In an effort to draw attention to what is considered an alarming rise in anti-Semitism in Hungary, a train carrying Holocaust survivors was scheduled to travel from Budapest to the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.
The rail journey is part of the annual International March of the Living experience that coincides with Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day beginning on Sunday night. The 2014 events were to focus on the destruction of the Hungarian community that lost three-quarters of its number during the Holocaust.
Hundreds of Jews, including Holocaust survivors, youth leaders, the heads of Hungary’s Jewish community and Israeli Ambassador to Hungary Ilan Mor all planned to be on the train during its more than 500-kilometer journey, Ynet reported.
Israeli President Shimon Peres prepared a video message that was to be broadcast during a ceremony at the Budapest main station before the train departed.
“The pain of the Holocaust, that, to our regret, also happened in Hungary, is an unforgettable pain that we must not forget,” Peres said. “We need to use the memory of the Holocaust as a lesson to the young generation to never allow hatred, racism, and anti-Semitism to be a part of the world.”
A rise in Hungarian anti-Semitism in recent years prompted March of the Living organizers to add the train journey for the first time to memorialize the Hungarian Jewish community.
An estimated 800,000 Jews were living in Hungary at the beginning of 1944. In April of that year the Nazis, with the assistance of Hungarian collaborators, began deporting the Jewish population to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. By the time the war ended in 1945, fewer than 200,000 were still alive.
“Hungary has known good times in its relations with the State of Israel,” Peres said. “But the Holocaust has left a black stain on those relations to this day.”
According to the March of the Living website, Hungary is “a country plagued by anti-Semitism,” with polls showing it to be one of the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe.
Local Jewish communities have accused the government of failing to admit the country’s role in the mass deportation of Jews during Holocaust, leading some groups to boycott local memorial ceremonies.
The far-right Jobbik party, whose members have been accused of Holocaust-denial, has been an increasingly powerful force in Hungarian politics, finishing third in elections earlier this month.
The stated aim of the March of the Living is to impart the lessons of the Holocaust and celebrate the history of Jewish survival. The journey starts in Poland and continues in Israel, where participants honor Israel’s fallen soldiers on Yom Hazikaron — Remembrance Day — and celebrate Israel’s Independence on Yom Ha’atzma’ut.
The annual program brings tens of thousands of high school students from around the world for a week of intensive education and touring in Poland and Israel, to study the history of the Holocaust and examine the roots of prejudice, intolerance and hate. To date, over 180,000 students have participated.