Holocaust row taints Hungary's House of Fates museum project

By Nick Thorpe
BBC News, Budapest

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Image caption,
The site's giant Star of David will be lit up at night

Pilots landing after dark at Budapest international airport will soon have a new star to navigate by - a giant Star of David.

It will be lit up from the side of a tower resembling stacked cattle trucks. The illumination will be so bright that permission was sought from Hungarian airport authorities.

The Star of David, made of perforated steel, is the crowning glory of the new House of Fates museum, built on the site of a railway station from which Jews were deported by Nazi Germany in 1944.

The buildings were ready five years ago, but arguments over the whole concept of the museum, and the content of the exhibitions and educational centre which will operate there, have long delayed the opening.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Hungarian Jews were crammed into cattle trucks and sent to Auschwitz death camp

At the start of the 20th Century, one in four people in Budapest had a Jewish background.

Around 565,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust, in a population estimated at 860,000.

How Hungary's government got involved

Recent research suggests that up to 160,000 people of Jewish background still live in the capital.

There are three distinct congregations, of which the smallest is the Chabad-Lubavitch community.

Hungary's nationalist Fidesz government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has handed the running of the museum, and the development of the concept behind it, to both Chabad and the Institute for the Research of Central and Eastern European History.

The institute is led by a historian close to Mr Orban - Maria Schmidt. She is also director of the popular House of Terror, which draws 300,000 visitors a year to its mix of Communist and Nazi-era torture chambers.

In his office in Obuda, on the far side of the Danube river which splits the city in two, Rabbi Slomo Koves chooses his words carefully.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Rabbi Slomo Koves heads an Orthodox Jewish group in charge of the new museum

"The fact that the Hungarian government, after the years of turmoil, was willing to give the ownership of a state museum to an independent Jewish organisation is unprecedented," he says.

"It's a very heroic and brave act."

'A national tragedy, not just a Jewish one'

Andras Heisler, head of the Federation of Jewish Communities, questions both the concept and organisation of the House of Fates.

"The Holocaust was a tragedy of the whole Hungarian nation, so all of Hungarian society should remember it, not just the Hungarian Jews."

Handing the project to any Jewish organisation is a mistake, in his view, as it would " shut the Holocaust into a kind of virtual ghetto".

Image caption,
The House of Fates is eerily empty but is supposed to open to the public this year

"Our other problem is Maria Schmidt. She is not accepted by any international Holocaust remembrance institution as a credible historian. So we signalled to the government that the risk of involving her is too great. We asked the government: correct your decision."

Hungary's unresolved history

Behind the dispute lurk contentious issues from the 20th-Century history of Hungarian Jewry, and political considerations born from the blossoming friendship between Viktor Orban and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

According to the original concept, the House of Fates will cover the period 1938-1948.

Yet Hungary's anti-Jewish law, the numerus clausus, which restricted Jewish attendance at universities, was passed as far back as 1920.

And many Hungarian Jews fear that by tying the end date to the same year in which the state of Israel was established and the Communists seized power in Hungary, the museum's message will be: the "good Jews" who survived the Holocaust went to Israel, while the "bad Jews" who remained were Communists.

Andras Gero, a historian involved in the planning of the House of Fates, insists that such disputes are distracting attention from the museum's main purpose of educating young Hungarians about the Holocaust.

The target audience is between the ages of 15 and 25.

Image caption,
Hungarian politics has become part of the Jewish museum's story

Walking through still-empty grey halls, lined with deliberately rusted iron sheets, climbing the metal stairs that lead up from inside a reconstructed cattle truck, the museum feels half-way between a prison and a railway station.

A visiting television crew remarked that it felt like "a Jewish spaceship".

"The House of Fates wants to give a kind of emotional impression," said Mr Gero.

"The main goal is to touch the people, to tell them: 'Listen, it was terrible what happened, do not forget, and be careful - everything can be repeated, if you are not brave enough to avoid it'."

Placing Holocaust in context

When Mr Orban met Mr Netanyahu at the swearing-in of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on New Year's Day, the Israeli leader asked for three guarantees about the museum, according to Israeli press reports:

  • that the Holocaust be presented as part of a process, not as a single event
  • that those responsible be named
  • that the functioning of the House of Fates correspond to standards set by the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel and the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In response, Mr Orban offered "a new concept" that is unlikely to be revealed before the Israeli election in April.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Israeli divers used underwater sonar to search for remains of murdered Jews in the Danube

In the meantime, a new issue divides Chabad - representing Hasidic and Orthodox Jews - and the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities.

In January, divers from the Israeli rescue and recovery organisation Zaka began searching the bed of the Danube for remains of Jews shot by Hungarian Arrow Cross fascists in late 1944.

"Bones have probably scattered in the 75 years and could have been washed as far downstream as the Black Sea," the federation wrote on its website. "Searching for them is needless, and breaches the peace and dignity of the dead."

Chabad, however, saw things differently. Finding the remains were a "moral obligation", it said.

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