By Stefan J. Bos, Worthy News Europe Bureau Chief reporting from Budapest
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (Worthy News)-- Nobel Peace Prize winner, author and activist Elie Wiesel has urged Hungary to consider banning Holocaust denials to improve its image abroad and has expressed concern about growing extremist parties in the country and Europe.
Wiesel spoke to Worthy News and its partner agency BosNewsLife in Budapest after ceremonies marking the revival of Jewish culture since the collapse of Communism in 1989, and the 20th anniversary of the Orthodox Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch movement here.
Hungary's 100,000 strong Jewish population is now Eastern Europe's largest Jewish community outside Russia, and young generations are again encouraged by Jewish leaders to be aware of there heritage.
Youngsters have even been seen singing Israel's anthem near the monument 'Shoes on the Danube Promenade' in Budapest. The memorial depicts shoes left behind by Hungarian Jews after they were shot to death and dumped in the river Danube by forces of Hungary's pro-Nazi regime during World War Two.
Yet Wiesel, who survived the Holocaust and now lives in New York, has mixed feelings about returning to Hungary from where he and family members were deported to Nazi death camps. He said he regrets that Hungary has not made Holocaust denial a crime.
Courts and parliamentarians have argued that this could limit freedom of speech, which Hungary has enjoyed for a mere 20 years.
Wiesel told Worthy News however that Hungary should be aware of the influence of "extremist" parties, including Hungary's Movement for a Better Hungary, or Jobbik, which is known for its perceived rhetoric against gypsies, also known as Roma, and Jews.
Jobbik's now banned paramilirary group Magyar Garda, or Hungarian Guard, has been seen marching through Roma villages, wearing uniforms and flags once used by Hungary's pro-Nazi regime.
The 81-year-old Wiesel he finds it shocking that Jobbik received about 15 percent of the vote in recent European Parliamentary elections. "What does it say about Hungarian society?" he wondered. "Wake up Hungary, wake up. Don't you know that those who speak, at one point, [their] words can get dangerous. Their words are words of hatred and therefore [of] violence. And I think they should know who they are and the people should know and not vote for them."
Wiesel condemned Jobbik for establishing a European alliance in Budapest with several European far right parties, including the French Front National politician Jean-Marie Le Pen. "Yes with Jean (-Marie) Le Pen. And Le Pen is the one who denies the Holocaust. So how dare they?"
Jobbik has denied wrongdoing, saying it works for Hungary's interests.
Speaking at a meeting in parliament attended by Wiesel and officials from Hungary and abroad, Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai admitted that his government has failed in tackling extremism.
He said across the political spectrum "Hungarians must unite" in the fight against the far right. He said extremists are misusing the current economic crisis in Hungary "to push an ideology of hatred, just as they did in the 1920s and 1930s," eventually leading to the Holocaust.
In those days Hungary was a close ally of Nazi Germany, and Bajnai said therefore "all constitutional means" must be used to isolate the far right.
Hungary's government has already made clear it is seeking the extradition from Australia of Karoly Zentai, one of the most wanted Nazi suspects. The former officer in Hungary's pro-Nazi military allegedly killed a Jewish teenager during the war for not wearing a yellow star.
Shlomo Koves, the first Orthodox rabbi ordained in Hungary since the Holocaust, said Zentai, who is 88, is not too old for prosecution. "As far as he is still living and as far as he is a person, he has a responsibility. If he passes away, then only goes his responsibility in front of God," he told Worthy News.
The government has also promised Wiesel to get access to archives with names of Hungarian Jews who were send to the Auschwitz camp.
Wiesel said he is hopeful that Hungary will learn from its turbulent past. "I know I am interfering in the domestic affairs of Hungary. But as a former Hungarian who loves whatever I remember in my childhood before the war, I can say that: "Be careful."
Although he is 81, Wiesel intends to continue his human rights work. His Foundation for Humanity lost millions of dollars because of fraud by now jailed American investor Bernard Madoff. Despite that setback, Wiesel said he will not "allow anyone to destroy" his life-long work.