Budapest’s new $30m Holocaust museum hangs in the balance as Hungary debates its contents


Budapest (JTA) – A major traffic artery to the east of this city, regular commuters on the Fimei Way are already used to the unusual monument that locals call the “Jewish Star”.

Built in 2015, the monument comprises a 60-foot-tall six-pointed metal corridor suspended in mid-air, connecting two towers of stacked-up cattle wagons. It looks like a David-shaped beam of light blazing through a pair of apartment buildings.

It is the tallest and most fascinating monument ever built for the Holocaust in a country where the task of commemorating the massacre is complicated by the fact that many locals were involved at the time.

It is also not open, and has not been done since construction was completed in 2015 – making it a $30 million, rat-infested symbol of a bitter feud between some Jewish community leaders and the right-wing government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. There has been, and amongst themselves, on how to celebrate the Holocaust.

Recently, important milestones have been reached in the effort to restart the project and get it out of the impasse. A local Jewish group has recruited a team of prominent historians who they say are committed to historical accuracy and to take the museum out of political debate.

The story of the museum, whose provisional name is House of Fates, outlines how the legacy of the Holocaust prevents Jews from being fully integrated into Hungarian society. It also explains how Hungarian Jews themselves are deeply divided About how to celebrate the Holocaust.

House of Fates Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Budapest. (Yakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)

The saga started in 2012, when Orban’s government tapped Maria Schmidt, a right-wing historian whose critics say she drew unfair parallels between communism and Nazism, to lead the establishment of a new Holocaust museum at the former Józsefváros railway station. From this station, which visitors can view from above after climbing the Jewish Star monument, Budapest’s Jews were sent to death camps during World War II.

Due to Schmidt, the project had limited support in Jewish circles from the beginning. Openness to it completely evaporated in 2014, when the Orbán government and Hungary’s largest Jewish group Majsihiz, Public clashes over the installation of the statue by the government Honoring the victims of Nazism in Budapest. Critics said the statue was an attempt to fend off local collusion.

The statue features an angel, understood by many to represent Hungary, being attacked by an eagle, which is understood to represent Nazism. Orbán disputed this interpretation and ignored further protests from Mazyhiz and beyond, leading to a rift in relations between Mazyhiz and the government. Mazsihisz said it is boycott of new museum, as Yad VashemNational Holocaust Museum of Israel.

A statue commemorating the victims of the German occupation of Hungary in 1944 stands in Budapest, where the Holocaust Victims Memorial was torn down. (Maria Heller via JTA)

Row has left the museum, with its 600,000 square feet of floor space, finished but unfinished, with pigeons and bats inhabiting the many nooks available on 3.5 acres, including the House of Fates Museum and Learning. Center Complex. Budapest’s gritty 8th district.

Nevertheless, progress is being made towards the eventual opening of the museum.

government in 2018 Control of the museum EMIH . handed over to, a Hungarian Jewish group. The leader of EMIH, Rabbi Slomo Kovs, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in August that Schmidt is out of the picture at the museum, which EMIH wants to change as Etz Heim, Hebrew for “tree of life”. Koves expects the museum to open by 2024.

“The museum had a rough start,” Koves, 42, told JTA at the museum. “And for some, it is a stigma without even looking at the content. We are working on material that will reflect the tragedy of the Holocaust in Hungary and inspire hope for the future.”

The cafeteria at the House of Fates Holocaust Museum in Budapest, Hungary, on August 27, 2021, awaits visitors six years after it and the institution it belonged to was to be opened to the public. (Canaan Lipshice/JTA)

This is not such a straightforward task, given that funding for the museum came largely from the Hungarian government. In addition to its controversial memorial works, Orban’s government has shown keen interest in nurturing historical narratives who serve their populist brand of patriotism. This goal is rarely accomplished by research previous complicity in the massacre and institutional antisemitism that historians say is an integral part of the Holocaust story here.

An important sign that the museum will tackle these topics came in July with the printing of a new, 400-page concept paper for the new museum. The timeline for the concept – the first comprehensive one created for the museum’s exhibitions – begins in 1867, when Jews were created equal before the law in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and ends in 2021.

The document contains some inconvenient truths for Hungarian ultra-nationalists, who often support the view that the persecution of the country’s Jews began when German forces invaded in 1944.

Before the invasion, Hungarian pro-fascist leader Miklós Horthy, who is regarded by many nationalists today as a hero, placed “limits on the legal rights of the Hungarian Jew”, the document said. also notes infamous category block law, Which was enacted by Horthy’s government in 1920. It is widely considered to be the first anti-Semitic law of the Interwar period in Europe, prohibiting Jewish attendance at universities.

Statues in Budapest, Hungary are dedicated to anti-Semitic author Dázsó Szabó (front) and World War II leader Miklós Horthy, who ruled when 450,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to their deaths by the Nazis (Photo Credits: CC- BY-SA 3.0, by Dezidor, Wikimedia Commons)

Statues in Budapest, Hungary are dedicated to anti-Semitic writer Dzo Szabo (front) and World War II leader Miklós Horthy, who ruled when 450,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to their death by the Nazis. (CC-BY-SA 3.0, by Dezidor, Wikimedia Commons)

In 1996, Gyula Horn, then Prime Minister, became The first Hungarian leader to accept state responsibility for the Holocaust in Hungary. He also apologized and took steps towards resolving the reinstatement issues. Several of Horn’s successors repeated the entry in 2017, including Orban. During World War II, “we decided that instead of protecting the Jewish community, we chose cooperation with the Nazis,” said Orban. Said in a speech that year.

