70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

The praise of forgetting

Yehuda Elkana (1934 Szabadka – 2012 Jerusalem)

By Krisztina Politzer Maymon - 2018-04-16

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

Professor Yehuda Elkana, a prominent historian and philosopher of science, a public figure and a survivor of Auschwitz, was deeply committed to the idea of ​​an open society. He was born under the name László Frölich in Szabadka [Subotica]; survived Auschwitz's hell as a still young child, and then was raised by his Hungarian-born parents in Israel. Here he studied and became an internationally renowned scholar. He was the third president-rector of the Central European University (CEU), who led the institution between 1999 and 2009. During this ten-year period, the physical size and format, as well as the intellectual range of the institution have increased. Under his leadership, a number of departments, an interdisciplinary program and a research center were established at the university (the Departments of Mathematics, Sociology and Social Anthropology, Computer Science, Cognitive Science, Public Policy and The Center for European Enlargement Studies).


At the time of his death, Lajos Bokros wrote the following about him in the Élet és Irodalom [Life and Literature] Volume 56, No. 39, September 28, 2012:


"It is very difficult to survive," he said in a resigned voice at our last personal encounter in early June at the terrace of the elegant, but cripplingly unfriendly Viennese restaurant. He knew that there was no hope to recover from the fatal illness destroying him, based on today’s science, so familiar to him.


This was not the first time he was facing the threat of destruction. In 1944, the little boy, barely ten years old, found himself on a train to Auschwitz and surely, he did not understand - how could he -, why and where he was traveling.


Yehuda Elkana was born to Hungarian Jewish parents in Szabadka which at that time belonged to Yugoslavia. The city was returned to Hungary in 1941.


The overwhelming majority of Hungarian-speaking Jews still felt that justice had been served. Between the two World Wars, many wanted to return to the Hungarian homeland which gave equality to their predecessors, the possibility of free self-realization and of progress.


However, in 1944, their official home had ultimately betrayed its Jewish, defenseless and vulnerable nationals. This is our disgrace, an indelible shame. But strategically, too, it was a huge mistake: after the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of survivors turned away from Hungary. And this is a cause for eternal sadness, an immeasurable loss. Hungarian tragedy, Hungarian pain.

In 1948, the family of Laci, still a child, took him to Israel and settled in a kibbutz. The boy did not mind working in the fields, but his health was compromised. His mind was sharp, his talent exceptional, he was heading for school.


The Herzliya Secondary School in Tel Aviv was one of the most prestigious schools of the young state, from where the road has led straight to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He was granted a Master's Degree in Mathematics and Physics, and in 1968 he received a Ph.D. from the Brandeis University of America in History and Philosophy. Yehuda Elkana immediately got a job at the Hebrew University and became a member of the Van Leer Institute of Philosophy, Education and Culture, founded in 1959, in Jerusalem.


The young man's scientific and teaching career took off like a comet. The stations of his teaching and research work included among others the American Harvard and Stanford universities, the All Souls College in Oxford, England, and the prestigious Swiss Federal Technical College (ETH) in Zurich. From there Yehuda Elkana arrived in Hungary in 1999 where he was elected rector of the Central European University, founded by György Soros in 1991.


They could not have found a more suitable person for the top academic and educational post of the new American University in Budapest, than Yehuda, who spoke perfect English, German, French, Hebrew, Serbian, and Hungarian.  A scientist in the possession of a world-wide cultural and rich teaching experience has been a perfect fit with the intellectual and organizational framework of the young institution offering studies in social sciences and some humanities. Under his 10-year-long leadership, the Central European University has achieved a high European level, globally-rated ... "


On the Holocaust Memorial Day In 1988, his article The Right to Forget appeared in one of Israel's oldest daily newspapers, the Haaretz, which has generated tremendous echo and ongoing social debate on the memory of the Holocaust. In this article, Elkana explained that the traumas of the Holocaust, the magical and obsessive pursuit of its memory in Israel, and the fact that the Holocaust memories were exploited as a legal basis for the legitimacy and for any action of the State - had a fatal and tragic impact on the future of society and of democracy in Israel. (The full article was published in Hungarian under the title Felejteni kell [One must forget] in the Szombat journal, which we quote here).


"Recently, I have been increasingly convinced that the deepest political and social factor affecting Israeli society in relation to the Palestinians is not personal disillusionment, but rather an existential fear brought about by a strange interpretation of the lessons of the Holocaust, namely that the whole world is against us, that we are the eternal victims. In this ancient belief, which so many people share today, I see Hitler's tragic and paradoxical victory. Metaphorically speaking, two nations have risen from Auschwitz's ashes: a minority that says it can never happen again, and a frightened, alarmed majority, according to which it can never happen to us again. It is obvious that as long as these two lessons are the only ones available, I insist on the first, while I deem the second one as catastrophic. In fact, I do not, however, oblige myself to siding with either one; I just wish to point out that the philosophy of life that is rooted largely or exclusively in the Holocaust has fatal consequences […]


I do not consider anything more dangerous to the future of the State of Israel than systematically rendering the Holocaust as part of the Israeli public conscience, even though the majority of the population and the generation that was born and raised here did not experience the Holocaust personally. I have just now understood the seriousness of the fact that for decades all Israeli children have been sent to Yad Vashem again and again. Just what has our purpose been with this?  Just what were we thinking about how these young people would be processing this experience? We had been shouting unceasingly, insensitively and roughly, without any explanation: ‘Zechor! Remember!’ Why? Images depicting horrors can easily be interpreted as encouraging hatred. ‘Zechor!’ can also be understood as a call for continuous and blind hatred.


It may well be that the world, in general, must remember. I'm not sure about that, but in any case, it should not be our headache. Every nation, including the Germans, decides by itself whether they want to remember or not, based on their own views. But as far as we are concerned, we have to learn to forget about it. The most important political and educational task for the leaders of this nation is now to finally side with the living, to strive to build our future instead of dwelling on the symbols, ceremonies and lessons of the holocaust day in, day out. The ‘Remember!’ call ruling our lives should be irrevocably retired.”


I have watched a documentary about Elkana’s teaching of the Holocaust with my daughter's high school class in preparation for a trip, typical in Israel for this age group, to Poland to visit the death camps and the locations of the Jewish past. Here Elkana again emphasizes that for him, who had arrived in the death camp with the transport of Hungarian Jews July 1944 and survived only in the absence of sufficient "time and capacity" - the Holocaust's lesson is to never do onto others that which had been done to us. And from this follows a total rejection of hatred and fanaticism, even against those whose views we do not agree with.


Elkana was proud of his elitist views, not only in politics but also in pedagogy. He deeply believed in the role of education and also that the primary task of higher education is to train a leading intellectual elite educated at the highest possible level. To those who criticized him that these views did not agree with the principle of equality and equal opportunities he replied: "True and desirable egalitarianism is a creed that is rooted in a person’s respect for other persons, and that every person excels in something, so all persons should be able to achieve the highest possible results in the area of their talents."


His work, his views, his moral value system – even if currently they do not count as the dominant view embraced by the majority in Israel - are enlightening and valuable for everyone whose heart is set on a healthy and just - not just Israeli – society; and that is why Yehuda Elkana has been included in our list of celebrated Israelis with Hungarian roots ...

Photo: Dan Pelleg / Wikipedia

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