Federation of Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz) versus Mária Schmidt

Back in December 2013 I predicted that the creation of a new Holocaust memorial museum, the House of Fates, would be a very controversial issue. I wrote at this time that both Mária Schmidt, the revisionist historian of the Holocaust who was named to head the project, and the Orbán government “have very definite ideas about what they want and what they don’t want. They certainly don’t want an exhibit that exposes the responsibility of the Hungarian government and those 200,000 people who actively worked on the deportation of more than 600,000 people within a couple of months.”

And indeed, the project that still hasn’t quite gotten off the ground has been nothing but a bone of contention between the Jewish community, which was supposed to receive the museum as something of a gift for the seventieth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust, and Mária Schmidt as the representative of the government.

The presence of Mária Schmidt as the person responsible for the preparation of the plans aroused suspicion in the Jewish community because of her revisionist views. There was fear that Schmidt would create a museum like the House of Terror, whose exhibit is not an accurate portrayal of the history of 60 Andrássy Street, the site of the headquarters of  both the Arrow Cross party and ÁVH, the national security forces of the Rákosi regime. The fear was and still is that this new museum will try to alter the accepted history of the Hungarian Holocaust by adopting the views of Mária Schmidt, which most historians find untenable.

Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of various Jewish groups, demanded the removal of Mária Schmidt as head of the project. Within a few months, however, it became clear that Mária Schmidt would remain.

Then, after a couple of months of seeming quiet, behind the scenes negotiations took place between Schmidt and leaders of  the Hungarian and international Jewish community. The latter desperately tried to find a way to have at least some say in the concept and eventually functioning of the museum. At last, on June 30, the following agreement was allegedly reached:

Upon an initiative by Rabbi Andrew Baker, who joined the International Advisory Board of the House of Fates project in his capacity as Director of International Jewish Affairs of the American Jewish Committee, Mária Schmidt, the historian in charge of the professional side of the project, briefed András Heisler, Chairman of Mazsihisz (the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities), and Sir Andrew Burns, the Chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), together with a number of international and Hungarian experts on the progress made since the project was launched in 2013.

Participants agreed on a five point “road map” to be followed with a view to promoting the successful completion of the project.

  1. The Páva Street Holocaust Museum and Documentation Centre and the future House of Fates will co-operate and complement each other. Páva Street provides a permanent exhibition of the Holocaust as well as serving mainly as a center for research and documentation. The House of Fates will offer exhibitions directed toward young people while also serving as a center for education and training.
  2. Participants agreed that in addition to the International Advisory Board an international working group of academic experts will be set up in cooperation with IHRA to give feedback on the historical content and context of the exhibition.
  3. A similar academic working group will be set up in cooperation with IHRA to help in shaping the educational material and methods of the future Educational Centre which will be an integral part of the House of Fates project.
  4. Steps will be taken to establish regular contacts and exchanges of views between the House of Fates project and Mazsihisz.
  5. The outlines of the exhibition will be presented to the full membership of the International Advisory Board and subsequently opened up to the public at large in the autumn.

It looked as if the hatchet had been buried and that the two sides were getting closer to some sort of agreement. At the same time, however, there were troubling signs that the “road map” was in reality a worthless piece of paper because everything was proceeding apace without any consultation with Mazsihisz and other Jewish organizations. For example, on July 18 the Official Gazette (Magyar Közlöny) reported that the project had been enlarged. The government had generously added another 667 million forints for the restoration of three other buildings belonging to the railroad station. Thus the whole project will cost 7.2 billion forints. And the House of Fates will function under the auspices of the same foundation that is in charge of the House of Terror.

The House of Fates under construction

The House of Fates under construction

In the interim Schmidt indicated that she wanted to concentrate only on the deportations and nothing that preceded them. She claimed that the existing Holocaust Memorial Center deals with this period and there is no need to duplicate its work here. But it is hard to imagine an “education center” on the Holocaust that ignores both the widespread anti-Semitism that existed in Hungary and the government’s role in the anti-Jewish laws.

