Holocaust Memorial Center

Mária Schmidt’s latest opus: The love story

Mária Schmidt is familiar to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum. This latest article of hers also appeared in Heti Válasz, her favorite publication. Her vision of  Jewish-non-Jewish relations as a love affair goes against everything we know about the period between the two world wars. If Sorsok Háza (House of Fates) becomes an embodiment of that love affair, we will have a totally false depiction of Hungarian reality. No wonder that the Hungarian Jewish community has great reservations about the project.

I have no doubt that the Sorsok Háza will open its doors and that what we find inside will mirror Mária Schmidt’s strange vision of modern Hungarian history. She makes it clear here that the project is a government-funded undertaking and thus no one has the right to have any say in its execution.

Mária Schmidt started off as a promising historian in the late 1980s, but soon enough she changed her chosen profession to become a party propagandist. She became chief adviser to Viktor Orbán in the second half of the 1990s and provided the underpinning of  Fidesz’s historical ideology.

The question is how long she will be useful to Viktor Orbán. Her latest excursion into the field of historical propaganda was not exactly a success story. The controversial memorial to “all the victims of  the German occupation” of March 1944 did serious damage to the already badly tarnished reputation of Viktor Orbán and his regime. 

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“The Holocaust represents a value, because it has led to immeasurable knowledge at the cost of immeasurable sufferings;
thus, there is an immeasurable moral margin in it.”

Imre Kertész

I have not seen S. Z. for decades. The last time I met him was in New York in the early nineties at the place of the outstanding historian T. J., a common friend of ours, who has sadly deceased since. We got to know each other in Oxford where both of them were teaching then. S. taught Jewish history, of which subject he is one of the most widely acknowledged American academic experts, and I spent some time there on a research grant. Then S. came to Budapest for a conference, and after he gave his presentation, we went out for dinner. We talked for hours, and a lot of topics came up including the “House of Fates,” about which he had already heard a lot back in Washington and of course also during his stay here. Those who volunteered to bring him up to date concerning the state of affairs in Hungary, about me and the would-be Holocaust museum, had spared no effort to dissuade him from meeting me, both via e-mail and then personally. They were probably unaware of our long time acquaintence  which gave me the advantage that he wanted to ask me his questions and hear my answers, which is what he did. So we talked at length about the new memorial site which is in the making. I told him about the concept of the exhibitions and of the education and training center. I showed him the exterior and interior visual designs, the interior fit-out and furnishing concept. We discussed the prospective permanent exhibition in most detail. Finally he said: “If I get it right, this is a love story. A story of love between Hungarian Jews and non-Jews. A love that has survived everything. As a result of which there is still a large Hungarian Jewish community living in this country.”

Yes. This is exactly what the “House of Fates – European Education Center” is all about. This is about decision makers’ intent to take an oath on a common fate shared by all Hungarians: Jews and non-Jews alike. About the commitment to make sure that just like our predecessors we can also plan a shared future despite the cataclysms of the 20th century. This is why it is crucial for young generations to get to know and understand what the tragedy of the holocaust meant for our national community as well as what the causes, circumstances, intents and forces that had underlain and fuelled anti-Semitism in Hungary and in Europewere. Who and why had poisoned the lives of our fellow countrymen categorized as Jews even before the fateful Nazi occupation of Hungary. How and why part of the last, nearly intact European Jewish community could be so swiftly annihilated in Nazi death camps. Who are responsible for all that? Who were the ones who remained humans amidst inhumanity because they opted for what is good, at the risk of even their lives and freedom in some cases. How could the survivors start anew and process what can hardly be processed. Why the majority of those people decided to stay here, to start their lives at home again and share what their fellow countrymen had to share. For this is something unparalleled, something that is not self-evident at all, particularly if we consider the fact that in this Central and Eastern European region, and nearly in the whole of Europe, survivors decided to leave and part with their past.

The House of Fates is made up of three parts, namely an exhibition, an education and a training section. Moreover, it has an up-to-date, well-equipped conference room, a room for hosting and staging temporary exhibitions and the required infrastructural background.

The exhibition section is divided into three units: A permanent exhibition that takes 50-60 minutes to tour. The area of this exhibition is shielded so that visitors cannot use any electronic device there. The story that is related here focuses on the period between 1938 and 1948, based nearly exclusively on recollections of survivors, and is supposed to touch the feelings of the visitor, make him interested and, ideally, to prompt him to ask questions. The installation and the narrative are both targeted at the 14 to 24 year-old generation.  Having toured this exhibition unit the visitor can proceed to see the “exploration” section or go on to look at the remaining “chamber” exhibitions.  Upon entering the exploration section the visitor is (or may be) given a tablet, with the most important information concerning the items on display, including names, dates, and a lexicon, along with questions and assignments. Those interested in the chamber exhibitions may decide to see them or to come back and visit them at a later date. As our plans stand at present, the chamber exhibitions will show Hanna Szenes, the Zionist resistance, Raoul Wallenberg, Margit Slachta, Sára Salkaházi and the 1944 story of the Józsefváros Railroad Station as well as the story of the Jewish community of Budapest’s 8th  district called Józsefváros. This is where the walls of perpetrators, those responsible and the humanitarian rescuers will be installed. A videostream will be played in the exploration room, showing visitors the most important events and personalities of those years. A number of computer workstations will also be installed where additional information and data can be collected and studied. Interactive workplaces will be created for browsing and searching for information.

At the training center there will be programs bringing as close as possible to members of the “Y generation” the very feeling and experience of being excluded, outcast and persecuted, while drawing their attention to the importance and inevitability of making a choice between good and evil and individual responsibility.

Importance is also attached to offering a training program to enable teachers to teach their students about the collective persecution to which entire social groups had been exposed under the dictatorships of the 20th century, with particular focus on the tragedy of the Holocaust.

It was seventy years ago, in 1944, that Hungary suffered one of the most horrendous tragedies in its modern-age history. The second Orbán cabinet took its decision on the creation of what is known as the “House of Fates” in the context of the memorial year relating to the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust. In remembering the national tragedy seven decades after, this memorial year is intended to be a site of “creating order in our common matters” and have “peace flow through our rembrance and regard”1. In the context of the memorial year, the government has allocated a HUF 1.5 billion budget to social programs and it adopted a decision building up the Memorial to the Child Victims of the Holocaust – European Education Center at the site of the former Józsefváros Railroad Station.  I was entrusted with the role of leading the professional project team, while the implementation of the investment project was assigned to Government Commissioner Dr. Balázs Fürjes.

