Hungary’s largest Jewish group has called to halt an Israeli-led effort to uncover the remains of Holocaust victims who were shot and thrown into the Danube river in Budapest during World War II.
A sonar scan of the bottom of the Danube on Tuesday revealed no human remains, but the team operating the sonar reportedly intend to return next month for another scan.
On Monday, Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri announced that his Hungarian counterpart had agreed to allow the Zaka emergency service and victim identification organization to scour the river for such remains.
Zaka said its actions came at the request of local Orthodox and Hasidic groups.
But the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, or Mazsihisz, said in a statement Thursday that it was better to leave the dead in peace.
It noted that the prospects of locating bones scattered throughout one of Europe’s longest rivers after more than 75 years were slim, and that then identifying those bones and linking them to specific individuals was “impossible.”
“Disturbing the rest of the dead is a complex and sensitive issue. It is superfluous to search for any bones that may be found,” the organization said, adding that it would “violate the peace and dignity of the Jewish or gentile dead found during the search” and “violate halacha” — Jewish religious law.
“Our community has been disconcerted by the news of the search, especially the [planned] transportation of any traces found to Israel,” Mazsihisz said, as this “ignores relevant halachic considerations and diminishes the Jewish diaspora in Hungary.”
Zaka’s project leader, Ilan Berkovich, told Reuters in response that there was no plan to halt the search unless Orthodox and Hasidic leaders asked.
“I guess (it) has more to do with the internal politics of those groups; we try not to be involved,” he said.
The Hasidic Unified Hungarian Israelite Congregation has deemed the search “righteous,” saying there is a moral obligation to rebury a body found in a flooded grave.
Thousands of Jews were murdered on the banks of the Danube by members of the Hungarian Nazi-allied Arrow Cross Party in 1944. The victims were among the roughly 600,000 Hungarian Jews wiped out during the Holocaust.
In 2011, human remains were discovered during construction work on the Margaret Bridge overlooking the Danube.
Forensic examinations of the fragments indicated they belonged to more than 20 different people, including women and children, who had probably died during the war.
But as investigations into the victims’ identity and causes of death proved inconclusive, authorities soon closed the case and removed the bones to storage, where they remained until an anthropology student ran DNA tests on them in August 2015.
The results revealed that at least nine of 15 samples from the bones were almost certainly Ashkenazi Jews from Europe, while the other six could also be of that ethnicity.
With mounting evidence that the bones were probably those of Jewish victims of the Arrow Cross, Jewish religious leaders called for their immediate interment in a Jewish cemetery.
Authorities initially preferred a non-denominational burial, given the possibility — albeit smaller — that the bones may have belonged to non-Jews killed when Nazi German explosives destroyed part of Margaret Bridge in November 1944.
Eventually, the sides agreed that the remains would be buried at a Jewish cemetery in Budapest.
The affair added fuel to a growing debate over the degree of Hungary’s collaboration with the Nazis.
Jewish groups have sometimes accused Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing government, in power since 2010, of downplaying Hungary’s role in the Holocaust.
Approximately half a million people killed in Auschwitz, or every third victim, were Hungarian Jews.
AFP and JTA contributed to this report.