Jewish communities and more than 500,000 victims, Jews and Roma, of the Hungarian Holocaust. Throughout the center, displays detail the story of how the Jews of Hungary became “scapegoats” of Hungarian society because of the terms of the Trianon Treaty of 1919, which spelled out the peace terms for Hungary’s participation in World War I as an ally of Germany. The Trianon Treaty forfeited two-thirds of Hungarian territory to other nations. Included in these forfeited lands were 3 million Hungarian citizens. Retrieving these lands became the primary goal of Hungary’s foreign policy.

In 1920 Hungary’s government passed the Numerus Clausus Act, which restricted admission of Jews to 6 percent of the university student population. This law was the first anti-Semitic law passed in Europe and set the precedent for the future use of legislation to subjugate Jews in other European countries throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

This precedent reminded me of the Jim Crow laws of the Southern states crafted in the late 19th century used to segregate and subjugate blacks. Even though it took decades, the Jim Crow laws were overturned in the South and replaced with Equal Rights and Voter Registration Rights laws.

Hungary took a different path. Future laws passed in the 1930s were far more draconian in the subjugation of Jews. These laws ruined Jewish businesses and caused the loss and confiscation of commercial and private property owned by Jews. These laws led to the eventual death of hundreds of thousands of Jewish and Roma Hungarian citizens.

On one hand, the United States was able to overcome its Jim Crow legacy using the political process. Hungary used its political process to further subjugate a minority group. Along with this legislation, Hungary allied itself with Nazi Germany and actively participated in the Final Solution policy.

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Humanity and evil

An update from Joseph, a graduate student in the Perkins School of Theology:

Landing in Budapest, Hungary, I was amazed by the beauty of the city as I looked through the window of the plane. Arriving a day before my fellow students, I was picked up by one of our hosts, and while we drove from the airport, he said: “I have a surprise for you.” My response was, “What surprise?” And he said: “I will drive you another route so you can see some of the beauties of our city.”

I never knew that this beautiful city is associated with the greatest evil of the 20th century, the Holocaust – the killing of 11 million men, women, and children by Nazi Germany; and of the 11 million, 6 millions were Jews. The other 5 million who lost their lives to the evil of humanity are not often talked about.

Hearing the stories of Holocaust survivors and visiting museums in Budapest will forever remain a part of my own journey as a person and a minister of the gospel of Jesus the Christ. The stories of Holocaust survival – especially a woman we sat with who was 5 years old during the war – also brought to memory the story of my native war-torn country, Liberia, where a civil war started when I was 12 years of age and lasted for 14 years and took away more than 300,000 lives. Thus, my experience so far on this trip has enforced my theological question on humanity and evil, and not, why does God allow evil?

Joseph with Holocaust survivor Katalin Sommer

Joseph with Holocaust survivor Katalin Sommer

Because listening to stories and visiting places where people were murdered because of their race, faith, disabilities and who they loved breaks me emotionally, because the wickedness and madness of humanity to one another hasn’t stopped. Thus, the world watched the Holocaust happened and then Rwanda happened; and while on this trip world leaders marched in a so-called unity march in Paris for the loss of 12 people to terrorist attacks but did nothing concerning the 2,000 black lives taken by terrorists in Nigeria; thus, “there is no such thing as a lesser person”…..when will this madness stop?

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A controversial museum

An update from Alexandra, a graduate student in the Master of Liberal Studies program, studying human rights and social justice:

Today we visited a controversial museum called the House of Terror, located inside a building that housed the old Nazi and Communist headquarters within the city.  The purpose of the museum is to educate people on what occurred within the walls of that exact building, and to commemorate the victims of the communist regime that took many victims in Hungary during the Soviet occupation after World War II.

Before you even enter the museum, the outside wall pays tribute to some victims with their photographs. Upon entry, a three-story-high wall is covered in photos of victims.  Additionally, the museum provides small leaflets with individual stories of men who were killed by the communist regime while attempting to revolt against it.

The museum was incredibly theatrical, with light and music design that intends to make the visitor feel the evil in those who ran the building. For example, the music mimicks what you would hear when an evil character in a film is being introduced.  Nazi, Arrow Cross and communist uniforms and logos litter the walls, adding to the sinister atmosphere.

