Hungary honours klezmer luminary Frank London

New York-based klezmer musician Frank London has been honoured by Hungary. (Alan Roche)

New York-based klezmer musician Frank London has been honoured by Hungary. (Alan Roche)

(JTA) – Hungary’s government awarded a state honour to Frank London, a prominent American-Jewish musician and a founder of The Klezmatics klezmer band.

London, a composer and trumpeter whose band in 2007 won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music for the album “Mermaid Avenue,” the Klezmatics’ settings of lyrics by Woody Guthrie, received the Order of Merit award last week at a reception from Reka Szemerkenyi, the Hungarian ambassador to Washington, the news agency MTI reported. His decoration is of the Knight of Cross, the lowest of six civilian classes making up the order.

A regular guest at Hungarian music festivals since the 1980s who is intimately familiar with Hungary’s music scene, London, who is in his late 50s, won the honour partly for his leading role in the Glass House Project, involving five American and three Hungarian musicians, which was launched as part of the Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Year in 2014.

“I was greatly inspired by Hungarian music and very impressed by the rich cultural life of Budapest, the unique musical traditions of rural Hungary and generally the complexity of Hungarian music,” London was quoted by MTI as saying.

In recent years, Hungary has come under international criticism, including by U.S. politicians, over issues connected to its commemoration of the Holocaust, and honouring of politicians perceived as responsible for fomenting racial hatred that facilitated the genocide.

Hungarian Jews began speaking out critically against the right-wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban in 2014, when a statue seen as minimizing Hungarian complicity during the Holocaust was unveiled in Budapest’s Freedom Square. The monument, which depicted an angel (understood to represent Hungary) attacked by an eagle (understood to represent Germany), was vigorously opposed by the Hungarian Jewish umbrella group Mazsihisz, which briefly suspended its ties with the government after its unveiling.

Earlier this year, a plan by leaders of Orban’s party, Fidesz, to erect in Budapest a statue honoring Gyorgy Donath, a politician who pushed through anti-Jewish legislation in the 1930s, galvanized opposition by Jews and Christians, which eventually led to the plan being put on hold.

Last year Orban scrapped a plan to erect a statue of Balint Homan, another Holocaust-era politician who prompted anti-Semitic laws, amid a previous wave of protests.

Donath and Homan died at the hands of communists and have been embraced by the far right as nationalist symbols of communist oppression. But critics of the government believe the effort to portray them as freedom fighters is merely a thin veil intended to obscure their virulent anti-Semitism.

Many activists say they would have preferred the government do nothing rather than offend the memories of Holocaust survivors with some of its recent activities, such as appointing historian Maria Schmidt to head a $22 million Holocaust museum now under construction.

Schmidt has said Nazism was no worse than Soviet communism, prompting both Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial museum, and Mazsihisz to decline to cooperate with her museum.

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