Budapest Holocaust Museum: Orban’s Grand Gesture or a Whitewashing of Hungarian History?

Even before it opens, the museum is splitting the Jewish community, riling historians and keeping diplomats busy, despite the fact that Orban’s government recognizes ‘the responsibility of the Hungarian state’ in the Shoah

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
The new Holocaust museum called the House of Fates is pictured in Budapest, Hungary, October 15, 2018.
The new Holocaust museum called the House of Fates is pictured in Budapest, Hungary, October 15, 2018.Credit: \ BERNADETT SZABO/ REUTERS
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Prof. Yehuda Bauer, the world-renowned Israeli Holocaust researcher, is upset again. Just months after lambasting the Israeli government for “surrendering” to Poland’s narrative of the Holocaust, he’s targeting another East European country’s addressing of its past. It’s Hungary, where a heated debate is underway over the new Holocaust museum, the House of Fates.

“We’re demanding recognition from the Hungarians about the fact that the entire country, not just ‘some Hungarians,’ cooperated with the Germans,” Bauer told Haaretz on Thursday, speaking as honorary chairman of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

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The impressive structure in Budapest’s Eighth District, an area that went from crime-ridden neighborhood to entertainment hub – is hard to miss. The huge Star of David at the front of the building stands out as if it were suspended in the air. The light shining from it is meant to illuminate the entire night, at least according to the designer. The Hungarian government didn’t scrimp on this initiative – the building cost $18 million.

The building was dedicated in 2015 but it’s still empty, awaiting artifacts that the government is due to provide. The museum’s opening has now been indefinitely delayed over the failure to agree on how it will present the most sensitive part of the story – Hungary’s involvement in the Nazis’ crimes.

The battle quickly turned from a debate between historians into a fight between politicians. It managed to split the local Jewish community too – and then seeped abroad.

A Star of David is seen at the new Holocaust museum called the House of Fates in Budapest, Hungary, October 15, 2018Credit: \ BERNADETT SZABO/ REUTERS

Not one tourist has visited the building, which was supposed to join a long list of other Holocaust museums in other capitals around the world. In Hungary, as elsewhere, the museum has become a symbol of the battle over the remembrance of the past.

On Rosh Hashanah this year, the Hungarian Jewish community, which opposes the opening of the museum, was taken by surprise when Viktor Orban’s government transferred management of the museum to a young local rabbi, Shlomo Koves. The rabbi is affiliated with Chabad, the international Hasidic outreach movement. The intention is that the museum will open in 2019, marking the 75th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary.

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Koves, who was born in Budapest in 1979, is the grandson of a Holocaust survivor and has a doctorate in Jewish-Hungarian history. He told Haaretz that under no circumstances would he help in “distorting history,” adding that he sought to improve the thinking of a generation of Hungarians on Holocaust remembrance, as well as their attitude toward Jews and Israel.

He’s now busy with the museum’s exhibits, helping historians and experts, both local and international, he says. He talks about the understandings with the Hungarian government; the museum “needs to fully reflect the historical facts and preserve the memory of the Holocaust.” He says the museum’s exhibits will be free of political influence and express “the true story of the Holocaust in Hungary.”

Members of the Jewish community have said Chabad doesn’t have the experience to run such a museum and that Koves’ appointment was designed to provide a fig leaf for the glorification of Orban.

Andras Heisler, the president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, who was in Israel on Thursday, said Chabad came to Hungary only 15 to 20 years ago, has no roots in the country and has focused on religion, not the Holocaust. He says his own organization has the expertise, archives and international contacts to address the subject, so Chabad isn’t needed.

The concerns expressed by Heisler, who was born in Budapest in 1955 to a family that has been in the country for centuries, are shared by Bauer. “To obtain a Jewish stamp of approval, the Hungarian government has recruited a rabbi no one had heard of and who hasn’t been dealing with these subjects at all,” Bauer said.

The view from Yad Vashem

Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center and other highly regarded international organizations oppose the project. In 2014, Yad Vashem officials resigned from the international forum that the Hungarian government convened to consult on the project. Yad Vashem mentioned “fundamental criticism regarding its concept and content.”

Critics of the House of Fates also object to the involvement of the Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History and Society, which is headed by Maria Schmidt, derided by her opponents as Orban’s “court historian.”

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“Schmidt claims that the moment the Germans entered Hungary, the Hungarians had no way to oppose them,” said Bauer, who called the claim baseless because, he said, it was the Hungarian government and not the Germans that halted the deportation of the country’s Jews when it wished to. “It did it on July 7, 1944. If it had wished, it could have done it on March 19,” the date that year when Germany occupied Hungary. The deportations were largely to Auschwitz.

Schmidt manages, for example, the House of Terror, which draws parallels between the Nazis’ crimes and those committed by the communists. It’s a familiar narrative in post-communist Eastern Europe and has drawn criticism from some Holocaust researchers.

Andras Heisler, the president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities.Credit: Moti Millrod

Schmidt also owns the pro-government economics magazine Figyelo. Earlier this month the magazine’s front cover showed Heisler surrounded by floating banknotes; the article alleged that Heisler has been involved in financial irregularities.

The cover was widely criticized as anti-Semitic. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent his diplomatic adviser, Reuven Azar, to ask the Hungarian government to denounce the anti-Semitism in “domestic controversies in Hungary.”

Speaking to Haaretz on Thursday, Heisler called the cover anti-Semitic and frightening, adding that he had hitherto only seen such depictions in books on the 1930s. He also completely denied the allegations against him in the article.

