December 11, 2006

House of Terror seeks out Holocaust heroes


Motive behind the campaign questioned

A television media campaign has resulted in 550 interviews for a new database on Hungarians who helped Jews during the Holocaust. The project under the leadership of Maria Schmidt, director of the House of Terror museum brought forth 1,165 responses from those who helped Jews in Hungary during the Holocaust, resulting in 550 interviews for a new database on Hungarian life savers.

The reaction from the international Jewish community, however, ranged from support to scepticism. Estee Yaari, foreign media liaison for Yad Vashem in Israel, said of the museum’s initiative ”The Righteous Among the Nations Programme at Yad Vashem is one of our most important programmes. We welcome efforts to uncover information about the courageous men and women who risked their own safety in the cause of saving Jews.”

Gábor Tallai, the House of Terror’s director for the research initiative, told The Budapest Times and Budapester Zeitung: ”We in no way claim these individuals to be Righteous Among Nations, an honour deemed only by Yad Vashem, but we are proud to have saved a hopeful piece of Hungarian history in the last few possible hours.”

Dr. Efraim Zuroff of the Jerusalem-based Simon Wiesenthal Center in charge of the operation to prosecute war criminals in Eastern Europe wrote of the initiative: ”In various countries in Eastern Europe, we have become aware of politically-motivated campaigns to falsely enlarge the number of local Righteous Gentiles…This is done by granting the designation of Righteous Gentiles to any and every person claiming to have assisted Jews without carrying out the necessary and proper investigations in a comprehensive manner to verify the historical events.”

”It is critical to punish the guilty,” Tallai said in response to Zuroff’s remarks. ”But models for humanity are also critical…another means of prevention is to point to models who remained human in face of man’s inhumanity to man.”

Tallai found that often the children of the new witnesses volunteered the initial documentation. ”They felt they were just doing what Christians should do,” Tallai says. ”They wanted neither award nor recognition.” Another trait in common among those who helped the Jews was that they acted impulsively, Tallai added. Stanlee Stahl, head of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, said: ”Most Righteous did not feel they had done something unusual.”

”Although the history of the past century is often described as the most documented, it is also the most full of unanswered questions,” says Tallai. ”Research is just now seeking the identity of martyrs. While over 500,000 Hungarian Jews perished, the Budapest Holocaust Museum has a record of only 63,000 names.”

Unanswered questions also surround these brave individuals, the experts say. ”The Righteous remain among the last areas of the Holocaust to be researched,” says Mordecai Paldiel, Director for the Righteous at Yad Vashem. ”Likely five times as many Righteous existed worldwide than the 23,000 presently honoured that we are aware of .”

Commonly cited numbers of those saved belie reality, Paldiel says. ”It was impossible for [Swedish diplomat Raoul] Wallenberg to have saved 100,000 in Budapest.” Yet, just last year, Lutz, a Swiss diplomat, was also honoured at the Holocaust and Documentation Center in Budapest for saving 100,000. Gábor Sztehlo, the Evangelical minister is thought to have saved 10,000 children, Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian diplomat prevented the deportation of 6,300, and army brigadier Imre Reviczky is thought to have saved over 6,000 Jews. The question arises, How could 300,000 Jews from Budapest have been lost, if by documentation attributable to Jewish sources, almost that many were saved?

The database will be reserved for research and archived for now. An exhibition is planned only once the information is validated. Tallai feels that about 5-10% of the present data will not prove to be valid. But the hopeful estimates of Paldiel, that over 120,000 Righteous Among the Nations existed worldwide, raises the hope that Tallai’s findings will prove to be largely valid.