An unsettling scene in central Budapest provided valuable insight for a group of British teachers.
On Monday evening, I stood in Budapest's Freedom Square with 25 British teachers -- participants in the Holocaust Educational Trust's four-day Teacher Study Visit. There we witnessed a scene none of us are likely to forget: a cordon of police officers armed with guns and video cameras, keeping a watchful eye on a group participating in a peaceful vigil.
What the police were ostensibly there to protect was a half-built monument. Intended as a memorial to Hungary's occupation by the Nazis starting in March 1944, the sculpture will depict Hungary as an angel being attacked by a German eagle; Hungary's collaborationist wartime government is to be reduced to nothing more than an innocent victim of Nazism. The construction of the monument is one component of the Hungarian government's Holocaust commemorative year, which is currently underway, despite a boycott from the country's own Jewish community.
Monuments are often ideologically questionable, of course, but as these teachers had a chance to learn, there is an even more troubling context to this one. The preamble to Hungary's constitution which came into effect in 2012 effectively enshrines this type of Holocaust revisionism into law by stating that the country lost its self-determination on 19th March 1944 -- the date of the Nazi occupation – in effect, relieving the Hungarian state of responsibility for its actions including ghettoisation and deportation of the country's Jews and mass shootings on the banks of the Danube.
At the Holocaust Educational Trust we often speak about the “contemporary relevance of the Holocaust”, but what does this phrase mean? To some it means preventing genocide; to some it means preventing bullying.
It wasn't our intention when organising this continuing professional development course, but I suspect that the participants came away from the experience with a far more tangible definition of “contemporary relevance”. Standing there in Freedom Square, it was all too evident that we needn't stretch to explain to students why the Holocaust remains relevant. Simply put, the Holocaust is still part of the society in which we live. Perpetrators remain at large, never having been brought to justice. Property and assets remain withheld from their rightful owners. Historical archives remain unopened. Antisemitic political parties still persist.
And, as we saw for ourselves, in many parts of Europe, memory remains contested. Hotly contested.
However, on the positive side, 25 teachers can now bring this experience with them back to their classrooms, and I am certain that their students are in store for a lesson they too won't soon forget.
Alex Maws is Head of Education at the Holocaust Educational Trust.