Hungary’s Jews divided over Danube search for Holocaust victims
Israeli divers use cameras and sonar to look for remains of Jews killed in Budapest
The head of the Hasidic Unified Hungarian Israelite Congregation (Emih), chief rabbi Slomo Koves, lights candles to commemorate the liberation of the Budapest Jewish ghetto in January 2017. Emih insists that it is “righteous” to try to retrieve Jewish remains from the Danube. Photograph: Szilard Koszticsak/EPA
Hungary’s Jewish community is divided over an operation to find and retrieve the remains of Holocaust victims from the Danube river in Budapest.
Nazi-allied Hungarian leaders sent more than half a million of the country’s Jews to their deaths at Auschwitz and other extermination camps in 1944, while thousands are believed to have been shot and thrown into the Danube in the capital.
After talks between the Hungarian and Israel interior ministers earlier this week, divers from the Israeli volunteer rescue and recovery group Zaka began searching the river for Holocaust-era remains using cameras and sonar equipment.
The team did not find any remains but will return to Budapest to try again next month, according to Slomo Koves, the head of the Hasidic Unified Hungarian Israelite Congregation (Emih), which supports the project.
The Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, known as Mazsihisz, strongly opposes the operation, however, and objects to Emih’s reported plans to send any human remains that are found to Israel for burial.
“Disturbing the rest of the dead is a complex and sensitive issue. It is unnecessary to search for any bones that may be found,” Mazsihisz said in a statement, warning that it would violate Jewish religious law and “the peace and dignity of the Jewish or gentile dead found during the search”.
“Bones have probably been scattered over 75 years and could have been washed as far downstream as the Black Sea,” the group added.
Human remains were found in 2011 during renovation of the Margaret Bridge that crosses the Danube in central Budapest. DNA tests showed that some, but not all, belonged to Jews and they were buried in the city in 2016.
“It was impossible to tie the bones to individual people,” Mazsihisz’s president Andras Heisler told Hungary’s Index news website.
“Historical research shows that the number of people shot into the Danube in 1944 is in the thousands, but many others perished in the river during the siege of Budapest as the end of the war drew closer. Their remains are likely to have been scattered all along the riverbed.”
Mr Heisler and Mr Koves are also at odds over a new Holocaust museum in Budapest, which is government-funded but owned by Emih, and which Mazsihisz fears will try to whitewash the role of Hungary and Hungarians in the Holocaust.
Mazsihisz has criticised Hungary’s nationalist prime minister Viktor Orban for rehabilitating its former leader Miklos Horthy – an ally of Adolf Hitler – and for demonising Jewish philanthropist George Soros and the liberal causes that he supports.
Emih insists that it is “righteous” to try to retrieve Jewish remains from the Danube, and Ilan Berkovich, the project leader in Budapest for Zaka, told Reuters: “I guess [the dispute] has more to do with the internal politics of those groups; we try not to be involved.”
Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the chairman of Zaka, said on the group’s website that it regards “this as a mission of the highest order and value, to do everything we can to finally bring [Holocaust victims] to burial in accordance with Jewish law.”