While some 550,000 Hungarian Jews were killed during the Holocaust in Nazi-run death camps, in forced labor battalions or by the Nazis' Hungarian allies, many Budapest Jews survived the war. Many were forced into the ghetto, others hid around the city under assumed identities or were helped by sympathetic foreign diplomats like Sweden's Raoul Wallenberg.
Hundreds of people attended the commemoration at Budapest's Dohany Street Synagogue, the largest in Europe, including Holocaust survivors, diplomats and politicians. Robert Frolich, the synagogue's chief rabbi, spoke of “ambivalent feelings” surrounding the commemoration, which contains pain and mourning, but also the “celebration of life.”
“Seventy-five years ago, Europe’s last ghetto, the Budapest ghetto, was liberated. This is what we remember today,” Frolich said. “Ambivalent feelings gather inside us, because the reason for the event, the liberation of the ghetto, is itself ambivalent.”
“It contains pain, it contains tragedy and the mourning which cannot be put into words, which is unspeakable and can only be experienced. At the same time, it contains joy, relief and the celebration of life.”
Jews were forced to move into the ghetto, set up over more than 20 city blocks in Budapest's traditional Jewish quarter, from the end of November 1944. Enclosed with wooden planks and brick walls, conditions in the ghetto during the cold winter were inhumane. Residents faced mass starvation and disease. Thousands of dead bodies had to be lined up at a square after the ghetto's designated burial areas were full.
According to historians, by the end of 1945 the deaths of some 14,000 people could be attributed to the conditions in the Budapest ghetto — either those who died there or those who became sick there and passed away in the months following its liberation on Jan. 18, 1945.
Around 420,000 of the Hungarian Jews killed during the Holocaust were residents of countryside cities and villages. They were deported from their homes by rail to Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps in less than two months in mid-1944.
Tamas Mester, president of the Budapest Jewish Community, spoke of growing responsibilities to remember the suffering. “As time passes, our duty strengthens to guard the memory of the victims and oppose the growing pressure of forgetting,” Mester said. “At the same time, it is an important task to help and care for the survivors.”
Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, Israel’s ambassador to Hungary, mentioned Hungarian Jews who chose to stay in Hungary instead of immigrating to Israel or elsewhere after the Holocaust. "(They) had to face, for decades, the constant hardship of communism following the war. But against all odds, they managed to plant the seeds of Jewish identity for the next generations, who by now make Jewish life in Hungary and elsewhere flourishing once again,” Hadas-Handelsman said.
“This does not mean that the dangers and the threats that Jews were facing before completely disappeared. As the Hungarian proverb says, ‘Evil never sleeps,’" the ambassador added. “Today, 75 years after the Holocaust, worldwide anti-Semitism is unfortunately on the rise again.”
Vince Szalay-Bobrovniczky, deputy state secretary for civil society relations, said despite the Holocaust, Budapest now has a “considerable community" of Jews. “Facing up to its past, Hungary is united in the interests of preventing any people belonging to a national, ethnic, racial or religious minority from suffering grievances,” he said.