The Chabad-affiliated Jewish federation in Hungary has been given ownership and partial control over a nascent Holocaust museum in Budapest by the Hungarian government, which has been the subject of a long-running controversy within the local Jewish community.
The Hungarian government has invested some 22 million Euros in the museum, the construction of which was finished some three years ago, and announced a further six million euros to complete the museum.
A government resolution issued earlier this year transfers ownership of the museum to the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH), and a joint press conference was held on Friday by a government minister, EMIH head Rabbi Shlomo Köves and controversial historian Maria Schmidt, who has served as the project’s head historian until now to announce the development.
Despite EMIH’s willingness to accept the ownership of the museum, called the House of Fates, other elements in the Hungarian Jewish community, particularly the old established Mazsihisz federation of non-Orthodox communities, strongly opposed cooperation due to Schmidt’s role.
The government resolution states that “the Government must decide and implement the basic principles of the institution of the House of Fates and its permanent and temporary exhibitions in historic, cultural and museum developmental terms in cooperation with EMIH and the Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History and Society.”
Schmidt heads the Public Foundation and has been in charge of developing the permanent exhibition of the House of Fates while it was in government hands, and will remain with the museum to complete it.
SCHMIDT’S POSITION within the project has prompted strong opposition to Jewish communal participation with the House of Fates, due to her promotion of a historical narrative equating Nazi crimes with those of Communist regimes.
This position is part of a phenomenon in Eastern Europe which has been described as a false equivalence by countries in the region to absolve themselves and their citizens of collaboration with the Nazis by equating the Holocaust with Soviet and Communist crimes.
Schmidt herself is the director of another museum, the House of Terrors, which is supposed to be dedicated to highlighting the crimes of the Nazis and Communists.
It has been criticized, however, for focusing overwhelmingly on those of Communists and for portraying Hungary as a victim of the Nazis despite having been an ally of Nazi Germany and collaborating with the Nazis in deporting 424,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz and participation in the murder of another 140,000 Hungarian Jews.
According to Köves, however, the permanent exhibition of the House of Fates presents a complete historical narrative which includes Hungarian collaboration in the murder of Hungary’s Jews, including the drafting of Jewish men into forced labor in which 40,000 of them died, forcing Jews into ghettos and the deportations to Nazi death camps, including by the Hungarian gendarmerie force.
Köves also points out that Schmidt will not be involved in the House of Fates once the main exhibition is finished, and that EMIH will bring its own experts in to further develop the museum and its educational center.
The role of the Public Foundation headed by Schmidt in participating in decisions on content of the permanent exihibition as stipulated in the government resolution will be maintained, however.
“I am not surprised that there is a controversy over the opening of a Holocaust museum. And even today, there are arguments about historical narratives in museums like Yad Vashem, but this does not delegitimize it,” he told The Jerusalem Post.
And Köves was critical of the opposition to the museum, saying that “the Jewish community needs to take responsibility for being part of this project” and take an “inclusive” approach to it.
He acknowledged that the EMIH would not have exclusive control over content of the permanent exhibition, since the government resolution says explicitly that the government and the Public Foundation must have a role in the content, but notes that the EMIH will have an equal say and that all sides will be able to reject content they find unsuitable.
According to Köves, the narrative of the museum will begin in 1938 with the anti-Jewish laws of Hungarian ruler Miklós Horthy, and be told through the eyes of some 50 to 60 Hungarian Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who were interviewed for the exhibit.
BUT ANDRAS HEISLER, President of the Mazshihisz Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary of the Neolog community is deeply opposed to cooperation with the government over the House of Fates.
Heisler says that the idea for the museum in general was positive and he was initially on the museum’s International Advisory Board. But he said that Schmidt refused to disclose the content of the permanent exhibition and its narrative despite repeated requests.
He says that this led him and numerous others on the board, including representatives of other Holocaust museums, to resign from the body, saying that cooperating with Schmidt was not acceptable.
“To cooperate with Maria Schmidt, who has in the last three years issued a lot of bad opinions on the Holocaust era and the responsibility of Horthy and the Hungarian authorities, is not honest,” Heisler told the Post.
“We cannot accept her as a Holocaust historian.”
He rejected accusations that the Mazshihisz Federation is reflexively opposed to the current, right-wing nationalist government headed by Prime Minister Victor Orban, saying that Mazshihisz has “positive connections” with the government and that the federation has welcomed the government’s support for its institutions and for religious freedom issues, such as religious slaughter.
EFRAIM ZUROFF, a Holocaust scholar with the Simon Weisenthal Center, concurred with Heisler that Schmidt’s role in the museum was “a very problematic decision,” and labeled her “an arch Holocaust distorter.”
Zuroff said: “If Communism is genocide then Jews committed genocide because there were Jews in the KGB,” referencing the prominence of Jews in the Hungarian Communist Party.
He said that the next logical step of this claim is that if Jews committed genocide they couldn’t complain against Hungarians for collaborating against Jews.
The government is clearly cognizant of these claims, and a government minister involved in overseeing the establishment of the museum referenced them during the joint press conference.
“The fact that in Hungary the organized mass transportation of Jews to death camps only occurred following the German occupation on 19 March 1944 does not mask the responsibility and guilt with relation to the fact that following this, the state did not protect its citizens. There is no collective guilt, but there is state responsibility,” said Gergely Gulyas, the minister heading the Prime Minister’s Office.
Köves argued, however, that the concerns regarding Schmidt would not be relevant once the House of Fates is formally handed over to EMIH, since the government resolution requires government and Public Foundation involvement only in “the basic principles of the institution,” and that therefore the congregation would have control over temporary exhibitions and the educational center, and that the other sides would not intervene in the finer details of the museum.
“As a grandson of four Hungarian Holocaust survivors and as someone who gave his life for serving the Jewish people, my only goal in taking part in this project is to make sure that the commemoration of the Holocaust will only be sincere and loyal to the memory of our predecessors,” Köves said.
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