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Hero or traitor? - statue of a controversial Hungarian Prime Minister unveiled, but not in Budapest.
9.4.2004 - Gyorgyi Jakobi

Count Pal Teleki, was prime minister of Hungary twice - but has never had a statue - until now. And even now it is controversial, because of Teleki's role in the Second World War. His supporters point to the tens of thousands of Polish refugees whose lives he helped save during the war. His detractors say he's the prime minister who submitted anti-Jewish acts to the Hungarian parliament in pre-war Hungary. Teleki committed suicide in 1941 and now a statue has been erected in a rural town. Gyorgi Jakobi has more.

The Teleki Memorial Committee wanted a statue of Pal Teleki in Buda Castle. Sculptor Tibor Rieger's statue was prepared. When plans for its unveiling drew closer, the Budapest Municipality, influenced by a wave of protest, voted down the idea of having a Teleki statue at all. They argued that Teleki, Prime minister of Hungary in 1920-21 and again from 1939 till his suicide in 1941, was responsible for anti-Jewish Acts of parliament that the Hungarian Parliament, as the first in Europe, passed before the war. Historian Tamas Katona offers the background.

"Count Teleki was an excellent geographer, a university professor, very far away from politics, but after losing the First World War, after the dismembering of Hungary, he thought that he had to do something about it. Lots of soldiers came back from the war, who began their university studies before the war and wanted to continue those studies. But the country lost three of its five universities. He wanted to make room for these people, and therefore he prepared a law, which allowed the different confessions and so on, a percentage of places at the university. That hit hard the Jewish community of Hungary, first of all of Budapest."

The infamous "numerus clausus" and other anti-Jewish acts which followed deprived Hungarian Jews of their human and citizen's rights even before the death camps. But Tamas Katona says Pal Teleki was acting under pressure.

"We were already under the shadow of Hitler. We had to obey, not to be occupied by the German forces. When Germany attacked Poland, Germany wanted to go through Hungarian territory, the so-called Trans-Carpathian region. Teleki didn't allow that, so it was a very brave deed. He had to be very careful what to allow and what not to the Germans. He was quite successful until the beginning of 1941. When Germany attacked Yugoslavia, they wanted Hungary not only to take part, but to allow German troops through Hungary. That couldn't be avoided, but we were on friendly terms with the Yugoslav government. He heard from our envoy in Warsaw that it would result in war between Great Britain and Hungary, then he saw no way out and committed suicide."

Balatonboglar where thousands of Polish refugees found shelter in the war volunteered to house a statue, so Pal Teleki has a statue in the Catholic Churchyard there.

"There were only two secondary schools for Poles in Europe, one in Switzerland and one - from 1939-1944 - in Balatonboglar in Hungary. Teleki is very much beloved in Poland. He has a street in Warsaw and the Poles poured a huge amount of money into that statue. Now it is a compromise solution, to erect the statue, which was done in Balatonboglar, where Teleki saved hundreds of thousands of Poles during the first months of the Second World War. Later on we can come back, when there is a wish or a need of having a statue for Prime Minister, Count Pal Teleki. He deserves more than the small memorial tablet, which I put on the Sandor Palace, which was the Prime Minister's office and is now the office of the President of the Republic."



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