This assignment is a real honor for me but it is an immense responsibility and workload at the same time. It took me quite a while, wavering whether to undertake it at all. My children tried to dissuade me. As did some of my friends. One argument against taking up this job was that I would be exposed to relentless and fierce attacks. And even if all goes well, which I have staunchly believed up to this very day, I may expect nothing but denigration. Finally, I answered yes, out of love for my country. I hoped that through such an immense and successful undertaking I could perhaps make a contribution to reconciliation, to a discussion of the tragedies of the past to settle issues and to at least alleviating, if not bringing to an end, all of the evil and purposeless accusations constantly experienced even today. Thereby neutralizing or at least weakening the forces continuously calling Hungary an anti-Semitic and fascist country, using these unfounded stigmata as a political weapon to discredit the Hungarian nation as a whole. Indeed, I expected all of those who already started a media campaign against the  House of Terror Museum and spared no effort to discredit it both in Hungary and abroad, to activate themselves again, and, alas, so they did, wasting no time. The same individuals and circles, with the same vehemence, started the same ruthless attack driven by the same motives both in Hungary and abroad, against me and the prospective memorial site, unleashing that orgy of hate which is so characteristic of them. This is why the “House of Fates” project became, right from the beginning, a target of a series of attacks lead, most unfortunately, by the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Faith Communities (MAZSIHISZ). For as we were approaching the 2014 election campaign the neolog Jewish religious organization undertook to launch a frontal attack against the government – yielding to circles of intellectuals dissatisfied by the weakness and wavering of the anti-government forces – threatening to boycott the memorial year. They put together a package of three demands, calling for the discontinuation of the sculpture composition designed for Szabadság Square in remembrance of Hungary’s Nazi occupation, the removal of director-general Sándor Szakály from the helm of Veritas, a new historical research institute and a right to control and supervise the creation of the House of Fates.

sorsok haza projekt

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán tried to remove the politically motivated onslaught from among the campaign themes by inviting Jewish organizations to consultations after the elections.  Nonetheless, MAZSIHISZ and  its supporters continued their relentless campaign and their  attacks on the House of Fates. They threatened and tried to blackmail everybody cooperating with us or even considering accepting our invitation. They bombarded the members of the International Advisory Board with e-mail messages, as well as anybody else whom they could contact. They spread their accusations all over the place both in Hungary and abroad. In collaboration with certain leaders of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington – who have, to be honest, been rather negatively biased against us in the first place –, they turned Yad Vashem against us.

They are continuously inciting the Israeli Hungarian community as well. Among other charges, they argue that the name “House of Fates” is wrong or misleading, the location is not authentic, or if it is, then it is too particular; the deadline set by the government is too short for such complex work to be carried out properly, and then within one month of my appointment I was attacked for not having worked out a finished scenario. A public auto-da-fé was staged in the “Bálint House” where Professor András Gerő, arguing in favor of and working in the project team, was subjected to a ritual execution (also instead of me) by MAZSIHISZ employee László Karsai posing in the role of the grand inquisitor, in unison with the rather hot-tempered audience.

INTERNATIONAL PRESSURE

This had seemed likely to come; indeed it was to be expected. I went and kept going through this before, during, and for years after, the opening of the House of Terror Museum. However, the like of the direct and intensive international pressure I have experienced in relation to this assignment I did not even have to face at the time of the creation of the House of Terror Museum.  At that time it was only Mr. Mussatov, the then Ambassador of Russia, who protested against the new museum but his objections were settled through a joint tour of the exhibition and a discussion. The former diplomat has delivered presentations at several of our conferences since then. In regard to the “House of Fates”, however, ambassadors of a number of western countries feel compelled to lecture me on how to interpret, indeed, how we all Hungarians should interpret our 20th century history, with a special focus on the role of Miklós Horthy. I have had to sit through countless lectures delivered by western diplomats about Horthy, Hungary’s “revisionism”, the collaboration of Hungarians etc., and all of them represented countries whose history offers at least as many, if not even more, very good opportunities to raise uncomfortable questions. I was asked as early as just before Christmas 2013 by US Deputy Chief of Mission Mr. André Goodfriend – of course on a strictly “friendly” basis – for a list of the names of those working on the House of Fates project. Then a fortnight later he told me – again, on a friendly basis – that he did not agree with the participation of some of those included in the list. “I wasn’t aware that you needed to agree” was my response, also on a friendly basis. The Ambassador of the UK to Hungary assured me that Her Majesty’s government was avidly interested in the Hungarian Holocaust. This is very nice of them, particularly in view of the fact that their predecessors weren’t so very deeply concerned while the annihilation of European and particularly of Hungarian Jewry was underway. Both these gentlemen and a dozen or so of their fellow diplomats expressed their expectations and wishes in regard to the prospective exhibition. Hungary’s ambassadors in both Tel Aviv and Washington were summoned by the Departments of Foreign Affairs because of me, complaining about a remark I had made at a book presentation event, along the lines that the post-World War I system of dishonest peace treaties had been the most devastating tragedy of the 20th century and that a fair and unbiased approach should be taken when forming an opinion about Horthy’s role in history just like in the case of Kádár’s role, rather than viewing these political leaders strictly in black and white. Foreign diplomats, particularly some of the responsible officers of the US voiced their definite expectation that it should only be appropriate and necessary for the Hungarian Government to invite an international committee of historians to commit Hungary’s 20th century history to paper for us, Hungarians. They keep applying pressure to achieve such a governmental assignment. Even the US Foreign Secretary had been mobilized to achieve this end. I am particularly proud of the fact that during the latest Arab-Israeli armed conflict, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanjahu managed to find the time to send a letter to Viktor Orbán, voicing his concerns about my humble self and the House of Fates project.

As a consequence of internal political skirmishes and the unprecedented international pressure applied, both MAZSIHISZ and Yad Vashem withdrew from the International Advisory Board of the House of Fates project.  The rest of the members were also brought under pressure, to make it impossible for that board to continue its work. Therefore, instead of the next scheduled meeting of the international advisory board, we could only hold a consultation where the members present (Michael Wolffsohn and Joshua Muravchik) liked and were satisfied with our concept.

The situation changed somewhat by the middle of this summer. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Douglas Davidson and Sir Andrew Burns of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) ascertained, each of his own, that the misgivings concerning and attacks against the project are utterly groundless, and therefore it would be rather difficult to explain why they withdraw their support from a memorial site that will be Europe’s largest and very likely most grandiose and sophisticated such project.

Based on an initiative put forth by Director of International Jewish Affairs for the American Jewish Committee Rabbi Andrew Baker, a consultation took place in Budapest on July 28 among the House of Fates, the Páva Street Holocaust Memorial Center, MAZSIHISZ and IHRA, to remove obstacles from continued cooperation. The experts participating in the meeting raised no objection whatsoever against the contents of the exhibition and had no proposal or idea of relevance to be put on the table.  After half a day of discussions the parties agreed that a working group to be formed of the representatives of international Holocaust experts would help us with our work in regard to both the exhibition and education. The agreement so reached was broken up by MAZSIHISZ within 24 hours, again without any sound reason at all, asserting that the text that was published in the form of a press release was not the same as the one that had been agreed on, despite the fact that the president of MAZSIHISZ had approved this text beforehand in an e-mail message. Within another 24 hours IHRA  gave its support to this attitude.

The attitude of the foreign experts and officials is characterized by nothing better than what IHRA’s English Chairman Sir Burns told me at the end of the meeting in July – suggesting, again, of course, on a strictly friendly basis that I should no longer write articles, thereby referring to my text entitled Captive of the Past concerning the Szabadság Square memorial which had appeared a few weeks earlier in the weekly Heti Válasz. He and Mr. David Cesarini justified this piece of advice by referring to my responsibility for the House of Fates project which I must not jeopardize by publishing essays of sorts. All of these developments only deepened my awe and admiration of the developed western world, on account of its deep and staunch commitment to the freedom of speech and thought, even if I am beginning to vaguely recognize how much there still is for us to learn here, on the outskirts of the developed world, before we can also fully enjoy this privilege. Until then, we should best refrain from writing articles or doing things such as thinking about our own history – rather, we should be grateful and accept that all of these missions will be undertaken by them instead of ourselves, for our benefit.

