Hungarian, Israeli Officials in Talks Over Controversial Holocaust Museum Set to Open in Budapest

Hungary’s Jewish community fears the museum will be used as political tool to distort the country’s historic role in Holocaust

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, July 19, 2018.
Debbie Hill,AP

Israel and Hungary are holding talks on the content of a controversial Holocaust museum, the House of Fates, scheduled to open in Budapest next year.

The opening of the museum, which was initiated and funded by the Hungarian government, is to mark the 75th anniversary of the Nazis’ deportations of Hungarian Jewry with the cooperation of the Hungarian authorities, which led to the murders of half a million people.

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Representatives of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban are scheduled to meet Thursday with senior Israeli officials from the national security staff in the Prime Minister’s Office, rather than with the Foreign Ministry officials responsible for the issue. The arrival of the Hungarian delegation was first reported by Channel 10 News.

The museum is causing conflicts within the Hungarian Jewish community, which fears that it will serve as a political tool to distort Hungary’s true historic role in the Holocaust. While the funding for the museum is coming from the government, the museum’s owner is the United Hungarian Jewish Congregation, known as EMIH, a small group headed by Chabad Rabbi Shlomo Koves.

One of the museum’s biggest critics is the president of the large and long-established Hungarian Jewish Federation, Andras Heisler, who is in Israel this week for unrelated reasons. He and his colleagues fear that the museum might gloss over or minimize Hungary’s involvement in the Holocaust, distort history and be exploited by the right-wing nationalist Hungarian government. Israel’s Foreign Ministry, which has been excluded from the talks, has a similar concern.

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The Prime Minister’s Office said, “The Hungarians want to create a consensus regarding the museum’s narrative as a condition for its opening. […] Israel and other bodies involved in the issue are awaiting the Hungarians’ updated approach in an effort to achieve the desired consensus.”

Supporters of the Hungarian government note that Orban has recognized his country’s role in the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust and does not whitewash the issue. Last year, at the end of his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Budapest, Orban said he recognized his country’s crimes against Jews during the Holocaust and stressed that his government would protect Hungary’s Jewish community and fight anti-Semitism.

“We have a difficult history behind us. Previous Hungarian governments committed errors and even sins when they did not defend their Jewish citizens [...] The Hungarian government did not take this position during World War II and instead of defending the Jewish citizens it cooperated with the Nazis, and this was a sin,” Orban said.

But the concerns of those who oppose the museum intensified after the controversial joint statement on the Holocaust signed by Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, last summer. That was an effort by the two to end a diplomatic crisis surrounding the Polish Holocaust law, which threatened to imprison anyone who accused the Polish people of culpability in the Holocaust. But the agreement was heavily criticized by leading historians and by Yad Vashem, which said the agreement adopted the Polish narrative, which minimizes the role of the Poles in Nazi crimes and magnifies their role in saving Jews, to the point of “historical distortions” that “contradict the existing and accepted historical knowledge in this field.”