BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungarian Jewish groups on Tuesday called for the government to cancel plans to erect a large memorial to the country's March 1944 occupation by Germany.
Critics see the statue as part of efforts by the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban to blur the responsibility of Hungarian officials and security forces in the deportations of Jews during the Holocaust.
Hungary is marking the 70th anniversary of the deportation of over 430,000 Hungarian Jews to Nazi death camps in just a couple of months after the German invasion.
Andras Heiszler, president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, praised some of the government's "attractive and serious" plans for the Holocaust memorial year, including a program to renovate numerous synagogues, but said others, including the 1944 monument, were misguided.
The federation has threatened to stay away from the 2014 Holocaust commemorations because of the planned monument and other criticisms, but Heiszler said there was no ultimatum, just a request for changes.
"If the Holocaust memorial year is unsuccessful, it will be a problem for the Hungarian government, for all of Hungary and for the Jewish community," Heiszler said. "In this regard, we are all in the same boat."
Rabbi Slomo Koves, of the Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch community, said it opposed the 1944 monument but emphasized the need to maintain a dialogue with the government and focus on the 7,764 known Holocaust survivors living in Hungary.
"Many of them will not be with us for the 80th anniversary," Koves said. "It is our moral duty not to forget about them."
The planned memorial includes the figure of Germany' imperial eagle swooping down on the archangel Gabriel, who symbolizes Hungary. It is expected to be set up in March on Freedom Square, a downtown area which also includes a Soviet war memorial, the U.S. Embassy and a statue of Ronald Reagan.
Germany invaded Hungary when Adolf Hitler became suspicious that Hungary was looking to exit the war and reach a peace deal with the Allied forces.
In speeches over the past several years, current and previous government officials have acknowledged Hungarians' role and responsibility in the Holocaust.
In October, Justice Minister Tibor Navracsics Hungarians had learned from the past and knew what had happened during the Holocaust.
"We know we are responsible for the Holocaust and we also know that Hungarian state institutions were responsible for the Holocaust," Navracsics said during a conference in parliament. "Hungarians were the perpetrators and Hungarians were those who suffered. Hungarians did the shooting and Hungarians died."
While SS officer Adolf Eichmann came to Hungary to oversee the deportations, they were carried out mostly by Hungarian gendarmes and police whose efficiency and willingness reportedly surprised the Germans.
The constitution which went into effect in 2012 — was supported only by government party deputies — says that Hungary lost its self-determination after the German invasion and regained it only after the 1990 end of communism. This statement about the loss of autonomy is also seen as an attempt to minimize the role of Hungarians in the Holocaust.
On Tuesday, the government defended the planned memorial, saying its artistic merits had been praised by two distinguished Hungarian sculptors, Miklos Melocco and Gyorgy Benedek, who said the structure was "unique ... of quality, expressive and suggestive, and fitting its surroundings."