MAZSIHISZ

The party-state dictatorship set up a single tightly controlled organization to lead Hungarian Jews actively practicing their religion through which it could simultaneously control both the internal affairs and the international relations of the Hungarian Jewry. Only the most determined individuals remained members of Jewish organizations during the decades of the party-state rule, partly owing to the above mentioned strict supervision and partly because open expression and practicing of one’s Jewish identity definitely did not meet the approval of the Communist authorities, in some cases entailing the devastating accusation of being a “Zionist”, in most cases with gruesome consequences. Members failed to flock to religious communities in large numbers despite the “Jewish Renaissance” that followed the political regime change. Those communities are still made up primarily of a few hundred – mostly elderly pensioner – devotees. Consequently, the leaders of those religious communities – just like the organizations they are heading – enjoy no general acceptance in Hungarian society, as has been increasingly revealed by a long series of scandals that have broken up in recent times.

No matter how a variety of influential international Jewish organizations as well as Israel’s representatives and diplomats have hastened to back them up, Hungarian society cannot be persuaded or forced to accept an official who first turned from transvestite performing artist into Lutheran theologian and Catholic parish choir master, and then on to the executive director of the Budapest Jewish Community, who is, according to the chairman of the Community, is not even of Jewish origin; or a former executive director banker who had been convicted for bribery. It is also clear for all interested outsiders that the current Chairman of MAZSIHISZ is not seeking an agreement in relation to the House of Fates but he is trying to improve his position to get re-elected by fully exploiting the media interest concerning the prospective memorial center. The Chairman of MAZSIHISZ is posing in the role of a relentless representative and promoter of the organization’s interests to prove his indispensability towards a handful of voters as well as international Jewish organizations and Israel. This is why he keeps upsetting all agreements and imposing new and then further demands and conditions. This is why he has formulated such demands in relation to the House of Fates that had never been and are still not considered to be of importance in relation to the Páva Street Holocaust Memorial Center, which is alleged to be very important to both him and the international Jewish organizations. During the past more than a decade the leaders of the Jewish religious community have never been able to contribute to creating the necessary environment and conditions for undisturbed and efficient work at the Páva Street institution, as is eloquently proven by the miserably low numbers of visitors and the unceasing internal skirmishes. And these unblessed circumstances were not in the least different during the eight-year period when they were cooperating with a Socialist-Free Democrat coalition government.  As a matter of fact, MAZSIHISZ leaders are driven by their own self-interests when they keep provoking fruitless conflicts with the government, whatever action the government happens to take. In attacking the House of Fates, they will even find it worthwhile to obstruct worthy remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust and our murdered compatriots.

In the autumn of 2014, Mr János Lázár the minister in charge of the Prime Minister’s Office who played a leading role in devising and organizing the memorial year for the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust; in putting in place the Szabadság Square memorial and the launching of the creation of the House of Fates, offered an adviser’s contract, much to the consternation of all, to Mr Gusztáv Zoltai, who had  played a leading role in blocking all of the above programs, until his dismissal in early April 2014. According to the arguments then put forth by MAZSIHISZ Chairman András Heisler, Holocaust surviving Zoltai had been so severely affected by the government’s intent to erect a memorial for the victims of Hungary’s German occupation, that he resigned from all of his positions. Heisler himself opted for a different strategy, by turning for help as usual to international public opinion. Zoltai, who used to be a 1956 Communist militiaman, a member of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP), a former member of the communist workers’ militia, headed MAZSIHISZ as an executive director from 1991.

His demonstrative inclusion on the government side was explained by the minister by pointing out that he “did not regard advisory services as some monkey business” and that they had known each other for quite some time. Public consternation was only further aggravated by János Lázár’s promise that the House of Fates would be opened “only in the framework of a consensual solution “, i.e. only if the domestic and international Jewish organizations, most recently, Hungarian Holocaust survivors and “those who suffered the tragedy”, find it to be acceptable and agree with its “professionalism”. Nothing could be more natural than Mr. Heisler’s interpretation: the minister gave them the right of veto concerning the House of Fates project.

Accordingly, the Faith Community, a religious organization representing about two thousand individuals will exercise censorship over the contents of one of the government’s important large scale projects, and will determine its view of history and its message. No such thing has happened in Hungary ever since the separation of state and church towards the end of the 19th century.

To let international Jewish organizations have a say without having contributed a single penny to the costs of setting up the institution is contrary to the responsibility of the sovereign Hungarian state for its own past, present and future.
In an interview with the daily Népszabadság (September 26, 2014) János Lázár repeatedly expressed that the moral values, the kind of community of shared values determining the political right, mean nothing to him. He finds criticism concerning his employment of Zoltay to be immaterial; indeed, he considers “any form of ex-post evaluation from the outside” of his newly hired adviser, to be a mistake. Let us not be surprised when using the same argument he invites one of these days the very Ferenc Gyurcsány to work for him as a government advisor, to whose Őszöd address Mr. Lázár referred the other day as a positive example.

Mr. Lázár apparently fails to understand that this time we are dealing with our very identity. This is not about practices in wielding power or safe bargains concluded in the background, but about principles, belief, all of the things on which our whole life, including our political community rests and is built. We have seen lots of examples during the past 25 years how disregarding principles and moral convictions lead to the loss of all values and then the collapse of entire political communities. When politics appear to be reduced to all-pervasive cynicism and bare immorality, the countdown will immediately start.

When I undertook to create what will be called the House of Fates, I knew what attacks I would be in for.  I undertook the job nonetheless, because I am convinced that my country needs to make sure that young generations also learn that preserving solidarity towards each other is one of our most important common values, and giving it up leads to immense losses and tragedies in the past, and the same would be bound to happen in the future as well. I am convinced that processing the past of our nation as well as presenting and teaching the lessons drawn from it are our tasks and responsibilities which we do not want to and will not evade. This is a cause for our national community that cannot be influenced by any particular or external interests. Not even if Mr. Lázár holds other views on this. The happy ending of the Love Story is at stake.
We must not let it get botched up. I for one will definitely do my share to prevent that.

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Still about March 19, 1944: A call against the falsification of Hungarian history

The following letter was sent to the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris, the Stiftung Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas in Berlin, and the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The signatories, as you can see, are from all over the world.

Holocaust Memorial Center, Budapest

Holocaust Memorial Center, Budapest

The memorial the current Hungarian government, despite months of protests, intends to erect is an important issue because it symbolizes a revisionist interpretation of the Hungarian Holocaust that is inadmissible. Let me express my hope that international public opinion will be able to prevent the erection of a monument that not only the Hungarian Jewish community but approximately half of the country’s population disapproves of.

* * *

We, the undersigned, ask the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris, the Stiftung Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas in Berlin and the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem to help safeguard the historical memory of the destruction of the Hungarian Jews.

The Hungarian government, with deep contempt for historical truth, persists in creating an alternative vision, which denies the responsibility of the Hungarian government and of those Hungarians who had facilitated, or participated in the murders during the Second World War.

