Controversial historian no longer involved in Hungarian Holocaust museum

New steering committee for ‘House of Fates’ museum in Budapest headed by Yad Vashem museum's former director has developed a new concept for the permanent exhibition.

June 6, 2019 02:47
A STAR of David is seen at the new Holocaust museum called the House of Fates in Budapest, Hungary,

A STAR of David is seen at the new Holocaust museum called the House of Fates in Budapest, Hungary, last year. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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A controversial historian who has promoted a historical narrative equating Nazi crimes with those of Communist regimes is no longer involved in the House of Fates Holocaust Museum in Budapest, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

Maria Schmidt, whose involvement in the project led Yad Vashem and Holocaust scholars to publicly oppose the museum, was originally in charge of curating the museum’s permanent exhibition but she is no longer part of its development, Rabbi Shlomo Koves told the Post on Monday.

The rabbi, who heads the Chabad EMIH Jewish Federation in Hungary, also noted that the exhibition will not include Schmidt’s controversial narrative, noting that this aspect of the museum’s concept has been overhauled.

EMIH was granted ownership of the museum by the Hungarian government last year, and in a government resolution, was formally designated a partner in its development and that of the permanent and temporary exhibitions.

In that resolution, the government also stated that the Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History and Society headed by Schmidt would also be a partner in the museum’s development.

Koves said, however, that the role of this institution was no longer relevant in the ongoing development of the House of Fates.

A new steering committee has also been appointed by EMIH for the museum, and it has formulated a new “vision document” setting out the goals, narrative and approach of the permanent exhibition.

The committee is headed by Yitzchak Mais, former director of Yad Vashem’s museum. Other members include Koves; Holocaust historian Esther Farbstein; David Marwell, another Holocaust historian and former director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York; and Daniel Bodnar, president of Budapest’s Milton Friedman University.

“The whole concept that we started building from scratch in November last year is something we on the steering committee built from the bottom up,” said Koves. “We kept the original idea of putting a strong emphasis on the child victims of the Holocaust, as well as aiming to achieve not only a cognitive but also an emotional impact on [the] future audience. But the historical context as well as the professional themes and guidelines were created from scratch by a new committee of experts. Maria Schmidt has not been involved in the development of this concept.”


THE HUNGARIAN government has authorized in writing the new vision document for the museum, Mais said, adding that he had only been willing to publicly announce his participation in the steering committee after the government agreed to the new concept.

“One of the former claims [against the previously introduced, semi-elaborated concept of the museum] was that allegedly, there was an attempt at portraying the story of the Holocaust in Hungary as a solely post-March 1944 phenomena that took place only after the occupation of Hungary by the Nazis,” Mais told the Post. “I can assure you that it is quite clear from the new document that there is no such attempt.

“We make it very clear that the background and social context – similar to many other European countries – have already been there before the Nazis occupied Hungary. Hungary is unique because on the one hand, in many regards it was a safe place for Jews in Europe until the Nazis entered; but on the other hand, deportations would have been impossible without the active role of state institutions even after the occupation.

“Also, the Hungarian government instituted antisemitic legislation in the 1920s and the 1930s. We emphasize [this] for example in the form of an anchor experience – by recreating a labor battalion barrack – that forced labor was introduced already by the beginning of the war, well before the Nazis entered Hungary.”

Mais added that “the old attempt” of blaming the genocide of Hungary’s Jews on the fascist Arrow Party, which took power six months after the Nazi invasion of Hungary in March 1944, “is obviously historically incorrect and not balanced.” He described such a narrative as “whitewashing history.”


MAIS ALSO asserted that Schmidt is no longer involved in the project, adding that “the new vision plan is radically different both in goals, content, narrative and approach, and deals in a balanced and authentic fashion with the role of Hungarians in the Hungarian Holocaust, both before the Nazi entry as well as after.”

He said that “the new vision plan was built from scratch both in goals, content, narrative and approach, and deals in a balanced and authentic fashion with the story of the Hungarian Holocaust, both before the Nazi entry as well as after,” adding that “Ms. Schmidt was not involved in the creating process.”

Mais added that the exhibition would also highlight “little sparks of light,” including the approximately 825 Righteous Among the Nations from Hungary “who risked their lives to try and help Jews – including Defense Minister Nagy, who tried to help the situation of Jews in the labor battalions.”

He said that the museum would also demonstrate “the phenomena of Jewish resistance expressed in various ways and levels, whether physical, psychological, or religious.”

Mais also noted that the master plan for the museum will be opened for discussion to academic experts and institutions before the exhibition and content is created and finalized. Koves said that the new concept was being presented to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

“I am certain that anyone who has honest intentions and will look at this concept and the people working on it will have no doubt that we are on the right track, and will try and help us to continue this process,” said the rabbi.

Koves said he wanted to emphasize that the museum “is not a Chabad project,” and that it has reached out to different Jewish groups in Hungary, including Jewish survivor organizations and the Neolog (non-Orthodox) Mazsihisz Federation in the country, which has strongly opposed the museum due to Schmidt’s role.

Schmidt’s narrative equating Nazi crimes with those of Communist regimes is part of a phenomenon in many eastern European countries, where attempts have been made to distort the history of the Holocaust in the region so as to absolve them of their historic collaboration with the Nazis.

It is this narrative, and Schmidt’s role in it, which generated the intense opposition to the House of Fates project.

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