BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Holocaust survivor and historian Randolph L. Braham said Sunday he is returning a high state award to Hungary to protest what he says are government efforts to rewrite history and exonerate the country from its role in the Holocaust.
Braham also asked the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest to remove his name from the BrahamTheque Information Center, which collects his research results and publications.
His two-volume "The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary," from 1981, is considered one of the most important books about the subject. He received the Medium Cross of the Order of Merit of the Hungarian Republic in 2011.
Braham, Professor Emeritus at the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said in an open letter addressed to executives of the memorial center that the "straw that broke the camel's back" leading to his decision was the government plan to erect a memorial commemorating the March 1944 invasion of Hungary by the Nazis.
Braham said the memorial was "a cowardly attempt to detract attention from the Horthy regime's involvement in the destruction of the Jews and to homogenize the Holocaust with the 'suffering' of the Hungarians — a German occupation, as the record clearly shows, was not only unopposed but generally applauded."
Miklos Horthy was Hungary's autocratic leader from the 1920s through most of World War II.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government has also been criticized by Jewish groups for tolerating statues of Horthy being set up by far-right groups in several places.
The government said the memorial of the invasion wasn't part of the yearlong series of events marking the 70th anniversary of the deportation of over 430,000 Hungarian Jews to Nazi death camps shortly after the German incursion.
Sculptor Peter Parkanyi Raab's memorial will be around 7.5 meters (24.6 feet) tall and includes Germany's imperial eagle swooping down on the archangel Gabriel, who symbolizes Hungary. It is expected to be unveiled March 19 on Freedom Square, an area in Budapest that also includes a Soviet war memorial, the U.S. Embassy and a statue of Ronald Reagan.
Responding to the Jewish community leaders, Orban said the statue was "dedicated to the victims of the German occupation."
"I am sure that a show of respect for the memory of the victims requires no further explanation," Orban said in a statement Wednesday.
But Braham said he was "stunned" by the "history-cleansing campaign of the past few years calculated to whitewash the historical record of the Horthy era."
Braham, who was born in Bucharest, Romania, in 1922, grew up in the heavily Hungarian city of Dej in Transylvania. Hungary lost Transylvania to Romania after World War I but, with Hitler's support, temporarily recovered some of the territory in 1940. During World War II, Braham served in a forced labor unit for Hungarian Jews and was later a prisoner of war of the Soviets.
Paul Shapiro, director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, said Braham's decision "should not be underestimated."
"Braham is the world's most important and most authoritative scholar of the Holocaust in Hungary," Shapiro told The Associated Press in an email. "In this protest ... it is important to recognize the impeccable authority with which Braham speaks and to hear, at the same time, the voice of a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who is defending the dignity and memory of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews who were delivered to their deaths by Hungarian authorities during World War II and cannot speak for themselves."
Hungary was on Germany's side during the war, but Adolf Hitler became suspicious that Hungary was looking to exit the conflict and reach a peace deal with the Allied forces. After the invasion, SS officer Adolf Eichmann came to Hungary to oversee the deportations of Jews, which were carried out mostly by Hungarian gendarmes and police.
The memorial has also been strongly criticized by historians, the leaders of Hungary's Jewish community and the left-wing opposition parties. The German Embassy in Budapest lamented that the decision about the memorial was made very quickly and without a broad debate.
In 2011, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel also returned a state award to Hungary on similar grounds. Wiesel was born and raised in Transylvania and his parents and sister were sent to their deaths by wartime Hungarian officials.
Besides protesting the participation of top Hungarian officials at a ceremony honoring a famous writer who was also a Nazi sympathizer, Wiesel said at the time that he was rejecting the award also because "Horthy, who sent 500,000 Jews to Auschwitz in 1944, is becoming a heroic figure again in his country."