We are deeply concerned about the attempt by the government’s Veritas institute (charged with rewriting the past from a nationalist perspective), to sign an agreement with the Holocaust Memorial Center at Páva Street, Budapest, and about the current insecure situation in which the Holocaust Memorial Center finds itself, without director. The director of Veritas consistently uses terminology once employed by the regime of Regent Miklós Horthy which had engineered the murder of the Hungarian victims of the Holocaust. This rhetoric, in line with government ideology, exculpates the Hungarian government of the period.

We are deeply concerned about the falsification of the past, and fear that there will no longer be a public institution in Hungary that will be able to work unhindered on the history of the Holocaust. There are now several operational or planned museums in Budapest that provide a historically inaccurate, distorted version of the past (The House of Terror Museum, the planned House of Fates, and the possible new conception for the Holocaust Memorial Center). The trend is towards minimizing the Holocaust and shifting the blame onto both Nazis and communists who are widely equated with Jews. We would like to ensure that the truth is available to the public in an independent museum or virtual museum.

We also ask that you support those in Hungary who oppose the government memorial that is being erected in Budapest to commemorate Hungary’s “German occupation” on 19 March 1944. The monument blurs the lines between victims and culprits by representing Hungary, or in recent governmental reinterpretation, “all the victims” of the occupation, in the figure of the Archangel Gabriel, while shifting all the responsibility onto German Nazis represented by an eagle.

 * * *

Nous, soussignés, sollicitons le United States Holocaust Memorial Museum à Washington, le Mémorial de la Shoah à Paris, la Stiftung Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas à Berlin et la Yad Vashem à Jérusalem de nous aider à conserver la mémoire historique de l’anéantissement des Juifs Hongrois.

Le gouvernement hongrois, avec un mépris profond pour la vérité historique, s’obstine à créer une vision alternative, qui nie la responsabilité du gouvernement hongrois et de ceux parmi la population hongroise qui ont facilité ou ont participé aux meurtres pendant la deuxième guerre mondiale.

Nous sommes profondément concernés par la tentative de nouer unaccord entre l’institut Veritas fondé par le gouvernement (dont la tâche est la réécriture du passé dans une perspective nationaliste) avec le Centre de la Commémoration de la Shoah de la rue Páva, à Budapest; nous sommes également choqués par la situation d’insécurité dans laquelle le Centre se trouve, sans directeur. Le directeur de Veritas utilise systématiquement la même terminologie que celle employée par le régime du Régent Miklós Horthy, qui avait orchestré le meurtre des victimes hongrois de la Shoah. Cette rhétorique, correspondant à l’idéologie gouvernementale, innocente le gouvernement hongrois de l’époque.

Nous sommes profondément concernés par le démenti du passé et nous craignons qu’il n’y aura plus d’institution publique en Hongrie qui pourra mener sans entrave un travail sur l’histoire de la Shoah. Il y a maintenant plusieurs musées opérationnels ou projetés à Budapest qui donnent une version historiquement erronée et déformée du passé (le Musée de la Maison de la Terreur, le Musée en projet de la Maison des Destins, et le possible nouveau concept pour le Centre de la Commémoration de la Shoah). La tendance actuelle vise à minimiser la Shoah et à déplacer le blâme sur les nazis et les communistes qui sont largement assimilés auf Juifs.  Nous voudrions nous assurer que la vérité reste accessible au public à travers un musée indépendant ou un musée virtuel.

Nous sollicitons aussi votre soutien pour ceux en Hongrie qui s’opposent au mémorial en train d’être érigé par le gouvernement à Budapest, commémorant «l’occupation allemande» de la Hongrie, le 19 Mars 1944. Ce monument efface la différence entre victimes et coupables dans la figure de l’Archange Gabriel qui représente la Hongrie, ou, selon une réinterprétation gouvernementale récente, «toutes les victimes» de l’occupation, tandis que la responsabilité est déplacée sur les nazis allemands, représentés par un aigle.

 * * *

Wir, die Unterzeichneten, bitten das United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, das Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris, die Stiftung Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas in Berlin, und die Yad Vashem in Jerusalemdabei zu helfen, die historische Erinnerung an die Vernichtung der ungarischen Juden zu bewahren.

Die Ungarische Regierung, in tiefer Verachtung für historische Wahrheit, insistiert auf einer neuen Version der Geschichte, die die Verantwortung der Ungarischen Regierung und jener Ungarn, die an den Morden während des Zweiten Weltkriegs beteiligt waren, leugnet.

Wir sind tief besorgt über den Versuch der Übereinkunft zwischen dem Regierungsinstitut „Veritas“ (das die Aufgabe hat, die Vergangenheit aus nationalistischer Perspektive neu zu schreiben) und dem Holocaust Memorial Center in der Pávastraße in Budapest, und die aktuelle unsichere Situation, in der das Center keinen Direktor hat. Der Direktor von „Veritas“ benutzt konsequent die Terminologie, die einst vom Regime Miklós Horthys verwendet wurde, das die Ermordung der ungarischen Holocaust-Opfer ins Werk gesetzt hat. Diese Rhetorik entschuldigt, ganz auf der Linie der Politik der heutigen Regierung, die damalige.

Wir sind tief besorgt über die Verfälschung der Vergangenheit, und wir fürchten, daß es nicht länger eine öffentliche Institution in Ungarn geben wird, die die Geschichte des Holocaust ungehindert erforschen kann. Es gibt derzeit mehrere existierende oder geplante Museen in Budapest, die eine historisch unrichtige, verdrehte Version der Vergangenheit präsentieren (das „Haus des Terrors“, das geplante „Haus der Schicksale“, und die mögliche neue Konzeption des  Holocaust Memorial Center). Der Trend geht dahin, den Holocaust zu minimalisieren und die Schuld den Nazis und den Kommunisten – die weitgehend mit den Juden identifiziert werden – zuzuschieben. Wir möchten sicherstellen, daß die Wahrheit der Öffentlichkeit in einem unabhängigen oder auch in einem virtuellen Museum zugänglich bleibt.

Wir bitten Sie auch diejenigen in Ungarn zu unterstützen, die sich dem Regierungsprojekt eines Denkmals widersetzen, das in Budapest an die „Deutsche Besetzung“ Ungarns am 19. März 1944 erinnern soll. Das Denkmal verwischt die Trennlinien zwischen Opfern und Tätern, indem es Ungarn bzw., nach der neuen offizielle Interpretation, „alle Opfer“ der Besetzung, in der Figur des Erzengels Gabriel darstellt, während alle Verantwortung den deutschen Nationalsozialisten in Form eines Adlers zugewiesen wird.

