In response to months of public criticism, the new Holocaust museum in Budapest has promised to present the “full and authentic” story of the destruction of Hungarian Jewry, including the role played by the Hungarian regime and ordinary Hungarians.
The museum issued its promise last week, after its revised content was approved by the Hungarian government, which is financing it. The government also approved a new steering committee for the institution.
Though the museum, called the “House of Fates,” has had a building for several years now, it still has no exhibits. Last year, it became the focus of a heated public debate, with opponents charging that it would help Hungary’s rightist government whitewash and distort the country’s involvement in the Holocaust. That same year, the government transferred ownership of the museum to Hungary’s Chabad community, known by its Hungarian acronym EMIH.
Last week, EMIH promised that the museum would show the role of both the Hungarian government and ordinary Hungarians in the Holocaust, alongside tales of Jewish heroism and Hungarians who saved Jews. The museum also plans to put the destruction of Hungary’s Jews into its “historical and European context,” especially the legal and social anti-Semitism that ultimately resulted in Hungary’s establishment of a Nazi regime in 1944, and to show Hungarians that what happened to Hungary’s Jews didn’t affect the Jews alone, but all of Hungarian society.
Another focus will be the “complex relationship” between Hungarian Jews and broader Hungarian society. In the early 20th century, almost all Hungarian Jews saw themselves as Hungarians, and most Hungarians saw Jews as citizens with equal rights. But that made the regime’s betrayal of the Jews in 1944 all the more shocking, the museum said.
Rabbi Shlomo Koves, the chief rabbi of EMIH, said he was aware of the criticism leveled at the museum, including by parts of the Jewish community, but that the newly approved plan ought to satisfy the critics. “When it comes to remembering the Holocaust, there’s no place for partisan considerations,” he said.
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One of the main changes the museum made was to sever its contract with Maria Schmidt, whom critics term Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s “court historian.” She has claimed that Hungarians had no way of resisting the Nazis once they entered Hungary – a claim that Prof. Yehuda Bauer, a leading Israeli Holocaust researcher, told Haaretz last year was “ridiculous.”
In 2014, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum withdrew from the international forum that the Hungarian government had set up to advise the museum, saying it objected to both the concept and the planned content. “We are demanding recognition by the Hungarians that the entire country – not ‘a few Hungarians’ – collaborated with the Germans,” Bauer told Haaretz last year.
Andras Heisler, president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, also quit the forum. He told Haaretz last year that EMIH wasn’t qualified to run the museum.
“Chabad came to Hungary 15 or 20 years ago, with no tradition, no roots and no experience of dealing with these questions,” he said. “They’re interested in religion, not the Holocaust. We, in contrast, have experts, intellectuals, an archive and international connections.”
Koves said the new plan and the new steering committee should “bring this saga to a close and create an opportunity to rise above past differences” and unite behind the job of “transmitting these important messages to future generations.”
The new steering committee is chaired by Yitzchak Mais, the former director of Yad Vashem, who has helped set up Holocaust museums in other countries.
“When we worked on the new vision statement, we had two main goals that are intertwined,” he said in a press statement. “First, to transmit the historic truth about the Holocaust of Hungarian Jewry fully and authentically, including the role of the establishment and of part of the Hungarian people. Second, to do this in a way that would transmit a current, meaningful educational message to every Hungarian man and woman who visits the museum.”
Another member of the new steering committee is historian Esther Farbstein, who wrote a book about the Holocaust in Hungary and currently heads the Holocaust research center at education faculty at Michlalah Jerusalem College. She said one of the museum’s goals would be to show that “Holocaust victims didn’t go like sheep to the slaughter; they were heroes who tried to do the most they could to save the lives of their families and the lives of others, preserve their Jewish identity and preserve their human dignity.”
Other members include David Marwell, an American historian who formerly headed the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and now works at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and Daniel Bodnar, president of the Milton Friedman University in Budapest. The museum is slated to open in about 18 months.