Analysis: Wallenberg’s birthday a chance for Hungary to mark its progress

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They opened a Raoul Wallenberg memorial garden in Budapest this month. Adjacent to the city’s splendid synagogue, the garden pays homage to the Swedish diplomat, born 100 years ago, who saved many of Hungary’s Jews from the Holocaust.

The anniversary of Wallenberg’s birth comes at a convenient time for the Hungarian government. In recent years the country’s reputation has been tarnished by a distasteful rise of far-right politics that has prompted questions over just how safe Hungary is for the descendents of the Jews Wallenberg saved.

Peddling a mix of “bold solutions”, fiery nationalism and latent antisemitism, Jobbik has risen to become the parliament’s third largest party. Its uniformed political wing, the Hungarian Guard, which awoke grim memories of the fascist movements of the 1930s and 40s, has been banned, and it remains unlikely that Jobbik will get anywhere near government. But a core of supporters maintains its voice and opinion polls give it about 20 per cent of the vote.

Feeding into a general anxiety have been accusations aimed at the government of foot-dragging over the capture of Laszlo Csatary, wanted for crimes against humanity during the Second World War, incidents of antisemitism and talk of re-assessing – positively – figures linked to Hungary’s wartime fascist movements.

So the Wallenberg centenary is a timely opportunity for Hungary to present another side to the story, often lost in tales of the far right and antisemitism.

The government has brought in hate-speech laws, set up a monitoring system for racist attacks and initiated Holocaust Memorial Day. It has also shifted its semantics, moving away from just blaming fascists for wartime crimes against Jews and towards a broader acknowledgment that Hungary as a whole should shoulder some of the burden of guilt.

But perhaps more significant is that Hungary is home to a thriving Jewish community, despite the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Jews during the war. Budapest’s community alone numbers about 100,000, and it is far from cowed, despite an air of anxiety.

Reflecting the scale of Budapest’s main synagogue, the size of the community dwarfs those of Hungary’s central European neighbours, and means it is not dependent on the international aid that nourishes fragile Jewish communities in countries such as Poland.

Down a side street in Budapest, Rachel Raj provides living testament of this. A rabbi’s daughter with the chic that once steered her towards the world of fashion design, she gave her mother’s traditional cake recipes a makeover, and became the glamorous face of modern Jewish life. Her appearances in magazines and on television have taught her that most Hungarians are far more interested in learning about Jewish culture than in despising it.

Along with kosher butchers, kosher shops and even kosher pizza, Raj’s success is evidence of a society, despite the likes of Jobbik, increasingly at ease with its Jewish self.

• Matthew Day reports on eastern Europe for The Scotsman