Christopher Adam, Historian, Carleton University, Canada
Eszter Andor, Remembrance Coordinator, Canada
Attila Ara-Kovács, Former Diplomat, Journalist, Hungary
Anna Balint, Independent Critic, Writer, Curator, Hungary
Zsófia Balla, Poet, Hungary
Eva S. Balogh, Historian, USA
Péter Bányai, Political Analyst, Romania
Anna Bayer, Human Rights Activist, USA
Nora Berend, Cambridge University, UK
Zsuzsa Berend, Sociologist, UCLA, USA
Gábor Betegh, Head of Department, Department of Philosophy, Central European University,
Hungary
László Bitó, Writer, Hungary
Randolph Braham, City University of New York, USA
Holly Case, Associate Professor, Cornell University, USA
Victor Caston, Professor of Philosophy and Classical Studies, University of Michigan, USA
Isabelle Cochelin, University of Toronto, Canada
Esther Cohen, Hebrew University, Israel
Vilmos Csányi, Ethologist, Researcher, Professor,
Vilmos Csaplár, Writer, Hungary
Erika Csontos, Editor, Hungary
Istvan Deak  Columbia University USA
Gábor Demszky, Former Mayor of Budapest, Woodrow Wilson Center, Hungary
Matyas Eorsi, Hungary
Robert Evans, Regius professor of History emeritus, Oxford University, UK
Borbala Farago, Professor, Researcher, Ireland
Gabriella Fekete, Psychologist, Hungary
Luc Ferrier, Groupe d’Anthropologie scolastique, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales,  France
Roy Flechner, Lecturer in Early Medieval History, University College Dublin, Ireland
Tamás Fodor, Actor, Director, Hungary
Tibor Frank, Economist, Businessman, Urban Innovative Solutions, Inc.  (UIS), Canada
Anna Fried, Canada
Laszlo Fried, Canada
Kinga Frojimovics, Historian, Archivist, Hungary
Zoltán Gendler Szabó, Professor of Philosophy, Yale University, USA
Susan Glanz, Professor, St. John’s University, USA
Peter Godman, Professor, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (MGH), Germany
András B. Göllner, Concordia University, Canada
Nadia Gorman, Dartmouth College, USA
Gábor Halmai, Professor of Law; Visiting Research Schollar, ELTE; Princeton University, USA
Miklós Haraszti, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, Hungary
Roza Hodosan, Sociologist, Hungary
Ágnes Horváth, Professor of French Studies, ELTE BTK – Faculty of Philology, Hungary
Eva Illouz, Hebrew University, Israel
László Karsai, Szegedi Tudományegyetem/University of Szeged, Hungary
R. A. Kaster, Professor of Classics, Princeton University, USA
Erika Kiss, Associate Research Scholar, Director of Film Forum, Princeton University, USA
Géza Komoróczy, Professor Emeritus, Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary
Éva Kovács, Sociologist, Hungary/Austria
Péter Kovács, Art Historian, Hungary
Mária M. Kovács, Central European University, Hungary
János M. Kovács, Economist
Júlia Lázár, Writer, Teacher, Translator, Hungary
Paul Lerner, Associate Professor of History, Director, Max Kade Institute for Austrian-German- Swiss Studies, University of Southern California, USA
Balint Magyar, Sociologist, Hungary
Michael Marrus, Professor of History, University of Toronto, Canada
Stephen Menn, Professor of Ancient and Contemporary Philosophy, Humboldt-Universität zu  Berlin, Germany
Andras Mink, Archivist, Historian, OSA Archivum, Hungary
András Mohácsi, Artist (képzőművész), Hungary
Judit Molnár, Szegedi Tudományegyetem/University of Szeged, Hungary
Piroska Nagy, Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada
Zsuzsanna Ozsvath, Leah and Paul Lewis Chair of Holocaust Studies, University of Texas at  Dallas, USA
David Patterson, Hillel Feinberg Chair in Holocaust Studies, University of Texas at Dallas, USA
Anna Perczel, Architect, Hungary
Anna Porter, Writer and Publisher, Canada
Jeffrey Prager, Professor of Sociology, UCLA, USA
László Rajk, Architect, Hungary
Ruben A. S. Rein, Merchant, Techdec Informatica, Brazil
Jeannie Rifkin, Cosmetics Consultant,
Kim Lane Scheppele, Princeton University, USA
Tamas St.Auby, Artist, Hungary
Gisela Striker, Walter C. Klein Professor of Philosophy and of the Classics, Emerita, Harvard  University, USA
Judith Szapor, Assistant Professor, McGill University, Canada
Júlia Szilágyi, Writer,  Romania
Sándor Szilágyi, Writer on Photography, Hungary
Mihály Szilágyi-Gál, Philosopher, ELTE, Hungary
Gáspár Miklós Tamás, Hungary
Jozef A. Tillman, Artist, Hungary
Tamas Ungvari, Professor Emeritus,
Judith Vince, Hungary
Judy Young, Holocaust Survivor, Canada
Talia Zajac, University of Toronto, Canada
Froma I. Zeitlin, Emerita, Ewing Professor of Greek Language & Literature, Professor of  Comparative Literature, Princeton University, USA

Viktor Orbán shapes the Holocaust Memorial Year

While Viktor Orbán was composing his letter, described by the philosopher Ágnes Heller as the handiwork of Moliére’s Tartuffe, the pious fraud who managed to fool his benefactor and his wife with his pretensions of divine authority, the Orbán regime’s political machine continued preparing the ground for its own version of the Holocaust Memorial Year, for the most part unadulterated by Jewish input.

Today I’ll focus on two events: (1) the agreement of cooperation between the Veritas Institute and the Holocaust Documentation and Memorial Center and (2) the meeting between members of the government and representatives of Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization for several Jewish communities. As I already noted a few days ago, the Veritas Historical Institute, directed by Sándor Szakály, and the Holocaust Documentation and Memorial Center, represented by György Haraszti, chairman of the board, signed an agreement of cooperation. Leaders of Mazsihisz and other Jewish organizations were stunned. Szakály and Haraszti have already agreed on some conferences that will be jointly sponsored by the two institutions.

The first conference will deal with the period between the German and Russian “occupations.” A sidenote: The word used in connection with the arrival of the Soviet troops is a matter of controversy of an ideological nature. There is no question that for the remaining Jewish population of Hungary the Soviet arrival was a “liberation” (felszabadulás), and therefore the Holocaust Center’s acquiescence in using the word “occupation” (megszállás) is unfortunate. Although admittedly most non-Jewish Hungarians feared the arrival of the Soviet troops, calling the event a foreign occupation is simplistic. It does, however, jibe with the Hungarian constitution’s (and Orbán’s) view of Hungary’s lost independence. The Germans took it away in 1944, and after the war the Allies that defeated Hitler’s Germany (which, after all, included the Soviet Union) continued to deny Hungary its independence. Hungary was a powerless, and hence innocent, nation; all the power, and all the responsibility, lay in the hands of its occupiers.

Monument of the March for Life, Budapest / Work of Zénó Kelemen

Monument of the March for Life, Budapest / Work of Zénó Kelemen

Now back to the controversial agreement between the Veritas Institute and the Holocaust Center. Historian Szabolcs Szita, the temporary director of the Holocaust Center, knew nothing about the negotiations between Haraszti and Szakály. Szita was named director three years ago and his appointment is coming to an end on May 3. No one knows who his successor will be. One thing is sure: he wasn’t encouraged to reapply. György Haraszti, on the other hand, obviously has very good relations with the Orbán government. He was named chairman of the board shortly after the election of 2010. He is also a professor at the Országos Rabbiképző–Zsidó Egyetem, the rabbinical school and Jewish university that is under the supervision of Mazsihisz.

As a result of his agreement with the Horthy-loving Szakály, a man Mazsihisz demanded the government replace with a more reputable historian, Haraszti was asked to leave all his positions at the rabbinical school at the end of the current academic year. I’m not worried about his future, however. The Orbán government takes good care of its own. As for topic two, at the request of Viktor Orbán a meeting with the leaders of Mazsihisz was arranged for April 30th, the same day Orbán released his letter to Katalin Dávid. The government was represented by Viktor Orbán, János Lázár, and Zoltán Balog. Mazsihisz sent its president, András Heisler; Péter Tordai, the president of the Budapest Jewish Community (BZSH); and Péter Kardos, chief rabbi of Hungary and a Holocaust survivor.

