BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungarian Jewish groups urged the government Tuesday 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 Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government to blur the responsibility of Hungarian officials and local 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 shortly after the German invasion.
Andras Heiszler, president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, praised some of the government's "serious" plans for the Holocaust memorial year, including a program to renovate numerous synagogues. But he said other plans, including the 1944 monument, were misguided.
The federation has threatened to stay away from the 2014 Holocaust commemorations because of the planned monument.
"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 still 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 Germany's imperial eagle swooping down on the archangel Gabriel, who symbolizes Hungary. It is expected to be set up in March on Freedom Square, an area in Budapest that also includes a Soviet war memorial, the U.S. Embassy and a statue of Ronald Reagan.
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 it said called the structure unique and expressive.
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. While SS officer Adolf Eichmann came to Hungary to oversee the deportations of Jews, they were carried out mostly by Hungarian gendarmes and police.
In speeches over the past several years, government officials have acknowledged Hungarians' role and responsibility in the Holocaust. In October, Justice Minister Tibor Navracsics said 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 in parliament. "Hungarians were the perpetrators and Hungarians were those who suffered. Hungarians did the shooting and Hungarians died."
The Hungarian constitution that went into effect in 2012 — and was supported only by Orban's ruling party — says Hungary lost its self-determination after the German invasion and regained it only after the 1990 end of communism. This statement is also seen as an attempt to minimize the role of Hungarians in the Holocaust.