The most overwhelming part of the visit was the basement.  Riding down the elevator, visitors watch an interview with the man who cleaned the execution rooms describing how a typical execution took place at the time.  When he finishes, the elevator doors open and visitors walk into the basement filled with prison cells and torture chambers, with all the small windows covered in cement to prevent any natural light.  This was the most eerie part of the visit.  We stood in the same rooms, on the same ground where thousands were imprisoned, tortured and killed by the fascist governments.

Before our visit we were told this museum had created much controversy within the Jewish communities in Hungary.  While the intention of the museum is to highlight the communist regime, there is a small mention or memorial for the Holocaust, which is the problem – it’s small. Many people in Budapest feel this is disrespectful to the millions of victims of the period.  In reality, the memorial is small because the museum is designed to focus on what happened during the communist regime and within the walls of the exact building.

Below you can see images of the mass wall with photographs of the victims who were killed under the communist regime, located in the main entry of to the museum, as well as the outside wall of victims.  You can also see the wall of the victimizers, located in the basement.

Budapest - tall wall2

Budapest - tall wall


Budapest - entry

Budapest - wall of victimizers

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The ‘Tree of Life’

The SMU Embrey Human Rights Program pilgrims in Budpest, Hungary,  stand in front of a weeping willow-inspired artwork known as the “Tree of Life”/“Emanuel Tree” — a powerful tribute to thousands of  Holocaust victims buried nearby. The  memorial, by artist Imre Varga, was sponsored by the Emanuel Foundation, created by actor Tony Curtis to honor his Hungarian-Jewish roots. Photo shared by Amber/SMU Adventures.

The SMU Embrey Human Rights Program pilgrims in Budpest, Hungary, stand in front of a weeping willow-inspired artwork known as the “Tree of Life”/“Emanuel Tree” — a powerful tribute to thousands of Holocaust victims buried nearby. The memorial, by artist Imre Varga, was sponsored by the Emanuel Foundation, created by actor Tony Curtis to honor his Hungarian-Jewish roots. Photo shared by Amber/SMU Adventures.

Tree of Life Budapest Hungary 2015

Photo shared by Amber/SMU Adventures

Tree of Life Budapest Hungary 2015 detail

Hungarian Holocaust victims’ names are inscripted on the memorial tree’s “leaves.” Photo shared by Amber/SMU Adventures


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At the House of Terror

An update from Vanna, a graduate student in the Master of Liberal Studies program studying human rights and social justice:

Hungary is an ancient country that has gone though tumultuous political upheaval in the past few decades. Today we visited the House of Terror, which is a museum dedicated to the depiction of the fascist and communist regime.

The fascist regime in Hungary lasted during World War II and the Nazi occupation. Following the loss, Hungary came under the influence of the Soviet Union and established a communist government. Today, Hungary is a young democracy. Their first free election, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was in 1990.

Upon walking into the museum, past the lobby, you see a wall spanning the building’s three floors covered in black and white head shots. These are the photos of the very men and women who were imprisoned, tortured, raped and murdered within its walls. The entire museum is designed to grab an individual’s attention and evoke an emotional response.

Immediately after entering the exhibit we are told, “No photos.” When I ask, “Why?” I am simply told, “It’s forbidden.” I ask, “Why?” again and our guide states, “Because it is intellectual property.” I think to myself, history is not intellectual property; it’s free information for everyone.

The House of Terror is a controversial museum in Hungary. Critics have pointed to the fact that the exhibits are primarily about the terror of the communist regime and focus very little on terror inflicted during the fascist regime.

The museum is not a typical/traditional museum. It is an assault on the senses immediately when you walk in. The wall of victims is daunting; the exhibit rooms are loud with music, some have lights that dim and come back on while others are small. Down in the basement are the torture rooms where prisoners were tortured and killed. Children as young as 12 years old were susceptible to punishment as war criminals, working against public interests and other political crimes.

Photography is permitted in the atrium of the museum, which holds the wall of victims. Photo by Vanna/SMU Adventures

Photography is permitted in the atrium of the museum, which holds the wall of victims. Photo by Vanna/SMU Adventures

The wall of victimizers: Mátyás Rákosi, the leader of Hungary's Communist Party from 1945 to 1956. Photo by Vanna/SMU Adventures

The wall of victimizers: Mátyás Rákosi, the leader of Hungary’s Communist Party from 1945 to 1956. Photo by Vanna/SMU Adventures

Waking away from the House of Terror you realize that the objective is not to supply fair and balanced information, but to draw and keep your attention with the use of sensationalism. The last exhibit a visitor sees is a wall of victimizers. Those responsible for the crimes committed, some still alive, and many if not most have gone without punishment. The wall of victims upon arrival is a shocking sight to walk into, and walking away with the images of their torturers as the last thing you see is sticking. The entire museum is designed to elicit an emotional response, and it does. The House of Terror is the tabloid magazine of museums. Sensationalism sells, and it’s one of the most visited museums in Budapest.