The meeting was described as a long and “frank” discussion. We all know what “frank” means in this context: the discussion was less than pleasant and it led practically nowhere. As far as the monument is concerned, it is not negotiable because Viktor Orbán “has no room to maneuver.” He cannot give up the original concept. This is very strange reasoning. Who is forcing him to erect the monument? Surely, nobody. What he might have had in mind was that because of his stubbornness he maneuvered himself into a corner from which he cannot extricate himself without losing face.

Some people might argue that Orbán feels so strongly about the issue that scrapping the monument and the idea behind it would shake the very foundations of his worldview. I doubt it. He is anything but a man of firm beliefs. He belongs to the church of “what works now.” The only promise the leaders of the Mazsihisz delegation received was that in establishing the House of Fates “they together will make a last attempt to create a system of cooperation that will ensure the true depiction of history in accordance with Hungarian Jewish perspectives.”

In certain circles this agreement was hailed as a sign of Viktor Orbán’s willingness to compromise. I am not that optimistic. I fear that the gulf between the two views is so great that it cannot be bridged. I will be most surprised if talks between government representatives and supporters, such as Mária Schmidt and György Haraszti, and Mazsihisz, supported by most historians of the Holocaust, can possibly arrive at a common ground.

Szakály’s appointment, according to Mazsihisz’s brief description of the meeting, was not on the agenda. On the other hand, the Mazsihisz leaders offered some preliminary plans for a “House of Coexistence” which Mazsihisz suggested as an alternative to the House of Fates. Again, I have the feeling that this is a dead issue. As is clear from the agenda of the conversation, the creation of the House of Fates is going ahead. A House of Coexistence would be another establishment costing additional money. I doubt that Viktor Orbán is in the mood to give such a gift to Mazsihisz and the Jewish communities it represents. Especially not after Jewish communities supported the two-week-long demonstration against his “accurate and flawless” monument.

Memorial Conference in Washington and Gergely Prőhle, representative of the Hungarian government

First, a very brief note on March 19th in Budapest. To mark the 70th anniversary of the German “occupation” of Hungary Mazsihisz organized what turned out to be a gathering of several thousand people on Herzl Square, in front of the famous synagogue on Dohány Street. Mazsihisz sent invitations to many important people, including Viktor Orbán. To be sure that he received it, they sent it registered mail. The prime minister’s office claimed that it never arrived. So Mazsihisz sent a second letter and got a second-string response. Viktor Orbán didn’t attend. Instead, he sent one of his deputies, Zsolt Semjén.

Now, let’s move on to a conference that was held in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The conference was opened by Paul A. Shapiro, Director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the Museum, and Randolph L. Braham, the foremost expert on the Hungarian Holocaust. Their two short speeches were followed by presentations by American and Hungarian historians of the Hungarian Holocaust, including Gábor Kádár and László Csősz, two of the three co-authors of The Holocaust in Hungary: Evolution of a Genocide about which we talked at length ten days ago. I will try to get the texts of all of the lectures. I can tell you right now that I’m lucky enough to have received a lengthy study by Professor Braham entitled “Hungary: The Assault on the Historical Memory of the Holocaust.” He would like to share it with the readers of Hungarian Spectrum, for which I’m very grateful.

Gergely Prőhle was the representative of the Hungarian government at the conference. He delivered a short talk defending the Orbán government’s handling of the Holocaust Memorial Year and growing Hungarian anti-Semitism in general.

As it turned out, Prőhle came to the United States to take part in the March 15th celebrations of the Hungarian community in Los Angeles. On his way home he stopped in Washington to talk to Ira N. Foreman, the U.S. State Department special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, with whom he discussed the details of the 2015 Hungarian chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. That was in the morning. In the afternoon he attended the conference in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Center, which he left early because he had to catch his plane.

The talk he delivered was short. He admitted that it is not easy for the government to react to all of the various interpretations of recent events. Anti-Semitism is not “a specialty of Hungary” and, according to him, the Hungarian government has done everything it could since 2010. They changed the civic code; they started a campaign against paramilitary groups. Admittedly, there are still problems but let’s wait for the election when hopefully the far-right Jobbik will be forced back to the democratic camp.

He denied the existence of any new interpretation of the Treaty of Trianon or the Holocaust. Hungary recognizes its responsibility, which by now should be clear. Trianon is an important issue but the rights of the Hungarians in the neighboring counties are more important.

Back in Hungary Prőhle gave an interview about his trip to Washington to György Bolgár of KlubRádió. Bolgár asked him how his talk was received and whether there was any follow-up discussion. Prőhle answered in the negative but admitted that he had left by the time the participants reconvened after a short break. If he had been there, he could have heard Zoltán Tibori Szabó from Cluj/Kolozsvár, writer, editor, journalist, who has written extensively on the Hungarian Holocaust, quip that perhaps it should be Fidesz that gets back to the democratic camp first. The audience loved it and responded with an extended applause.

Gergely Prőhle is an assistant undersecretary in the Hungarian Foreign Ministry who has the reputation of being a moderate. But how moderate is he? At the end of February he wrote an op/ed piece in Heti Válasz entitled “Arányok és tévesztések,” a play on words indicating that the Jewish community’s reaction to the government’s Holocaust Memorial Year was disproportionately vehement and hence mistaken. “It doesn’t matter who says what, the government didn’t declare 2014 to be the Holocaust Memorial Year because it wants to sweep Hungary’s responsibility under the rug. Given the amount of money allocated to the events, to talk about a ‘falsification of history’ and declare ‘a boycott’ is an overreaction.”

EichmannThen came something that took my breath away. Prőhle mentioned a recent film on Hannah Arendt’s years in New York (“Hannah Arendt: Ihr Denken veränderte die Welt” which according to the reviews I read is not exactly a masterpiece). I don’t know how many of you remember Hannah Arendt’s controversial book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, which originally appeared as a series of articles in The New Yorker. Adolf Eichmann was one of the chief characters in the Hungarian Holocaust. According to Arendt, who was present throughout the long trial, Eichmann showed no trace of antisemitism or psychological damage. Hence her famous phrase, “the banality of evil.” Her critics point out that she “grasped an important concept but not the right example.” That is, Arendt was wrong in saying that Eichmann wasn’t an anti-Semite but only followed orders. Indeed, some time after the trial his autobiography was published, which revealed that he was in fact a rabid anti-Semite.

In any case, Prőhle decided to refresh his knowledge of the Hungarian events of 1944 from this film. It “becomes clear from the film,” he writes, “how risky it is to show certain elements of historical truth that don’t fit the concepts contrived ahead of time.” If I understand Prőhle right, he thinks that Eichmann’s trial was a show trial.

But that’s not all. He accuses Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of different Jewish communities, of criticizing the government of historical falsification for material gain. This is how he argues: “Regardless of how legitimate Mazsihisz’s misgivings are, it seems that its main aim is to mobilize and gather the Jewish community around it in order to receive more of the 1% offerings of taxpayers to Mazsihisz.” Taxpayers can designated that 1% of their taxes go to their favorite cause, from churches to animal shelters to radio stations.

