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Controversy Surrounds Planned Hungarian Holocaust Museum

Feb 6, 2019
Originally published on February 8, 2019 11:07 am
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In Hungary, the Nationalist government is planning to open a museum devoted to the Holocaust. But Holocaust survivors and scholars fear the government is downplaying Hungary's history of anti-Semitism and complicity in the Nazi genocide. Joanna Kakissis reports from Budapest that this controversial museum is also deepening a rift within the local Jewish community.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Two towers with a soaring Star of David between them mark the entrance to Hungary's Holocaust Museum. The $23 million museum stands at what used to be Jozsefvaros railway station. It's here that 437,000 Hungarian Jews were forced to board trains to Nazi death camps between May and July of 1944. The historian who conceived this museum named it the House of Fates - a twist on the novel "Faithless" by Nobel Prize-winner Imre Kertesz, a Holocaust survivor himself. In 2014, that historian, Maria Schmidt, explained that the museum would largely show the unity of Hungarian Jews and non-Jews.

MARIA SCHMIDT: (Through interpreter) We want to tell the story of ordinary citizens here - not political figures. Each story is about neighbors. And there are good ones as well as bad ones.

KAKISSIS: But the museum's opening has been delayed for more than three years. The reason is deep concern about what may be inside it - a denial of Hungary's full role in the Holocaust. So let's look at that history. Long before Hungarian Jews were sent to death camps, Hungary had been oppressing them on its own for decades.

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KAKISSIS: Hi, how are you?

Anti-Semitic laws dating to 1920 prevented Rozsa Heisler (ph) from going to high school and university. Heisler survived the Holocaust. Now 93 years old, she lives in a cozy apartment, where she shows me photographs of her mother and grandfather who were murdered at Auschwitz.

ROZSA HEISLER: (Through interpreter) In the 1930s, the Hungarian government took everything from the Jews. Our shops and factories were closed. My grandfather lost his vinegar factory.

KAKISSIS: Hungary's leader back then, an admiral named Miklos Horthy, was responsible for those laws. His regime forced Jews into labor camps - all before German troops invaded Hungary. Even after the invasion, it was Hungarian police who rounded up Heisler and her family. Heisler remembers walking down the street to the train that would take her to Auschwitz.

R HEISLER: (Through interpreter) Most people cheered because we were leaving. They shouted anti-Jewish insults and threw things at us. The few who felt sorry for us just shut their windows and drew their curtains.

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UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: (Speaking Hungarian).

KAKISSIS: The Nazis eventually removed Horthy and replaced him with the openly fascist Arrow Cross regime. The anti-Semitism increased - with thousands of Jews being shot and their bodies dumped into the Danube. Today Hungarian nationalists blame all of the anti-Semitism on the puppet Arrow Cross regime. Hungary's current leader Viktor Orban has established the Veritas Institute to re-examine history. Its director Sandor Szakaly questions whether the Hungarians knew what was going to happen to the deported Jews.

SANDOR SZAKALY: (Through interpreter) The question is, did the government know that the 437,000 deported after March 1944 would be deported to death camps? This is debatable.

KAKISSIS: A new study from researchers at Yale University, Grinnell College and the European Union for Progressive Judaism shows Holocaust revisionism is rampant in central and Eastern Europe - with Hungary one of the worst offenders.

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KAKISSIS: Some of that revisionism is evident in an existing museum - the House of Terror, which was also conceived by Maria Schmidt. The very popular museum examines four decades of communist rule. Holocaust historian Lazslo Karsai takes me on a tour.

LASZLO KARSAI: That is one of the old tanks. And those are all the victims.

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KAKISSIS: We stop in a room about World War II. Karsai points out that the puppet Arrow Cross regime is blamed for killing Hungarian Jews, but there's no mention of the deportations that came before.

KARSAI: And here you can see not a picture, not a word about this massive deportation - the biggest and fastest deportation action in the history of the Holocaust.

KAKISSIS: This is why, Karsai says later in his office, Hungarian Jews are worried about what's going to go inside the new Holocaust Museum.

KARSAI: Because if you speak about the Hungarian collaborators, if you speak about the participation of several hundreds of thousands of people in the persecution of the Hungarian Jews, you are an anti-Hungarian. The majority of the people do not want to hear about the Hungarian culpability - only Hungary as a victim.

KAKISSIS: Hello, how are you?

The Hungarian government is trying to diffuse the conflict by giving management of the museum to Hasidic Jews who are part of a local organization affiliated with the Orthodox Chabad movement. It's led by Rabbi Shlomo Koves. He says no one going to the museum should be made to feel guilty.

SHLOMO KOVES: I think that the point of opening Holocaust Museum is somehow to give a platform of digesting the past in a way where people can still look up to some of their ancestors and some of the good choices of their ancestors and to learn from it and to take the moral lessons that have - need to be taken.

KAKISSIS: Chabad and Orban are allies with Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

But Chabad represents only a small fraction of the estimated 100,000 Jews who live in Hungary today. Most are in Budapest, home to Europe's largest synagogue.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Hi. Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi.

KAKISSIS: Just around the corner from the synagogue is the headquarters of the Hungarian Federation of Jewish Communities, which represents most Jews here. Its director is Andras Heisler, the son of Holocaust survivor Rozsa Heisler, whom we met earlier.

ANDRAS HEISLER: We cannot make any compromise. We cannot accept any whitewashing. We cannot accept any change of the history because in the background there are our grandfathers, fathers and relatives and 600,000 killed Jews.

KAKISSIS: But the government is pressing on - saying it hopes to open the House of Fates this spring on the 75th anniversary of when Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Budapest.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story we incorrectly say that all Hungarian Jews deported to Nazi death camps in 1944 traveled through Jozsefvaros railway station in Budapest. In fact, some did not travel through that station.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.