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Meeting Holocaust survivors

An update from Liz, a senior majoring in political science and international studies, with a minor in human rights:

Photo by Liz/SMU Adventures

Photo by Liz/SMU Adventures

The Dohány Street Synagogue in connection with the Jewish Museum was both artistically pleasing and an eye-opening experience. The ornate, Oriental-style Synagogue features beautiful stained-glass windows, mosaic tiled floors and a central dome. The Synagogue was built by two non-Jewish architects, suggesting the inclusionary nature of the Synagogue’s people. The Synagogue sits in conjunction with a number of moving monuments that are dedicated to Holocaust survivors.

The garden features a gravesite called The Heroes’ Temple. It serves as a memorial for the hundreds of Jewish people who were found murdered within the walls of the Synagogue. The mass grave drives at the reality of the entire situation. It is one thing to learn about history from a book, but it is another thing entirely to stand on the site where innocent Jewish people died. The gravesite is both elegant and emotionally moving.

The Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park is connected to the Heroes’ Temple. This park features a beautiful weeping willow tree made entirely of metal. The silver leaves have been inscripted with the names of Holocaust victims. Standing in front of the tree was deeply spiritual and saddening. Realizing the significance of the leaves brought a tangibility to the sheer number of people who were killed in Hungary. Seeing a representation of 600,000 lives is an experience that is hard to describe. The Memorial park also features a memorial dedicated to those who helped people escape during the Holocaust. This memorial is just one example of the goodness that prevailed in such a dark and hateful time.

Photo by Liz/SMU Adventures

Photo by Liz/SMU Adventures

Photo by Liz/SMU Adventures

Photo by Liz/SMU Adventures

The Jewish Museum also sits on site of the Dohány Street Synagogue. The museum is both a display of traditional Jewish artifacts as well as a memorial/historical eulogy for Holocaust survivors. While the information enclosed in the museum was interesting, the primary thing that struck me was our tour guide. He spoke to us about his own experience with the Holocaust. He told us how his mother, his brothers and himself survived and avoided deportation through the help of a Swedish-sponsored safe house. He spoke of his father who died while digging trenches for the Russians. He also told us of his grandparents, one who survived Bergen-Belsen and another who survived Mauthausen. While he didn’t go into detail of his grandparents’ experience, I was struck by the bravery they must have exhibited. The strength and resilience that they clearly had is remarkable. Meeting survivors and hearing their firsthand accounts has been life-changing.

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Angels that stare at the past

Pedro Gonzalez

Pedro Gonzalez

An update from Pedro Gonzalez, who earned a master of liberal studies, with a concentration in human rights, from SMU in 2012 and is a current graduate student at the University of Texas at Dallas:

Hungary is a thousand-year-old country that exudes history. Because of the motive of our trip and its tragic nature, one name has been in the background of everything I do here: Walter Benjamin.

In the 9th Theses about the Philosophy of History (Anmerkungen zu den Thesen uber den Begriff der Geschichte), Walter Benjamin talks about Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus. He notes that the Angel stares at something inquisitively. His eyes are fixed to his left, and having the mouth open and his wings fully spread, he is gazing, horrified, at the past. Benjamin states that the Angel does not see a long chain of events, like regular persons do, like we do, but a single catastrophe that piles up ruins at his feet; although the Angel wishes to stop and wake up the dead and fix what has been destroyed, he cannot do it, because a hurricane blows strongly and prevents him from tucking in his wings; this happens while the overwhelming wind drags him into the future, which he confronts with his back while his terrified gaze still looks at the piling mounds of ruins that reach up to the sky.

“This hurricane is what we call progress,” states Benjamin, with the Holocaust the most significative part of that mountain of destruction, evoking not only 6 million Jewish people murdered, but hundreds of thousands of other people, such as the Roma.

Today, Friday the 9th, our third day of activities within the EHRP’s Tour of Budapest (with the purpose of studying the history and sites of the Holocaust in this country) focused on the Romas’ tragic fate during the Holocaust.