This is Prőhle, the moderate. I don’t know what less moderate officials think or talk about. At least they have the good sense not to write op/ed pieces in Heti Válasz.

Viktor Orbán finally sent an answer, but the Jewish community’s boycott is still on

The deadline had long passed and Viktor Orbán’s promised answer to Mazsihisz’s three demands to ensure their participation in the events of the Holocaust Memorial Year still hadn’t arrived. So, it’s no wonder that Népszabadság headlined one of its articles “Orbán is ruminating.” And indeed, I don’t think that it was easy for a man who is not accustomed to retreating to admit that, despite all the power he acquired within the country, he might have to back down on the idea of erecting a monument to the German “occupation” of Hungary on March 19, 1944.

On February 16, in his “state of the nation” speech, he was still adamant and denounced those who “dare to tell us what we should or should not do, or what and how we should remember.” Commentators were convinced that Orbán would stand fast and wouldn’t give an inch.

There were other signs, however, that those harsh words were only for show. Zoltán Balog told ATV on Tuesday that the topic will most likely be “discussed” on Wednesday at the cabinet meeting. Mind you, we know from an earlier Balog interview that “discussing” something at the cabinet meeting means that all those present simply lend their support to Viktor Orbán’s decision. Still, he wasn’t the only one who indicated that the infamous memorial might not be in place on Szabadság tér on March 19. István Pálffy (KDNP) also suggested that it would be impossible to erect the structure given time constraints. Presumably they knew something even before the cabinet meeting.

Although word about the postponement became official only last night, the well-informed Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság already knew about the decision a few minutes after the cabinet meeting. Her sources indicated that there was intense international pressure on the government, including German disapproval. Israel also made its feelings known by requesting the newly appointed Hungarian ambassador to have a heart to heart with officials of the Israeli foreign ministry.

After the decision was reached, Orbán wrote his long-awaited letter to the leaders of Mazsihisz. In it he mentioned, as Fidesz politicians always do, that the Holocaust Center was established during the first Orbán government and that it was during his first term that they declared April 16 to be the day devoted to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. On the other hand, he completely ignored the controversy surrounding the Holocaust Memorial Year: the falsification of historical facts symbolized by the planned monument, the appointment of a far-right historian to a newly established institution called Veritas who considers the Kaments-Podolskii deportations and murders of mostly Hungarian Jews a simple “police procedure,” and the concept and the person in charge of the planned House of Fates. Instead, Orbán claimed that the reason for postponing the erection of the “Gabriel” statue is the campaign season for national and EU elections that takes place between February 15 and May 25.

The contents of this letter didn’t make the slightest difference as far as the leaders of Mazsihisz were concerned. They announced that there is nothing in this letter that would necessitate calling together the entire leadership which decided on the boycott in the first place. This is only a postponement of the statue, with no mention made of the two controversial historians, Sándor Szakály of Veritas and Mária Schmidt of the House of Fates.

Gordon Bajnai agreed with the Jewish leaders. He called the postponement of the erection of the monument no more than a “cynical avoidance of conflicts before the election” which does not address the core problem: “Falsification of history still remains falsification of history two or three months later.”

Two fundamentally opposing historical views are clashing here, and in my opinion truth is not on the Orbán government’s side even if they decided to name their new historical institute Veritas. I want to make one thing clear. It is not only the Jewish community that cannot accept the Orbán government’s efforts to rehabilitate the Horthy regime. More enlightened members of Hungarian society, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are only too aware of the respective Hungarian governments’ roles between 1920 and 1944 that resulted in the deaths of millions of Jews and non-Jews.

Some people are not surprised that in the last twenty-five years perhaps the majority of Hungarians refused to look critically at their own past. After all, they say, it is a painful process, and it took at least that many years for the Germans to do the same. So far so good, but the difference is that now, twenty-five years after the regime change, instead of turning the corner and facing harsh facts, the Orbán government is doing everything in its power to prevent the kind of dialogue that might result in a fair assessment of Hungary’s twentieth-century history. In fact, it is undoing the fairly sophisticated re-examination of the past that already began to take place in the second half of the Kádár regime. Admittedly, publications on the Holocaust and in general on Jewish affairs are much more numerous today than in the 1970s and 1980, but I still have some very valuable books from those days in my own library.

Finally, I would like to talk briefly about two issues. Today Ilan Mor, Israeli ambassador to Hungary, and Sándor Pintér, minister of interior, gave out decorations to those who saved Jewish lives at their own peril during the Holocaust. Ambassador Mor bestowed the Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations awards to the children or grandchildren of ten Hungarians. Alongside the Israeli awards, Sándor Pintér gave out decorations “For Bravery.” I didn’t find a lot of information on this bravery award except that it is given to firefighters. Even a German Shepherd dog received it not so long ago.

Mihály and Szabolcs Fekete-Nagy at the award ceremony

Mihály and Szabolcs Fekete-Nagy at the award ceremony

One of the awardees was Béla Fekete Nagy (1904-1983), a well-known painter, whose two sons were at the ceremony to receive their father’s posthumous award. Mihály and Szabolcs  Fekete-Nagy accepted the Yad Vashem award but would not accept the “For Bravery” decoration from Sándor Pintér. Mihály delivered a speech which the cameramen muffled, but the message was that they would defile the memory of their father if they accepted the decoration from the minister of interior of the Orbán government.

I also just learned that in the last four or five months the government allegedly stopped all subsidies to the Holocaust Memorial Center with the result that this month the Center cannot even pay the meager salaries to its employees. This stoppage of funds might be a bureaucratic mix-up, but given the present tense relations between the government and the Jewish community it might be more than that. Perhaps the goal is to put pressure on the Holocaust Center to convince Mazsihisz to be less rigid and make a deal with the Orbán government. Or there might be another explanation. As we have learned, the Orbán government had rather strong objections to the leadership and concept of the Center. Since, as Mizsihisz argued, two Holocaust centers in one city are not really necessary and since this administration came forth with the idea of the House of Fates, it might want to marginalize or eliminate the Holocaust Memorial Center. I’m just guessing, but whatever the reason it most likely reflects the Orbán government’s two-faced attitude toward the Hungarian Jewish community.

The Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center publishes its “professional communiqué”

I think that this latest tug of war between Hungarian Jewish organizations and the Orbán government should not be viewed solely in the context of the treatment and fate of Jews in Hungary. Yes, the debate broke out as a direct result of the government’s plans for the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust. But we are dealing here with a larger project: the government’s concerted effort to rehabilitate the entire Horthy era (1920-1944). Downplaying the country’s responsibility for the deportation of Hungarian Jews is part and parcel of this effort.

There has been a debate in the last couple of years among political commentators about the nature of the Orbán government’s policies. Are they the result of a grand design or are they a haphazard collection of on the spot decisions dictated by circumstances? I am inclined to think that the first hypothesis is closer to the truth, especially when it comes to Fidesz politicians’ views of the history of the Horthy period.

