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Europe’s Muddle of Memory, Responsibility

From Hungary to Warsaw to Germany

Adam Chandler
July 23, 2012

Among many, there were three stories from Europe this weekend that present a fascinating thread through the way different European countries view their own World War II history. There’s plenty of fodder for commentary, but I think these stories all stand alone, together well.


It was revealed that officials in Hungary sat on intelligence about Lásló Csatáry, the Wiesenthal Center’s most-wanted Nazi war criminal, for over a year. The eventual cause for action? After growing impatience, the Wiesenthal Center who had tracked Csatáry, leaked his whereabouts to a British tabloid, which then reported the story. Csatáry is accused of helping to facilitate the deportation of 15,000 Jewish Hungarian to Auschwitz, famously using a whip to drive them onto trains.

After appearing for questioning where he maintained his innocence and claimed to have only carried out “his duty,” Csatáry is now under house arrest. According to Spiegel, prospects seem grim for successful prosecution in Hungarian courts:

Even liberal historian Krysztián Ungváry concedes that the evidence in the case “is very weak.” Although one can assume with “relative certainty” that Csatáry knew that he was sending the Jews to death, he said, it is anything but certain that the public prosecutor can prove that without a doubt. Barring that evidence, a court might acquit him, as happened two years ago with suspected war criminal Sándor Képiró.

Képiró is suspected of having acted as a henchman of the SS and of participating in the shooting of Jews at Novi Sad, a Serbian city in the former Yugoslavia that had been annexed by Hungary. Képiró was tried but acquitted on related charges in a Budapest court. He died in 2011 before a new case could be brought against him. Képiró had also lived undisturbed in Budapest.

The fact that the suspected war criminal was able to feel as secure as he did in Hungary, also fits in with the Hungarians’ view of history, Ungváry believes. In any case, there has so far been no public outrage in the capital that Csatáry could live so long in Budapest without fear of prosecution.


Meanwhile, in Poland, the deportation of 250,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka was formally marked by the government for the first time. Events that took place on the 70th anniversary of the clearing of the Warsaw Ghetto and the activation of the death camp Treblinka included a mass processional dedicated to Jewish children killed by the Nazis and the opening of an exhibit featuring the Warsaw Ghetto sketches of the Jewish artist Rozenfeld (whose first name is not known).

There was also a memorial event for Adam Czerniaków, the head of Jewish council in the Warsaw Ghetto, who famously committed suicide 70 years ago today, following the revelation of the scope of the massive exterminations. Despite the efforts, a number of Jewish organizations in Poland maintain that the government has not done enough to maintain the roads to Treblinka for schools and groups to visit and learn about the site.


Finally, in Germany, Evgeny Nikitin, a Russian singer, had to cancel his appearance at the Beyreuth Festival after it was revealed that he had a highly visible tattoo of a swastika. Nikitin was set to perform as a bass-baritone in “The Flying Dutchman” explained that he got the tattoo as a teenager in a heavy metal band and claims to have since covered it.

“I had the tattoos made when I was young. It was a big mistake in my life and I wish I had never done it,” Nikitin said in a statement released by the festival.

Of course, what adds texture to this story is the backdrop — the Beyreuth Festival is one of the best-known opera festivals in the world and features music from the German composer Richard Wagner, famously associated with anti-Semitism.

“That is a problem in Bayreuth,” the festival spokesman said. “Bayreuth has a bad history with the Nazis. It’s clear that Bayreuth has to be careful about this terrible part of history and has to take a position against it.”

Cstarary arrest an embarrassment for Hungarian justice system [Spiegel]

For the first time, Poland marks the deportation of Jews from Warsaw Ghetto [Haaretz]

Singer with Nazi tattoo cancels Germany appearance [CNN]

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.

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