Then came several seeming blows to Mária Schmidt’s project. First, Mazsihisz (Federation of Jewish Communities) released a statement on the requisite conditions for future cooperation between Mazsihisz and the House of Fates project:

The president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities in Hungary – as he had agreed with the Prime Minister – attended on July 28 a consultation about the House of Fates project and a site visit of the future museum.

On July 30, the office of Dr. Maria Schmidt issued a declaration about the meeting. The content of the declaration was not truthful to the statement agreed by the participants at the meeting.

At the meeting, Dr. Maria Schmidt made the false declaration that she had no information on the future operation of the museum. In fact, ten days earlier, the government by its resolution 1390/2014.(VII.18) ordered the ‘Middle- and Eastern European History and Society Research Public Foundation’, directed by Dr. Maria Schmidt, to operate the House of Fates Museum.

This yet another unconsulted government decision, and the untrue declaration by Dr Maria Schmidt, undermined all agreements previously achieved.

In order to restore transparency and good faith, MAZSIHISZ specifies the following conditions for its cooperation with the House of Fates and its directing institution, the Middle- and Eastern European History and Society Research Public Foundation.

  • The interpretation of history at the House of Fates should be in line with that of the universally accepted exhibition in the Holocaust Documentation and Research Center in Páva Street, Budapest.
  • The House of Fates should reach an agreement on the composition and competence of the academic working group supported by IHRA. The educational working group should also be set up and its competence should be clarified.
  • The expert group of MAZSIHISZ should continuously participate in shaping and controlling the scenario and the educational material.
  • In setting up the team of exhibition guides, the House of Fates project should use the knowledge and the commitment of the experts educated at the Rabbinical Seminary – Jewish University, which is the higher education institute of MAZSIHISZ.
  • The operation of the House of Fates should be controlled by a body consisting in equal proportions of individuals selected by the government; the international academic experts; and the scholars delegated by MAZSIHISZ. Such a body would guarantee the politically independent operation of the institution under any future government.
  • A precise schedule of the preparations should be drawn up, and both the participating members and the public at large should be notified. The dates should be accepted by all participants of the July 28 meeting.

MAZSIHISZ hopes that by accepting and observing the above terms the House of Fates will become a worthy memorial of the hundreds of thousands innocent victims of the Hungarian Holocaust.

And then followed the statement of  Sir Andrew Burns, chairman of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance:

Contrary to media reports, IHRA will not be in a position to endorse the House of Fates concept until the consultations with the national and international experts as well as with the Hungarian Jewish Community have been taken into account. Dr Heisler has published a letter to Dr Schmidt about the points of concern to the Jewish community which are shared by IHRA. Close cooperation with Mazsihisz is not only desirable but essential in ensuring the integrity of the project.

Meanwhile work on the future museum is proceeding. According to Mária Schmidt, the grand opening will occur sometime in the fall. Mazsihisz’s refusal to support the project will not deter her or the government whom she represents from carrying it to completion. Even if, as András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, said, “it will be the only Holocaust memorial center in the whole world which would be created without the participation of the local Jewish community and one which has not taken into consideration its views.”

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59 comments

  1. CharlieH–Sorry that didn’t help. The folk musicians in Hungary often look to the music and musicians in Transylvania for sources. It is felt that the “true” music was preserved there in isolated villages and towns. Yes, the music is in Romania, but it’s Hungarian. There should exist also “Romanian” Romanian music. If you get to Budapest, there are two good sources for folk music: the shop right next to Mester Porta on Fö utca in Buda and Fonó on Stregova utca 3, Buda–which also has a tanchaz connected to it.
    I am only repeating what I have heard from Hungarians.

  2. Re folk music: it maybe that folk musicians/singers/dancers, like birds and animals, are oblivious to national borders.

  3. @gdfxx: actually, the USHMM in Washington was built with private funds. The land was provided by the Federal Government. And the operations are co-financed by private and federal funds (around 40% of the staff are federal employees).

    @Istvan: The Sorsok Háza isn’t exactly front page either… But surely, I guess Europe as a whole talks a lot more about “academic” cultural matters, including historical ones, than the U.S. as a whole. However, it’s not only about the past, contemporary creation is concerned as well.