As a footnote, the weather here has been brutal and inclement. For the past two days, at -9 C, as we walk on the streets for several periods of over 30 minutes at the time, the air becomes a cumulus of microscopic shaving blades that shred the bronchi. But I am happy, because this trip is not supposed to be comfortable and charming, but sobering and cathartic. As with all things related to the Holocaust, learning the truth is what really hurts during these trips, what really macerates the deepest fibers of my humanity to make me realize that no cold wind or lack of sleep can be an obstacle between us and what we came here for: to study the horror suffered by millions of people, who just like those in today’s presentation, the Roma, were humiliated and murdered in the name of evil utopias of fascist nature that include cleansing the body politic, dreams of one’s people’s unity and purity (Aryan), all in the name of progress, modernity and pseudo-science.

The Roma Holocaust occurred desynchronized and decentralized, as Anna Szasz, a doctoral student and our kind presenter invited by the European Roma Cultural Foundation, told us today. Therefore it is difficult to quantify the victims and the locations and modus operandi of the perpetrators. As a result, the Roma have been engaged in a process of transfiguration (of their tragedy) that utilizes images instead of words. In this way memories are being transmitted in patterns of remembrance that are noticeable in 2nd generations of those who survived.

The Roma genocide hence becomes a social trauma inflicted under the premise of a “supposed” backwardness, detrimental to a society that pursued the perfection of social engineering. In other words, the discourse of nomadism and hygiene sustained the justification for the elimination of the Roma people.

Our presentation today included the viewing of the only image extant of the Roma Holocaust: the actual identification/processing card of a Roma woman, Erzsebet Hovoath. This card changed forever the fate of the young Erzsbet, costing her life. She, like the Angel of History, is a witness of the tragedy that accumulated at her feet, and terrorized looks at the camera that represented her own future, her death.

20150109_092359The barbarity of the modern West is not the result of the decadence of a civilization process, but a more plentiful deployment of the same principle, as Walter Benjamin states: “The barbarity of fascism does not interrupt progress, but it is the result of its continuation.”

This is one of the explanations why the Engel der Geschichte looks back, because with every step taken by humanity in the direction of the future in terms of technological progress, industry and organizing efficiency (but only when performed outside social reach), it walks toward the deepening of the same structures of exploitation and repression that have built barriers between contemporary life and tradition and solidarity (the same kind embodied in Jewish and Roma traditions), understood as the precepts of the original proposal of liberte, egalite and fraternite, emanated from the same Revolution, which for many represents the watershed in terms of the very idea of modernity.

The Angel not only contemplates disaster – he is not inactive – he also looks back to stop the continuum of history, because memory which can be so easily corrupted in a society affected by the obsession of social engineering to fulfill dystopias of greed and power, as well as grandiose economic aspects, finds a fracture in the merciless machine called time. As an example, in his documentary Shoah, Claude Lanzmann interviews Abraham Bomba, a barber who used to cut the hair of many women before they stepped into the gas chambers in Auschwitz. Bomba remembered the horror of the situation and how another stylist felt himself so close and interconnected with those women that he wanted to die with them. For a moment, while Bomba is narrating in his shop and cutting the hair of another person simultaneously, the viewer gets the impression of watching the barber cutting the hair of terrified women who are about to die, a window is opened in the homogeneity and unstoppability of time. By freezing time and the continuum of history, Lanzmann confronts a moment of the past instantly.

I strongly believe that we have done just that: we froze a moment in time to watch the tragedy of the Roma, and like Lanzmann, humbly prevent the erosion caused by time, which erases their memory and dignity from history, which in some cases, as a human manufactured product, has a tendency to forget its devastating deeds. The difficulty involved in Hungary’s coming to terms with the Holocaust is reflected not only in the way it is taught in schools, but in the way the Roma stigma has been able to transcend even in the minds of regular contemporary citizens, as we were told by a group of panelists in the Roma Cultural Foundation.

Let’s confront this moment in time like the Angel of History and Lanzmann: By stopping the linear contemporary, merciless, continuity of time, in order to observe, think and act. It is our responsibility as the witnesses that we have become. It is mandatory, since (paraphrasing Dr. Halperin) “the savagery that made the Holocaust possible is still alive in the world today.”

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Past and present



An update from Carlos, a senior majoring in history and minoring in economics:

Landing in Budapest, I felt I had an idea of what to expect, having already traveled to Poland with Dr. Halperin and the Embrey Human Rights Program in December 2012. However my expectations were far from what I encountered.

