Can one apologise for genocide?
If a former Nazi, his relative or friend, wants to express remorse for the slaughter of European Jews in the Second World War, to whom should he turn? The murdered six million cannot listen; living Jews cannot forgive on their behalf.
These thoughts were present at West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg on Sunday morning when Hungarian Ambassador Bela Laszlo, addressing 900 Jews gathered for Yom Hashoah, told of his countrymen turning on their Jewish neighbours at the time.
Then for long after the war, during the Socialist era, Hungary’s policy about the Holocaust – like other countries – was silence and forgetting. Things are different now, however.
“Hungarians killed Hungarians,” he said firmly, staring directly into the crowd. “This is one of our greatest national tragedies which we have to live and cope with… As the official representative of Hungary and the Hungarian government in South Africa, it is my humble duty to offer our apologies.”
There was no perceptible response from the crowd. Just silence. Some were probably thinking: “So what? The atrocity is so gigantic, an apology can never suffice.” While his intentions may have been noble and genuine, in an ironic way it almost trivialises that unspeakable horror.
The day itself was so fraught with emotion, it was impossible to separate his statement from the other proceedings. He followed keynote speaker, Holocaust survivor Eva Schloss, who related first hand her experience at Auschwitz.
Laszlo was either a child or not even born when the atrocities occurred and cannot be held personally accountable. Young Hungarians – and other gentile Europeans – sometimes protest that the Holocaust is history in which they had no part, and should be consigned to the past. There is sometimes anger against Jews for “harping” on the topic, playing the role of martyr and victim ad nauseam.
Laszlo’s apology was the opposite reaction – accepting guilt from one generation to the next. If Jews say not even his apology is adequate, he and others like him might throw up their hands in despair and ask: “What else do you want us to do?” There is the danger that genuine remorse might turn into bitterness when rejected.
There is no clear way out of this conundrum. But Jews should not take cynicism too far. Laszlo did not have to utter those words. He could have spoken general platitudes about the horror of it all and the role of the Nazis – as others have done – instead of personalising it. He should be thanked. It could not have been easy.
The ambassador’s attempt to show remorse on behalf of his country is admirable. But the obvious question is: Do his views reflect today’s Hungarian people on the ground, whose elders perpetrated the foul deeds? Why has the anti-Semitic, fascist party, Jobbik emerged recently, sprouting its venom openly and publicly, without retribution, and with not insignificant support?
Genocide is genocide, equally horrendous whoever it happens to. A wrenching example was evident at the separate Yom Hashoah event at the Women’s Jail at Constitution Hill on Sunday afternoon.
It had special emphasis on women singing – a protest against the forbidding of this at the main West Park ceremony on religious grounds. On the same programme as other women singers, four Rwandan women survivors of the 1994 genocide in their country – one was eight when her entire family was murdered – sang a Rwandan song. One of them was so overcome with emotion, she began to weep and could not continue.
As in Hungary, neighbours turned on neighbours in Rwanda. The Hutus slaughtered 800 000 Tutsis in some 100 days, many of them friends, colleagues, and intermarried.
We must never think it couldn’t happen in another society. Education about genocide – the Holocaust, Rwanda, Armenia and others – is critical.
In honour of their own murdered kin, Jews need to help see to it that it never happens again – to any people. No country’s ambassador should ever again need to offer apologies for his people committing such a thing.