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
Site drawings for the complex show the exhibition and learning center located underground, entered through a wide glass wall. Rising above this space will be two tall towers made of railway freight cars, with a Star of David between them. The train station itself—which played little role in the mass deportations to Auschwitz but did serve later as a deportation point to other concentration camps—will retain its current exterior appearance, while inside it will house a café, shop, bookstore, and conference room. Schmidt said she recognized that it was unlikely that the project can be fully completed by April, but she said at least the physical structure and “main message” of the complex should be ready by then.
With the House of Fates, the selection of Schmidt to be the curator-director has raised some of the biggest questions, particularly among Budapest’s Jewish community. Schmidt is also the director of the House of Terror, another Budapest museum she developed, which focuses on the crimes of the Communist and Fascist regimes, and the name of the House of Fates implicitly also links back to that institution.
Critics have long assailed Schmidt, who is not Jewish, for minimizing the uniqueness of the Holocaust and putting the Nazi genocide of Jews on the same plane as postwar communist persecution. This is particularly evident at the House of Terror, a high-profile project of Orbán’s first government, which held power from 1998 to 2002. The museum, whose stark profile and exhibition were designed by the same architect now handling the new Józsefváros project, opened in February 2002 in a building that had been the headquarters of both Hungary’s WWII-era Fascist Arrow Cross movement and the postwar communist government’s secret police. The House of Terror, which draws between 200,000 and 300,000 visitors a year, equates the oppressive policies carried out by both regimes, but its powerful interactive exhibition devotes vastly more emphasis—and space—to the crimes of communism than to the annihilation of Hungary’s Jews, devoting just one of its many rooms to the Holocaust.
“The exhibit’s organizers say the museum is drawing crowds because it is one of the first attempts in Hungary to come to terms publicly with the difficult truths of the past six decades,” Thomas Fuller wrote in the International Herald Tribune in 2002. But, he added, “Critics of the museum—and there are many—say it is a political stunt. The curators, these critics say, are motivated more by contemporary politics than by a genuine desire to seek out historical truths.” He added, “Some of the criticism stems from the museum’s often slick presentation. Exhibits are so polished that history sometimes seems to be marketed rather than told straight.”
Some Jewish leaders fear that, with Schmidt in charge, the new Józsefváros Holocaust center will display similar problems and could end up distorting Hungary’s Holocaust history by placing all blame on the German Nazis, downplaying the role of Hungarians in the Shoah and stressing instead the role of Hungarian rescuers. “We have a problem [with] why Mária Schmidt is leader of this project, and … a lot of problems with the Terror House, particularly with its ideology,” András Heisler, the president of Mazsihisz, Hungary’s official Jewish umbrella organization, told me. “We are afraid of the impact that a very strong exhibition design could have.”
Those concerns aren’t limited to the House of Fates project: Mazsihisz also recently joined opposition politicians in criticizing plans announced Dec. 31 by the Orbán government to erect a memorial commemorating the Nazi occupation of Hungary. The statue is to be unveiled on March 19, the 70th anniversary of the occupation, in the downtown Szabadság, or Freedom, Square—where there already is a communist-era monument to Soviet soldiers. In a statement, Mazsihisz expressed “doubts and serious concerns” over the speed and manner in which the decision had been taken. Critics said such a memorial could further serve to downplay the role of Hungarian collaborators.
Heisler, who is a member of the new Holocaust museum’s advisory board, said he had proposed to Schmidt that Mazsihisz set up a local control team that could offer expertise and independently monitor the development of the exhibition on a regular basis. He said he gave her a list of 20 Jewish historians, archivists, rabbis, and leading intellectuals and asked her to choose five. By late December, Schmidt had not taken up this offer, but instead had invited a set of different Jewish intellectuals and experts to meet with her and offer opinions on the exhibition. This is the invitation that György Konrád, the writer, declined.
In a follow-up to our interview, Schmidt said in an email that “coordination with the Jewish community” was “in progress.” Among other things, she said, Giorgio Pressburger, a Budapest-born Italian writer who had been a child survivor of the Holocaust, had agreed to be her personal adviser on the project. Pressburger, who served as the head of the Italian Cultural Institute in Budapest from 1998 to 2002, grew up in the Eighth District, not far from the site of the new Holocaust center, and immortalized Jewish life in the neighborhood in some of his short stories.
The 12-member International Advisory Board, Schmidt told me when we met, was expected to convene in late February to “discuss and evaluate” plans. The board includes academics and intellectuals from Europe, the United States, and Israel, including representatives from Yad Vashem. “We should not conclude now that this project will serve Hungarian Holocaust revisionists, although this is a fear that has been frequently voiced,” board member Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director of International Jewish Affairs, told me. “I do not know how significant a role will be played by the International Advisory Board, but they are not people who would support such a direction.”
But ignoring direct input from Mazsihisz could set the scene for a potential stand-off with Hungary’s Jewish establishment and further sour Jewish attitudes toward the project—which are already mixed. “Politicians love something you can touch—buildings, monuments, museums,” said Eszter Lányi, a Jewish education and human-rights activist who served as the Hungarian cultural attaché in Israel from 2007 to 2011. “But I would rather see the government give 5 billion forint for living Jews, on education, rather than on dead ones. Everyone I talk to says the same thing.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that the late Tom Lantos was a member of the House of Representatives, not a senator. The Jobbik party currently holds 43 seats, not 47, in the Hungarian parliament.
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