One of the first steps taken by the Orbán government was the removal of the director of the Holocaust Memorial Center. A few months after the formation of the government András Levente Gál, one of the undersecretaries in the Ministry of Administration and Justice, paid a visit to the Center and expressed his displeasure at what he saw there. He especially objected to the exhibit’s linkage of the Hungarian occupation of the regained territories with the deportation of Jewish Hungarians from those territories. And he was not the only one to complain. Cardinal Péter Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom, objected to the placement of the anti-Semitic Ottokár Prohászka, bishop of Székesfehérvár (1858-1927), right next to Hitler. A Christian Democratic politician announced that he will not visit the Holocaust Memorial Center as long as Prohászka’s picture is there. It was clear that the Orbán government’s view was that, since it is the Hungarian government that finances the Center, it can dictate what goes on there. As the Hungarian saying goes: “Who pays the Gypsy can order the music.”

Szabolcs Szita

Szabolcs Szita

Soon enough the government fired the director and appointed its own man, a non-Jew, Szabolcs Szita, in his place. He is the man to whom Professor Randolph L. Braham addressed his letter stating that in protest he will no longer allow his name to be associated with the Center’s library. I don’t know much about Szabolcs Szita’s work. I do have one of his books, but I must admit that I didn’t read it very carefully. In light of all these developments, it’s time for a much closer reading. The book, Együttélés–üldöztetés– holokauszt (Coexistence–Persecution–Holocaust), was published in 2001. According to an English-language postscript, it “won the first prize in the competition announced by the Ministry of Education” of the first Orbán government. The first half of the unfootnoted book deals with the history of European Jews with special emphasis on Germany while the other half, about 150 pages, looks at the history of Hungarian Jewry from their settlement to the Holocaust. There is a lot of emphasis on Hungarian civilians’ efforts to save their Jewish friends and neighbors. Szita’s views seem to be more in sync with those of the government than were his predecessor’s.

Shortly after his appointment Szabolcs Szita gave an interview to Origowhich was severely criticized by fellow historians and Jewish leaders. Let me quote some of Szita’s contentions: “If there had been no aggressive German interference Hungary probably would have been the example in the eyes of Europe and the world. Until 1944 we were an island of peace. There were anti-Jewish laws but Jews were not facing the peril of death en masse as in other countries.” In this interview he put the blame more on individuals “who must be named and condemned, Baky, Endre and Jaross,” men in charge of the deportations in the Ministry of Interior of the Sztójay government. He also overemphasized the number of high officials who resigned rather than take part in the deportation of their compatriots. As we know, there were mighty few of those. A notable exception, by the way, was Károly Szendy, mayor of Budapest between 1934 and 1944. As far as I know, the “grateful nation” didn’t even bother to name a street after this decent man.

In 2011 Szita came up with some startling suggestions. For example, he thought that it might be a good idea to organize a professional debate on whether “there was national resistance” to German occupation. That question doesn’t need a lot of research. There is ample evidence already showing that there wasn’t. He also thought that it would be a good idea to set up an institute to investigate the activities of the People’s Courts. These were the courts that dealt with the fate of war criminals. How would that help our understanding of the Holocaust?

From this interview we learn about the genesis of the House of Fates. Szita came up with the idea that the abandoned building of the Józsefváros Railway Station should be acquired by the Holocaust Memorial Center. School children could visit there to learn something about the Holocaust. He would have placed a Wallenberg Memorial at the site because Raoul Wallenberg managed to save a few people at that station.

The Holocaust Memorial Center has been suspiciously quiet in the last few weeks, but I guess after Mazsihisz’s announcement of a boycott yesterday Szabolcs Szita could no longer remain silent. He and his staff came out with a “professional communiqué.” That sounds to me like: “here is the final truth on the matter.” It is a strange document. The first paragraph talks about March 19, 1944 as a dividing line (actually sorsforditó, which means an event that changes everything) when “the trampled down country without any resistance became free prey.” Further, the official statement claims that “it is probable that without the unexpected German occupation Hungarian Jewry would have survived the war.”

It is at this point that Szabolcs Szita goes further in his condemnation of Miklós Horthy and the Sztójay government than in his 2011 interview with Origo. Then he blamed only individuals lower down on the totem pole, László Baky, László Endre, and Andor Jaross, who were guilty because they organized the deportations. Now he seems to have moved from this position and also blames “Governor Horthy, the Sztójay government, and the servile attitude of the civil service.” He also makes reference to the “civil servants who were brought up in the spirit of anti-Jewish laws” and thus became violently anti-Semitic. Again, Szita refuses to admit that it was not just the members of the civil service who were infected by the all-pervasive anti-Semitism but the whole population. There were few people who raised their voices or moved a finger in defense of their Jewish compatriots.

Some people called the document “cowardly.” Well, it is certainly not a brave document, but what can one expect from an institute that is basically an arm of the Hungarian government? It tries to satisfy both sides and therefore its message is confused and contradictory. But at least the document names Miklós Horthy and the government he appointed as guilty of the crime, which is more than one might have expected from the new management of the Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center.

Randolph L. Braham’s open letter

Randolph L. Braham

Randolph L. Braham

Anyone who has ever studied the history of the Hungarian Holocaust is familiar with the name of Randolph L. Braham, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the City College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of over 60 books and co-authored or wrote chapters in 50 others. Here are a few titles: The Destruction of Hungarian Jewry: A Documentary Account (1963); The Hungarian Labor Service System, 1939-1945 (1977); The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary (1981); and just last year, The Geographical Encyclopedia of the Holocaust in Hungary. Some of his works were translated into Hungarian while others were first published in Hungarian and later appeared in English.

Randolph L. Braham is highly regarded in Hungary as the foremost interpreter of the Holocaust, and therefore he was honored by both the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest and the Hungarian Government. In 2011 it was the Orbán government that bestowed upon him the Medium Cross of the Republic of Hungary, which is the highest decoration that a Hungarian government can grant. The Library and Information Center at the Holocaust Memorial Center bears his name. At least until now.

 * * *

January 26, 2014

Professor György Haraszti, Chairman of the Board
Dr. Szabolcs Szita, Director
Holokauszt Emlékközpont
Páva utca, 39
H-1049 Budapest

Dear György és Szabolcs:

I am writing to request that you remove my name from the Téka és Információs Központ at the Holocaust at the Holokauszt Emlékközpont.  I reached this decision with a heavy heart, having followed the recent developments in Hungary with great concern. The history-cleansing campaign of the past few years calculated to whitewash the historical record of the Horthy era, including the changes in the constitution that “legalized” the sinister measures that were subsequently taken to absolve Hungary from the active role it had played in the destruction of close to 600,000 of its citizens of the Jewish faith, have left me, and I assume many others, stunned. The straw that broke the camel’s back in my decision was the government’s resolve to erect a national statue relating to the German occupation – a cowardly attempt to detract attention from the Horthy regime’s involvement in the destruction of the Jews and to homogenize the Holocaust with the “suffering” of the Hungarians – a German occupation, as the record clearly shows, that was not only unopposed but generally applauded.

I realize that for a variety of political and economic reasons the leaders responsible for the operation of the Holokauszt Emlékközpont would or could not speak out against the brazen drive to falsify history. I, on the other hand, a survivor whose parents and many family members were among the hundreds of thousands of murdered Jews, cannot remain silent, especially since it was my destiny to work on the preservation of the historical record of the Holocaust.

I hereby also return the Medium Cross of the Order of the Republic of Hungary, together with the scroll signed by President Pál Schmitt with the request that you forward them to the appropriate Hungarian authorities.

Randolph L. Braham
Graduate Center of the City University of New York