The building of the Hungarian House of Fates, a museum commemorating the lives lost to the Holocaust, was completed three years ago, yet there is still no opening date in sight. Due to the debates concerning the concept of the exhibition, people in charge decided there was no rush to open the doors of the museum just yet.
The gist of the controversy
The new Hungarian Holocaust museum awaiting opening got on the front page of CNN this week. Scholars and historians pointed out that through the proposed exhibition, Hungary might end up downplaying the true contribution of Hungarians to the deportation and persecution of the Hungarian Jewish population, shifting all the blame to Nazi Germany.
The concrete and glass building that required about 18 million USD to build is located in Budapest’s 8th district. According to the original plans, the exhibition would focus on the stories of child victims and survivors. The backlash is coming in the midst of PM Orbán Viktor receiving criticism for his handling of certain democratic institutions. The government has also taken an anti-migrant stance, causing somewhat of a conflict with the EU.
Some say that the Hungarian nationalist rhetoric is not only affecting the future but also the way Hungary views the past.
By 1944, Hungary was under German occupation. The deportation to Auschwitz started, and, by the end of the war, 565 thousand Hungarian Jews had been murdered. According to the criticism the memorial received, the House of Fates does not seem to be faithful to the role Hungarian authorities and the Hungarian people played leading up to and during the deportation.
Dr Robert Rozett, the director of the Yad Vashem Libraries, had this to say on the issue:
“There is a strong trend in Hungary today to present the destruction of Hungarian Jewry during the Holocaust as an exclusively German crime and, except for a small group of Hungarian thugs, to ignore the role and responsibility of the Hungarian authorities and society.”
According to Rozett, the exhibition would present history in a way that suggests that only a small, fanatic group in Hungary is to blame for what had happened to the Hungarian Jewish community, while the wider society was practically blameless. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum join him in his concerns, saying the museum will distort the way we view history.
The Hungarian side
Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH) leader Rabbi Slomo Koves also spoke out, expressing his side of the conversation. He said that the controversy comes a bit too early concerning there is no final exhibition just yet. He, too, wants the Holocaust history to be shown truthfully, without embellishing the Hungarian side, so that the younger generation can learn about the events and really get emotionally involved as well.
He also said that, besides the exhibition about children’s stories, there will be other exhibitions as well, along with conference rooms and education centres.
András Heisler, however, president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (MAZSIHISZ), the largest registered Jewish group in Hungary, said that he is wary of the fact that Dr Maria Schmidt is in charge of the concept of the exhibition. According to Heisler, Dr Schmidt has a very positive attitude towards the museum, however, she did not elaborate on what the real message would be. Although Dr Schmidt did not wish to speak on the issue now,
in a 2014 article, she expressed that the message of the museum would be that the large Jewish community currently living in Hungary dates back a long time, and how we can talk about a “story of love between Hungarian Jews and non-Jews”.
This does suggest that the exhibition will be rather economical with the truth.
Government spokesperson Zoltán Kovács had this to say to CNN:
“Until March 19, 1944, Hungary, in the face of all the unjustifiable legal and other measures on behalf of the Hungarian state, was still a safe haven for Jews. Period. (…)
And it was the coming of the Germans, the German occupation, that the Holocaust happened in this country.”
Generally, members of the Hungarian Jewish community feel safe in Hungary and do not have to fear anti-Semitic attacks. However, they also said that certain policies, for instance, the ‘Stop Soros’ law, and the entire demonisation of Jewish Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist George Soros, did lead to a growing number of anti-Semitic hate comments both online and in graffitis, and there seems to be a direct link between nationalism and anti-Semitic sentiments.
The current plan is that the museum will be opened for visitors in 2019. We can continue the discussion when the concept of the exhibition is finally revealed.
In the meantime, check out this article about British and American monuments in Budapest.
Featured image: facebook.com/sorsokhaza