Hungarian Shoah museum shows pre-Nazi oppression

Exhibit shows how political, religious leaders helped lay the groundwork for persecution of Jews.

hungary shoah memorial (photo credit:
hungary shoah memorial
(photo credit:
A permanent exhibition opening Tuesday at Budapest's Holocaust Memorial Center illustrates how Hungarian political and religious leaders helped lay the groundwork for the persecution of Jews in the decades before the Holocaust. The exhibit goes beyond the Holocaust deaths of the 550,000 Hungarian Jews and 50,000 Roma killed by the Nazis during World War II by illustrating the oppression Jews faced even in the 1920s and 1930s. By touching upon the role Hungarians played in facilitating the Holocaust - instead of simply blaming the Nazis - the collection is expected to cause controversy. "The exhibit examines the relationship between the state and the citizens," said exhibit director Judit Molnar. "It shows how Jews were first deprived of their basic rights, and over the years of their possessions, freedom, human dignity and, finally, their lives." The display titled "From Deprivation of Rights to Genocide" includes personal belongings of Holocaust victims, short films, photographs and interactive features both in Hungarian and English. Hungary first passed laws limiting Jews' rights in 1920 and by 1938, they were declared second-class citizens as Hungary sought to "curb the expansionist moves of Jews in public life and the economy," according to one of the displays. While the exhibit points out the general responsibility of Hungary's post-World War I political, intellectual and social elite in the "ideological preparation" of the Holocaust, it also highlights some of the individuals it considers at fault. A picture of Catholic Bishop Ottokar Prohaszka - who died in 1927 and is considered by Hungarian Catholics as one of the most distinguished church figures of the 20th century - bears the caption: "Leading figure of conservative anti-Semitic ideology," without further details. In a country like Hungary where numerous historical events - both ancient and recent - are just starting to be comprehensively investigated and discussed publicly, naming names is a guaranteed lighting rod for tension. "There will be people who surely are going to be upset by that description," Molnar said of the Prohaszka caption. "But it's factual and we will stand by it." The exhibit also includes detailed histories of several Jewish and Roma families and how the Holocaust affected them, a haunting depiction of how normality was destroyed. Other displays deal with the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp - where a third of the victims were from Hungary; the aftermath of the Holocaust and its survivors; Gentiles who saved Jews, and Hungary's 1944 occupation by Germany, which ended the Jews' relative safety here. Despite the restrictive "Jewish laws" and the WWII alliance with Germany, Hungarian authorities managed to block Nazi demands for the Jews' deportation until German troops occupied Hungary in March 1944. Then, more than 400,000 countryside Jews were sent to concentration camps in just 56 days. In 1910, Hungary's 910,000 Jews made up 5 percent of the population, more than a fifth of Budapest's population of 880,000. Today, around 100,000 Jews are believed to live in Hungary, which now has a population of 10 million. Officials at the museum, which opened in April 2004, emphasized the educational objectives of the exhibit. During the communist era that ended in 1990 the Holocaust was a taboo subject. "Our aim is for every young person to see this exhibit before they finish school," said Gabor Szekely, chairman of the museum's board of trustees, adding that the recommended minimum age for visiting the exhibit is 14 due to some of its graphic images. The final part of the exhibit is located in a renovated synagogue, with a partitioned area for meditation. "We want to give visitors an opportunity to reflect upon what they've seen," Molnar said. She also pointed out that while a tour of the exhibit requires about two hours, visitors could also find thousands of extra photographs, testimonies and documents on computers set up in the synagogue's gallery. "We couldn't fit everything we wanted to say and show in the exhibit," said Molnar, a historian. "The exhibit is not a textbook."