Heisler said that even though the magazine had close ties to Orban, he hoped the negative reaction the article prompted around the world would prevent this type of material from being published again. But later Thursday Orban refused to condemn the magazine.

The front page of Hungarian magazine 'Figyelo' with a portrait of Andras Heisler, head of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities.Credit: AFP

Another Hungarian-born Jewish notable who has faced a campaign tainted by anti-Semitism is George Soros, the billionaire Holocaust survivor who has become Orban’s nemesis because of Soros’ support for left-wing groups and his criticism of the government’s harsh immigration policy.

As Heisler put it, Netanyahu “doesn’t like him either. We, as a community, don’t judge whether he’s a good person or bad, but we cannot accept words of hatred against any person – gays, immigrants, Roma, Muslims or Soros.”

Thus Heisler wrote an open letter to Orban condemning the government campaign against Soros, which peaked last year with posters using anti-Semitic motifs.

The Hungarian government is trying to calm the fears that the museum will distort history.

"We would like to commemorate the national tragedy of the Holocaust in a dignified manner, acknowledge the responsibility of the Hungarian State, and bow our heads before the victims who became victims of the Holocaust also on account of the fact that the Hungarian State was unable to protect them and took part in their transportation from Hungary to concentration camps," the Hungarian government said in a statement to Haaretz.

But despite all the good intentions, it’s clear that phrases such as “was unable to protect them” will reignite the dispute over Hungary’s involvement in the Holocaust.

For now, efforts are underway in Hungary to reach as broad a consensus as possible to open the museum. On Thursday, Hungarian officials met with representatives of Yad Vashem. No details were released, no new plan was presented, and Yad Vashem’s objection to opening the museum hasn’t changed.

Excluded from the discussion is the Foreign Ministry, which also opposes the launching of the museum.

Not everyone is optimistic about these talks. “The Foreign Ministry has very good people who know the story, and I assume they’re not excited about the contacts between the two countries,” Bauer said.

He says some officials aren’t doing enough. “The Israeli government has ministers who find the matter uncomfortable, but they won’t make a scandal out of it because all it is is the Holocaust,” Bauer said. “Who cares about that?”

The view from Poland

This is very similar to what happened with the Israeli-Polish statement signed by Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki during the summer on the controversy surrounding Poland’s controversial “Holocaust law.”

Bauer says Israel completely surrendered on the issue, with the joint statement almost completely accepting the Polish narrative that glorifies the role of the Polish Righteous Among the Nations and minimizes the Poles’ role in Nazi crimes during the Holocaust. As Bauer puts it, this is because of political considerations that subordinate Holocaust remembrance to economic, security and diplomatic interests.

Back in Hungary, there’s no rush. The government said a Holocaust museum and remembrance center has been operating in Budapest for nearly 20 years, with government support, so there’s no reason to rush to open the House of Fates before an amicable solution is found. After a concept for the new museum is agreed on, the matter will be discussed with a wide range of groups.

When asked about Jewish life in Hungary under Orban’s right-wing nationalist government, Heisler painted a complex picture. “We have constructive cooperation with the government,” he said, adding that this was expressed in solid government funding for Jewish institutions including the renovation of synagogues, cemeteries and hospitals. Jews also enjoy full freedom of religion.

“As opposed to Jewish communities in Western Europe, in Hungary they declared that [kosher slaughter] and circumcision are part of freedom of religion,” Heisler said. “And in Hungary there are no physical attacks on Jews. Nothing. Zero. We can walk safely with a kippa on the street.”

In the same breath he mentioned his meeting with Orban about a year ago in which he asked for help renovating a Budapest synagogue damaged by an electrical fire. The last rabbi to survive the Holocaust in Hungary prays there, Heisler told Orban. Ten days later, the government approved a budget for repairing the synagogue. “He’s a serious politician who makes promises and keeps his promises,” Heisler said.

Still, he notes the large percentage of Hungarians who still hold anti-Semitic opinions. “Twenty percent of the public – this is one of the worst rates in Europe, and it’s very bad,” Heisler said.

Thus it’s vital to preserve an “independent, strong and proud” Jewish community, one unwilling to compromise over its historical narrative, Heisler says. He says many people close to or in the government are trying to cover up or change history, but standing behind the Jewish community are 600,000 martyrs – the number of Hungarian Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

So he acted last year when Orban praised Miklos Horthy, the Hungarian leader who aided the Nazis during World War II, for his accomplishments as an officer during World War I. The fact that Hungary wasn’t crushed “underneath the foot of history, well, this is thanks to a handful of exceptional statesmen,” Orban said of Horthy, putting him first on a short list with two others. “This fact cannot be doubted” despite Hungary’s “mournful participation” in World War II, Orban added.

Heisler is alarmed by such attempts to put a positive spin on Horthy’s name. “For us, he’s one of those most responsible for the murder of 600,000 people. There are those in the government who are trying to transfer all the responsibility for it to the Germans. It’s the main problem,” Heisler said.

During his visit to Israel, Heisler took part in a happy event Thursday: the celebration of the 100th birthday of the Jewish-Hungarian newspaper Uj Kelet, now published in Israel. Among the luminaries who have written for it are journalist and lawyer Rudolf Kastner, film director and screenwriter Ephraim Kishon, and journalist and politician Yosef Lapid.

Heisler says the Hungarian government helps finance the paper as part of Budapest’s attempt to preserve Hungarian tradition all over the world. “The situation isn’t as black as they think in Israel,” he said. “But it’s not as white either, as we dream about at home.”

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