The controversial House of Fates Holocaust Museum in Hungary is a festering sore infecting the relationship between Victor Orban and the Jewish world.
More than five years ago, Orban and his right-wing government proposed building an additional Holocaust museum in Budapest. The museum, to be called the “House of Fates” was designed to focus on the suffering of Jewish children during the Second World War.
To assure that the content of the project would be historically accurate, the Hungarian Jewish Federation (Mazsihisz), the International Jewish Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem in Israel and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum based in Washington were asked to provide experts. For added authenticity, the late Prof. Randolph Braham, the pre-eminent authority on the fate of Hungarian Jewry, also agreed to participate.
In order to maintain control over the project, the government of Hungary appointed Maria Schmidt, a Hungarian Holocaust researcher, as head of the expert panel. Dr. Schmidt has previous experience in developing such museums.
During the inter-war years, Hungary enacted a series of anti-Jewish laws aimed at stripping away all political, social and economic rights from their Jewish citizens. With these laws, the government seized Jewish property and began a step-by-step effort to isolate Jews from Hungarian society.
In 1944, Hungarian gendarmes – the final step in Hungary’s eager cooperation with their ally Nazi Germany – forced 500,000 Jews into cattle cars on direct orders of the government and shipped them off to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in Poland. So eager was the cooperation of the Hungarians, that Adolf Eichmann needed only 150 Germans to assist the Hungarians in the deportation process. In fact, Eichmann said during his trial in Jerusalem that the Hungarians were never satisfied with the speed with which the deportation was proceeding – they wanted it to speed up even more!
Hungarian Arrow Cross militiamen butchered an additional 100,000 Jews in a countrywide orgy of looting and murder.
IN 1945, with the war’s end, the attempt to minimize Hungarian complicity in this shameful atrocity began. But rather than deny the existence of the Holocaust as some others have done, a cadre of Hungarian “experts” began to minimize the role of Hungarians in the murder, by shifting the blame from Hungarians to Nazi Germany. In their “sanitized” version, it was Nazi Germany alone who was responsible for the murder of the Jews, while the Hungarians were actually eagerly saving them. This narrative met with immediate resistance from Holocaust historians worldwide. Hungarian survivors of Auschwitz were equally outraged, strenuously objecting to this attempt to whitewash or “sanitize” history.
According to Prof. Braham, Maria Schmidt is the foremost Hungarian “sanitizer,” who has maintained that the death of Jews was an unintentional, secondary effect, a collateral damage of the war. In her narrative, the House of Fates Museum would focus on the suffering of Jews as well as the suffering of Hungarian gentiles during the period of communism. Suffering is suffering, neither version more unique than the other.
When Schmidt was appointed to head the expert panel, it was like the proverbial “skunk who stunk up the picnic.” Faced with her false and misleading narrative, the Holocaust historians walked away from the project. The government, embarrassed at their inability to find a Jewish partner for the project, delayed opening the museum until a consensus on the narrative could be arrived at.
Years passed, and the museum – the House of Fates – sat empty, as no recognized Holocaust historian would get involved with it. It became an embarrassment for Victor Orban and his cadre of Hungarian sanitizers.
ENTER THE Chabad Jewish group to save the Orban government.
Chabad, a Brooklyn based Hassidic group originating in Russia, has established a presence of late in Hungary. In the short time of its existence, its ambitious and politically savvy leader, Rabbi Slomo Koves, has developed numerous important and lucrative contacts with the Orban-led Fidesz government.
Koves received ownership of the entire multi-million-dollar museum project and promptly announced that he found no issue with the Schmidt narrative – and that the project would soon open. Victor Orban finally found a Jewish partner with Rabbi Koves, giving his rabbinical blessing and proclaiming the project “kosher.”
In interviews, Koves has vehemently denied any connection with his unqualified support for Orban (and Schmidt) with monies he has received from the Hungarian government. (This was not the only large grant that Koves has received from the Fidesz government.)
After some urging, Rabbi Koves agreed to answer some questions about his role in this project.
He maintained that the museum will open shortly.
“Although the government resolution sets the date for 2019, I am almost certain that it is impossible to finish off the main exhibit in less than a year and a half.”
When answering about Schmidt’s role determining the content of the museum, Rabbi Koves maintained, “The reformation of the content is done by international and local experts we have involved in the past two months – people with decades of international experience in setting up and running Holocaust museums. Ms. Schmidt won’t have a role in operating the museum.”
When asked to identify the people with “decades of international experience,” he refused to answer. He also refused to clarify the role of Schmidt. While he maintains emphatically that she won’t have a role “operating” the museum, he has steadfastly refused to rule out her role in developing the contents prior to the opening.
All follow-up questions regarding his “experts” were met with stonewalling.
“As I mentioned above, we are working with international experts on the content, whose expertise is unquestionable, and we have full trust in their work.”
Who are these “international experts?” Why won’t the rabbi name them?
Rabbi Koves’s evasive answers seem to reinforce complaints of his lack of suitability as a “mashgiach” or qualified overseer of such a project.
It appears to many that the naïve rabbi is the latest dupe in Orban’s ongoing attempt to whitewash the Hungarian role in the barbaric murder of 600,000 Jews. Others, less generous, argue that the rabbi has sold his soul to the devil.The writer, a DrPH, MPH, Sc.D, M.Sc.ed Holocaust and Jewish history educator, writer and lecturer, was born in Hungary. His frequent visits and contacts there enable him to closely follow Hungarian Jewish issues. His articles on Hungarian antisemitism have appeared in The Jerusalem Post and elsewhere.
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