Europe's new Holocaust museum pits Jews against one another
By ZOLTAN SIMON | Bloomberg | Published: October 20, 2018
A Hungarian museum built to remember the horrors of the Holocaust is pitting branches of the European Union's largest eastern Jewish community against one another.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the standard bearer of nationalist movements in Europe, is planning to open the House of Fates next year to pay tribute to the children who died in the Holocaust. But the project has prompted critics to say it whitewashes Hungary's wartime role in the murder of Jews, and it has divided Jewish organizations into those allied with the government and those against it.
"We've gone from being rivals to being enemies," Budapest's chief rabbi, Robert Frolich, said of the rift between two of the country's Jewish groups. "And when rivalry turns to war, there are no winners, only losers."
The row is the latest flashpoint involving nativists and the Holocaust after Poland criminalized the act of suggesting national responsibility in the death of millions of Jews during World War II. It also illustrates Orban's divide-and-conquer approach as he consolidates power and pursues an "illiberal democracy" that has put him at odds with the EU.
The museum coincides with a wider cultural push by Orban, who called on supporters to embed their values deeper into Hungary's social fabric following his third consecutive election victory in April. Since then, pro-government media outlets have denounced academics, artists and activists deemed incompatible with Orban's vision of a homogeneous, Christian Europe, publishing lists of their names and causing some to lose their jobs.
The owner of one publication, the weekly Figyelo, is in charge of the House of Fates. The project in Budapest, where there's already an existing Holocaust museum, has languished in a state of deep freeze for years after Orban vowed not to open it until there was a consensus about it among Jewish groups.
That changed when the government lined up EMIH, a Jewish organization founded in 2004, as a backer. EMIH leader Rabbi Slomo Koves said this month the museum would allow young generations to emotionally connect with the Holocaust. He also said it was still a work in progress.
For others, the site occupying buildings at a retooled railway station, is at best an Orban power-play to divide Budapest's Jewish community and at worst an attempt to obscure facts behind the murder of more than half a million Hungarian Jews in death camps or killed under Nazi-allied Hungarian governments.
An official from the Jerusalem-based Yad Vashem museum said the planned exhibition was "patently misleading," to the point of falsifying history. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. said it is "highly selective" and "distorted." The institute in charge of the new museum didn't respond to requests for comment.
Hungary's biggest Jewish group, Mazsihisz, said EMIH had become a tool of Orban. His government has boosted annual state funds supporting EMIH thirty-three-fold to 679 million forint ($2.4 million) since he returned to power in 2010 and has pledged to give it the museum once the doors open.
"This is about political power, and no Jewish group should play a part in this," said Mazsihisz President Andras Heisler. "We repeatedly asked for a full 'screenplay' of the exhibition so that we could responsibly take part in this project. We never received that."
Heisler and other critics who've seen the plans say they had a familiar theme: omitting or minimizing Hungary's role in the Holocaust, including in the marginalization of Jews dating back to well before the Nazi occupation and their mass deportation to death camps.
"It's whitewashing history," said Andras Kovacs, director of Jewish studies at Central European University in Budapest. "Leaders in both Poland and Hungary are trying to deflect responsibility for the ugly chapters in their histories."
Much of Budapest's Jewish population survived after Hungary stopped mass deportations in the waning months of World War II as Soviet forces advanced toward the country. Hungary today has an estimated Jewish community of about 100,000, according to Mazsihisz.
Orban has had fraught relations with them. Jews boycotted official commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in 2014 after he ordered the erection of a statue in Budapest showing the Archangel Gabriel as Hungary being attacked by an eagle representing Germany. Jewish groups said it amounted to deflecting national responsibility.
More recently, Orban resorted to what many consider to be anti-Semitic language to win re-election, calling the Hungarian-born philanthropist and investor George Soros, who survived the Holocaust, "conniving' and "unprincipled." In contrast, Orban told his supporters they were from a "Christian culture" who've "never turned to hatred."
The Hungarian leader strongly rejects accusations that he is fanning anti-Semitism. He's shown some signs of backpedaling, saying the Holocaust museum's opening can wait until the "controversy dies down." He's also said the failure of the wartime government to protect Hungary's Jews was a "crime."
"There's a deep level of distrust," the CEU's Kovacs said. "There isn't much cause for optimism."