In comparison to Poland and other occupied countries in the second World War, the Holocaust had arrived late to the kingdom of Hungary. Participating on the side of the Axis, Hungary actively engaged in military operations in the eastern front alongside German units.

The Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center. Photo by Carlos/SMU Adventures

The Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center. Photo by Carlos/SMU Adventures

However, with the imminent German defeat in the east and the rapidly advancing Soviet Red Army, the government in Budapest was discovered attempting to secretly negotiate an armistice with the Allies. Reich Chancellor of Germany Adolf Hitler responded to the betrayal with an invasion under Operation Margarethe on March 12, 1944. During the occupation, SS lieutenant colonel Adolf Eichmann, with active assistance from the fascist Hungarian Arrow Cross party, oversaw the mass deportations of Jews to German death camps in occupied Poland. Unfortunately, deported Hungarian Jews had a death rate of up to 90 percent, every third person killed in Auschwitz being a Hungarian citizen.

Memorial wall. Photo by Carlos/SMU Adventures

Memorial wall. Photo by Carlos/SMU Adventures

Saturday, Jan. 10, our group visited the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest. Upon entering the gate, visitors encounter a small square before the entrance of the Páva Street Synagogue, which was consecrated in January 1924 and once served as the second largest venue for Jewish worship in Budapest. The square is aligned with six pillars symbolizing the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. Alongside stands the Memorial Wall engraved with the names of 60,000 known Hungarian victims of the estimated 600,000 killed.

Once inside visitors receive a direct educational representation of the Holocaust through films, pictures and artifacts. The museum rooms follow a chronological order that leads deeper into the Holocaust, beginning with anti-Semitism, loss of civil rights, alienation, deportation and death. The tour ends in the brightly lit empty synagogue, symbolizing the loss of a community that once worshipped in its hallowed halls. The museum seeks to present a clear message through simplicity, facts and education. Leaving the center, I was left with a sense of grief and loss. How the most unimaginable became a reality for so many innocent people will forever shock me, as I continue to struggle to understand how neighbors could turn on each other to the extent of murder.

Image of German soldiers in Budapest. Photo by Carlos/SMU Adventures

Image of German soldiers in Budapest. Photo by Carlos/SMU Adventures

Throughout this trip our group has met wonderful people who work to bring to light the truths of the Holocaust and combat the continued anti-Semitism and discrimination toward minorities in Hungary. However, the next day while walking through the guided tour of the controversial House of Terror museum, I witnessed a Hungarian father gleefully point out to his small son a set of Arrow Cross and German SS uniforms exhibited on the walls. The boy stood in admiration as he ogled the medals and commendations pinned on the lapels while his father patted his back with reassurance. At that moment I realized the extent of the prevailing anti-Semitism and general unremorse that may unfortunately continue with the next generation of Hungarians.

Embrey Human Rights Director Rick Halperin leads a discussion. Photo by Carlos/SMU Adventures

Embrey Human Rights Director Rick Halperin leads a discussion. Photo by Carlos/SMU Adventures

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On the edge of the Danube River

An update from Amber, a senior human rights major:

We are standing on the edge of the Danube River, and it’s 25 degrees. We are told to remove our clothes and shoes. A piece of wire is tied around my wrists, binding me to those standing on each side. There is yelling, and shots ring through the air. Down the line every third person is shot and pushed into the Danube, dragging those bound by the wrist along with them to the depths of the river. The shots grow closer, and I fall into the water. I am not shot but bound to another who is. I am able to free myself because I am just a child with small wrists. Shots continue to be fired, and I swim for my life, only coming up for air. I don’t look back. I just keeping swimming, swimming with all my might, swimming to save my life.

This is the story of one of the survivors of the Hungarian Holocaust, a child survivor. Below are pictures of the memorial dedicated to some estimated 5,000 or more Jews shot by the Arrow Cross during the Holocaust. Bronze shoes line the edge of the Danube River in memory of these victims. The impact of the period shoes creates an atmosphere that forces you to come to grips with the barbaric acts against not only men and women but children as well. This is a site that will live on to tell the gut-wrenching story of these victims with nothing more than shoes.

Photo by Amber/SMU Adventures

Photo by Amber/SMU Adventures

Photo by Amber/SMU Adventures

Photo by Amber/SMU Adventures

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