    And while I do agree that views on History in South-Central European countries often seem highly divisive, and politically charged, I’d like to point out in their defense that 40 years of communist regimes had on many debates the effect of a lid on a pressure cooker. Also, I do not exactly share Wolfi’s vision of an ‘appeased’ Western Europe in that field, especially in countries with a substantial overseas colonial history – France, the UK, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands.

  4. London Calling!

    Gretchen thanks for the info. You have confirmed what I have disappointedly discovered – that the folk music scene in Hungary doesn’t really exist.

    I have just returned from 10 days at our Sidmouth folk festival where a whole town comes alive with music and musicians.

    Since Kodaly is respected and followed the world over I expected a similar scene in Hungary.

    Alas not.

    (If any of you want to contest this I suggest you YouTube ‘Sidmouth Folk Festival’ and see the fun to be had before you answer!)

    Regards

    Charlie

  5. CharlieH: On my first visit to Hungary, I tagged along with the musicians in their cart and the dancers in their carts for the Festival of the New Bread/Wheat. The whole line of us would stop, dancers jumped out, musicians played. Dancers jumped back in and the parade continued to do this until we reached the end village (who’s name I’ve forgotten). There were speeches, more music and dancing by the dancers and the onlookers, distribution of fresh bread and small glasses of wine to all to celebrate the harvest. For me, this integrated the music/dance into the life of the community. Takes place on August 20–Szent Istvan’s day.

  6. @CharlieH – I’ve got to disagree. The Hungarian folk scene is quite vibrant, and in many ways it is a model for other countries. Here’s one website in English:
    http://tanchaztalalkozo.hu/eng/
    Another way you can see the vibrancy is just by going to YouTube. A search for “mezőségi táncok” (this is dances from a region in Transylvania) will show you tons of recent activity:
    https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=mezőségi+táncok

    There táncház (“Dance House”) scene does focus a lot on ethnic Hungarian music from Transylvania, partially because it’s a great story of how Hungarians have kept their identity in what is now Romania, but also because it’s a beautiful and diverse tradition.

    What’s interesting to me is that for many Hungarians- and especially Hungarians living in the West- folk traditions now define Hungarian culture. There are many Hungarian-Americans who can talk for hours about the differences between the dances in different towns in Transylvania, but who have no idea what Déak wrote or the difference between Kossuth and Batthyányi, for instance

    The táncház scene has always had a streak of nationalism, but it’s gotten to be too strong for me. People will sell turuls and greater Hungary pins, for instance, and have NO idea that this might alienate some people. They will wave Székely flags, and then insist that they don’t want to talk about politics.

    At a táncház, you can learn thousands of dances from every corner of Hungary. Even some Romanian dances are part of the scene, including Invertitas, and you’ll also get an occasional Roma dance, and stuff close to Slovak styles. But you will never ever learn a Jewish dance (to bring the discussion vaguely back to the original post).

  7. Charlie: I’m afraid you could not be more wrong. The folk music and dance scene in Hungary is one of the strongest in Europe, but you need to know Hungarian in order to seek it out if you want more than the tourist oriented stage shows. Check http://folkradio.hu/naptar.php The government likes to use folk music as a branding device but as usual it ends up turning everything it touches into kitsch. Most people know the difference.

    There are regional styles and repertoires that are shared between ethnic groups. Transylvanian music is probably the most ethnically dynamic area for music, with Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak, Saxon, Jewish, Gypsy and Ukrainian musics all mixing and constantly interacting, often from the same (usually Gypsy) band. The music still has a community function: it is usually wedding music that serves the needs of guests from different ethnic communities.

    People apprentice themselves to learn from Transylvanian musicians because the music and folk arts survived and flourished there as a local minority cultural expression in the face of “national culture” in Romanian broadcast media. In many rural areas of Transylvania, broadcast media beyond radio simply did not arrive until after 1990 – if you wanted music, you hired fiddlers. In Hungary itself the same is true: some of the most authentic folk music is that preserved as a group identity factor in ethnic minority villages – Croatian tamburica music in villages around Pecs, Svab music in Tolna, Romanian music in Meherkerek.

  8. Gardonista: About Jewish dances: not entirely true. On some occasions they have been taught. One of the most experienced american Yiddish dance researchers lives in Pest, where she also is involved in the Dance House scene.

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