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Plan To Open Another Holocaust Museum in Budapest Faces Criticism—From Jews

Many worry it will be window-dressing for politicians who want to be seen remembering the Shoah but ignore today’s anti-Semitism

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Holokauszt Gyermekáldozatainak Emlékközpontja—Emlékhely. (F. Kovács Attila)
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The Hungarian author György Konrád is arguably one of the best-known child survivors of the Holocaust. By a stroke of luck he narrowly avoided being deported to Auschwitz in 1944 along with the Jews of his hometown, Berettyóújfalu, in eastern Hungary. He, his sister, and two cousins survived the war in a Swiss-protected Budapest safe house. His parents, who had been deported to Austria, also survived and were reunited with their children in Berettyóújfalu after the war—the only Jewish family from the town to survive intact.

Yet in mid-December, Konrád, now 81, pointedly declined an invitation to take part in an advisory session for a new $22 million state-sponsored Holocaust memorial museum and education center focusing on child victims that is slated to open next spring. “It would be hard to shake the feeling that the hasty organization of this exhibition is not about the hundreds of thousands of children murdered 70 years ago, but rather about the Hungarian government of today,” Konrád wrote in an open letter to the museum’s director. “If the government wanted to devote such a large sum to the memory of these children, then in the spirit of the children’s spiritual heritage I would suggest they turn this amount over to feeding the badly nourished, living Hungarian children of today.”

Konrád’s words reflected the powerful mix of political, emotional, and ideological passions that the plans for the new complex have ignited in this sharply polarized country since they were announced in September by the nationalist Fidesz party government, headed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The new institution is to center mainly on the experience of children during the Holocaust—but also on Hungarians who rescued Jews. It will be located in the disused Józsefváros train station in Budapest’s rundown Eighth District, once a teeming Jewish neighborhood, and will be called “House of Fates,” a name that harks back to Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertész’s novel Fatelessness, which narrates the experiences of a teenaged boy during the Shoah.

Construction work began Dec. 17, and the facility, which is to combine a permanent exhibit with an interactive learning center and other services, is supposed to open in April 2014. It will be the centerpiece of a nationwide effort to mark the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary. Nearly 450,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the spring of 1944. Later, after the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross seized power in October 1944, thousands of Budapest Jews were shot dead into the Danube River, and tens of thousands more were deported to other camps or sent on forced marches toward Austria.

The memorial year events, which include hundreds of commemorations, synagogue restorations, and other projects around the country are the latest in several steps taken by Orbán’s government aimed, at least in part, to counter what it says is an unfair image of Hungary as a racist, anti-Semitic country. In early October, for example, Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics told an international conference on anti-Semitism and Jewish life held at Hungary’s parliament building that Hungarians had to recognize their country’s own culpability in the Shoah. “We know that we were responsible for the Holocaust in Hungary,” he said. “We know that Hungarian state interests were responsible.”

Fidesz, which has a two-thirds majority in parliament, is not overtly anti-Semitic. But the government has angered Jews by doing little to curb a growing cult of memory around Fascist-allied figures such as Adm. Miklós Horthy, the nationalist regent who led Hungary into World War Two as an ally of Nazi Germany. Recent surveys have documented a rise in open anti-Semitism in Hungary, and the extremist Jobbik party, with an openly anti-Semitic and anti-Roma platform, is the third largest party in parliament, holding 43 of 386 seats.

Not surprisingly, almost all facets of the House of Fates project have come under fire—from its name, to its location, to its overall concept, which some fear could lend itself to a skewed interpretation of the Shoah. Critics of Orbán’s government, including many Jews, have dismissed the initiative as a cynical move aimed primarily at outsiders to prove that Hungary is not an anti-Semitic country while at the same time it fails to take concrete action at home. “There is no trust,” said Anna-Mária Bíró, the president and CEO of the Tom Lantos Institute, a public human-rights foundation whose executive committee is chaired by the daughter of the late Budapest-born U.S. congressman, who himself survived the Holocaust as a teen. “On projects like this you need trust.”

***

Budapest already has a Holocaust memorial center and museum, which was established by the government and opened to great fanfare in April 2004, on the 60th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary—and two weeks before Hungary joined the European Union. It was a first-of-its-kind institution in Hungary, and at the time, the then-director told me that its aim was to present the Holocaust “as a Hungarian national tragedy” and “an integral part of Hungarian history.”

The museum, located on Páva Street just outside the city center, comprises a modernistic building centered on a restored synagogue. It draws relatively few visitors, however. And when I visited in December, I found many of its exhibit’s interactive screens were not working. Wires were falling out of some of the headphones, and some of the lettering on signage was peeling off.

When the Páva Street center was built, critics—including prominent members of Hungary’s Jewish community—took issue with its goals, its concept, and even its location—not to mention with local political maneuvers involved in its establishment. As I wrote in an article at the time, they also faulted organizers for building the center too hastily, without first working out details of its scope and without public debate. The center in fact opened without its permanent exhibition installed.

Those arguments are echoed today in the debates about the House of Fates. So far, few details of the new museum’s exhibition content and education program have been made public. The historian Mária Schmidt, who is overseeing the project, told me in an interview at her Budapest office that these are still under development. But she said the target audience would be school groups and young people, and much of the exhibit, as well as the learning center, will be interactive. The aim, she said, would be to engage youngsters by telling the story of the Holocaust from the perspective of people their own age.

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Plan To Open Another Holocaust Museum in Budapest Faces Criticism—From Jews

Many worry it will be window-dressing for politicians who want to be seen remembering the Shoah but ignore today’s anti-Semitism