“The Hungarian gendarmerie and army brutally killed more than 3,000 civilians,” the document says in the description of the Novi Sad massacre of 1941. “From July to August 1941, Hungary brutally deported approximately 18,000 Hungarian Jews,” reads a separate entry. The timeline also includes the 1944 murder of thousands of Jews by the Arrow Cross Party, a Nazi puppet regime in Hungary.

“This museum will record and reflect the responsibility, complicity and cooperation of all Hungarian state officials in the Holocaust and during the Holocaust,” Koves said. To date, the Koovs team has raised $1.5 million to create the content. Another $1 came from the government.

Example: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban gives a speech in front of renovated Jewish graves at the Kozma Street Jewish Cemetery in Budapest on January 26, 2015, during a ceremony for solemn renovations on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the Emancipation Is. Auschwitz death camp organized by the Nazis during World War II. (AFP/Attila Kisbenedek)

He said that discussion of Hungarian participation would appear through the exhibition and only after presenting a wider context of Jewish life in Hungary.

He said that the gradual approach is not born out of any desire to be politically correct.

In a country with a relatively small Jewish population, “for many students the school trip to the Holocaust Museum will be the first point of contact for any Jew,” Koves explained. “It raises the stakes. It means we should not open with the Holocaust or Auschwitz will be the first and only association those students have with Judaism.”

One of the museum’s goals is to show that “Jews were not only hopeless victims, but individuals of dignity who stood against evil mentally, spiritually, and sometimes physically,” Koves said.

Coves recruited an international team of respected historians to join the museum’s steering committee. The team includes Yitzchak Mais, former director of Yad Vashem; Israeli Holocaust scholar Esther Farbstein; and David Marvell, former director of the Jewish Heritage Museum in New York.

Rabbi Slomo Kovs walks in the parking area of ​​the House of Fates Holocaust Museum on August 27, 2021 in Budapest, Hungary. (Canaan Lipshice/JTA)

The 90-yard long main space, with its timeline, is designed to be seen in about 60 minutes walking in a straight line. Coves said the side spaces will be equipped with screening rooms, interactive displays and panoramic immersion projection halls in which visitors can easily spend an entire day.

The museum will also emphasize personal accounts. In the display titled “Encountering a Survivor”, visitors can study a digital file of individual survivors, along with video recordings and frequently asked questions, which they can select and answer in a pre-recorded message by the survivor. can give.

In one such testimony, Leo Adler, who moved to the United States after surviving the Holocaust as a child, recalls that he saw his father at a train station in Muncaks before being exiled for murdering his father. Last seen. “He called me aside, he said: ‘You are the eldest. Children, try to take care of your mother.’ And the train left slowly.”

The museum team has recorded the testimony of more than 150 survivors in Hungary, Israel and the US.

Of the approximately 800,000 Jewish people living in areas controlled by Hungary, More than 500,000 were murdered.

Some critics say that the museum is doomed to fail because it is irreversibly tainted by Orban’s government, which initiated the institution.

Boots on the Danube, a Holocaust memorial to the victims of the Arrow Cross, who were shot on the banks of the Danube River in Budapest during the Holocaust. (Flickr/Neil)

“Not only abroad, but also in Hungary, the House of Fate is viewed with suspicion,” Hungarian Holocaust scholar, László Karsai, told JTA. He cited the involvement of the controversial historian Schmidt.

Of Mays, Karasai said: “Maybe he wants to build a new Holocaust Disneyland in Budapest.” Of Kovás, who received his PhD in Hungarian Jewish history from the University of Debrecen in 2007, Karasai said: “He is not a historian. He is the court rabbi of the current right-wing, nationalist, anti-Semitism, xenophobe, autocratic kleptocracy, an ally of Prime Minister Orban. ,

Other Hungarian Holocaust scholars are keen to give the new museum a chance.

“Even before its construction, the museum was sucked into the political battle of left and right in Hungary. So the fight about it is not academic, it is partisan,” said Janos Pele, a Holocaust historian who wrote some of the materials for the new museum. involved in writing.

Farbstein, whose research focuses on how the Holocaust affected Orthodox Jewish communities in Hungary, says so far he has faced no censorship or interference in his work at the museum. He said that if this happened, she would leave.

“Frankly, I agreed to be involved with the museum before I knew everything about the intensity of the conflict around it,” Farbstein said. Now that she knows about it, she hopes the museum can achieve its goal in an effective and respectful way, regardless of the situation, she said.

“Certainly better than taking the given opportunity of a world-class Holocaust museum here in Budapest and burying it,” Farbstein said. “I’m going to give it a shot because I think it’s a chance for something really worthwhile to happen.”