Saul Blau is a Holocaust Survivor from Hungary. He gives talks frequently for different organizations sharing his story. He has been living outside of Hungary for multiple decades (although he still had a strong Hungarian accent), so can’t speak to the present-day environment there, but gave a firsthand perspective of Hungary during the Holocaust that the Hungarian government frequently whitewashes.
So this is probably a little different than most interviews you have done. I’m interviewing Hungarians and asking them basic questions about Judaism, but also how they feel about the Hungarian government and Judaism and if they feel antisemitism in Hungary.
I was in Hungary last time just before the pandemic. And I left Hungary at the end of 1948, Ancient times. But I'm a little bit up to date because I’m very much interested in Israeli politics. And for a while, Netanyahu and Orban had a very close relationship, because Netanyahu was trying to be a populist type of governor, and Orban is definitely a populist. You know, he closed the border to the Muslim, Syrian immigrants and he's claiming that, Christian Hungary should preserve their, their, their culture their European culture. So when he was campaigning and he used, and George Soros who you know is a very anti-Orban and anti Hungarian. And he’s involved all over the world, he’s very wealthy. And he’s a champion of all kind of leftist-oriented causes. He’s a supporter of a zionist organization called Shalom Achsav, which is a left-wing-oriented Israeli group. A supposedly zionist but very left-wing organization. And he’s involved all over the world, he had his free university that Orban shut down. And when Orban was campaigning to be Prime Minister, they use some anti-semitic slogans in the campaign.
And I know the Hungarian Jewish community, the secular Hungarian Jewish community is very unhappy with Orban. But there is a Hasidic community which is Lubavitch, Chabad, and it’s thriving, and there are more than 12 or 13,000 committed Jews to that Orthodox way of life. But the secular community which is much larger, they are very unhappy with Orban. And to my knowledge, the Hungarian government tried to make a Holocaust museum and the secular community refused to take part in it because Orban is trying to resurrect the former Nazi politicians before the war who were murderous, and you know they were the ones who were the biggest antisemites. So the Jewish community is very much against it.
Yes, that’s exactly what I’ve been hearing. The secular Neolog Jews are unhappy with him, but he supports Chabad and the orthodox community very well.
And that’s what happened in Russia. Also, the Russians, you know, Putin was very, very close with the Chabad organization, so, so and Chabad is not involved in local politics, they try to stay away. All they care about is bringing Jews back into the traditional Judaism. So that's their main goal. And then they, they, they will go along with any other, you know, government type of things as long as they could operate them, do their mission, which is to bring back Jews who are abandon their religious practice to orthodox life.
Ok, so I’ll go back to questions about Judaism in general. What is your history with Judaism? Would you consider yourself reform, conservative, or orthodox?
I come from a Chasidic family, very Orthodox. I had very long pelot, when I was kid before the Holocaust and I spent exactly one year, I was in Auschwitz, I was liberated in Buchenwald those two notorious camps. And I returned to Hungary to look for family. I didn’t hang around in Germany in those refugee camps. And I found an older sister of mine who survived due to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who established safe houses for Jews, because the Jews from Budapest were not taken to Auschwitz. So Jews were seeking safe houses and Raoul Wallenberg was the one who organized it. And my sister survived but she had no room for me because her apartment was halfway bombed up. So I found a home in a zionist organization that started to organize right after the war, and very few kids my age survived and right away, I started to be indoctrinated into a zionist ideology, so I got caught very much in that youth movement and I wound up in Israel and abandoned my orthodox way of life completely. Because I had a lot of questions, nobody had answers to them, you know. You know, it was an ordeal that left people… and the religious Jewish way of thinking didn’t give me any answers. So my focus was on zionists in Israel, but then when I got married, and I raised my children, I turned back into a conservative type of Judaism, and I made sure that my two boys that they should have the proper Jewish education and that they should spend a year in Israel. And they remained to be also the same way, conservative and very committed to the Jewish causes and the Jewish way of life, but not necessarily all the rituals and that sort of thing.
So, why is Judaism important to you?
It’s important to me because there is something that survived. Supposedly God spoke to the Jewish people 3,300 years ago on Mt Sinai, and some of us still want to hang out and somehow want to live our life in a way that some Jewish ethics and some Jewish interpretations that survive all these millennias with a lot of hardship. So it’s something to be proud of, something to be worthwhile to belong to that family of people that survived so many years. And in my lifetime, I survived a terrible ordeal, and I really hope that my kids and my grandkids down the line, will remain, which is very difficult with the American way of life, you know, immigrants want to be part of the American fabric. But it is very important to me Judaism. I paid my price, I suffered for it, but I still want to remain, and I hope that the world eventually, but there’s no way of curing antisemitism. If you’re left or right, if you’re in stone-age time, you’re the bourgeoise Jew, the money-grubbing Jew. There’s a lot of false accusations and there’s no way to end it.
To what extent do you think you hear about antisemitism present in Hungary or other Eastern European countries?
I really, really don’t know because this Ukrainian war changed a lot of things. And Zelensky, I mean the Ukraine at one time was the most antisemitic and Poland also. But it’s the third or fourth generation after the Holocuast, so we can’t condemn the grandkids for their grandfathers' sins sort of. That’s the Jewish way of thinking. So I, I have some very mixed feelings about it, and I think I don’t know. I know Czechoslovakia was always very friendly to Israel and the Jewish people, and Germany changed tremendously. I mean, they really, I’m sure individual Germans still, you know, the older ones, but the younger ones, I think they try to make somehow, make, recognize what the regime, what terrible crimes they committed against Jews and also terrible things happened during the war years. And as far as the official German government, the most friendly, one of the most friendly supporters of Israel, and like I said I’m sure individuals have a lot of, like any other place, antisemitism is a virus, it’s uncurable. And it goes down the millennium, after the second temple destruction and the Romans destroyed the temple, and from then on there is always antisemitism. And in the middle ages it was terrible, but I really don’t know that much about it in Hungary.
So there are some controversies with the Hungarian government, revisionists downplaying the role that they had compared to the Nazis. Since you have a lot of firsthand knowledge, what was the government’s role during the Holocaust, such as the Arrow Cross? It wasn’t just the Nazis, correct?
Hungary was an ally of Germany. And in early 1944, in March Horthy was the regent of Hungary, he was originally an admiral actually, and he and the Hungarians realized they were losing the war. They somehow tried to pick up some connection with the British and Americans but Hitler knew about it and they marched into Hungary. Adolf Eichmann came. The first thing they did, they demanded tremendous amount of money from the Hungarian Jews which they paid them, and after that they started to put them into ghettos, and then the deportations to Auschwitz in the cattle cars. And this was going on for two and a half months. And 450,000 Hungarian Jews were taken to Aushcwitz in 2 months time with 70% of them being eliminated. And after 2 and a half months, Horthy and them stopped it. And some Jews remained in Budapest, and others remained in the ghetto. And then by October 1944, the Arrow Cross took over and they made Jews march to the Danube river and they shot them in the Danube River. In Budapest now, they have a holocaust monument there of shoes of 60 pairs of shoes because they made them take off their shoes before they shot them into the river.
So to answer the question exactly, there was antisemitism in Hungary going on long before the Holocaust. So it wasn’t just the Nazis and Germans. It was also the Hungarians who were very bad. The Arrow Cross were really, really terrible, just like the whole situation was.