Above a defunct train station in the Józsefváros district in central Budapest loom two towers resembling cattle cars, linked by a gleaming Star of David and surrounded by a cluster of kitschy new buildings. The empty structures, which stand in stark contrast to the city’s faded grandeur, are at the heart of an international political and historical firestorm. Here, this past September, the Hungarian government announced that the House of Fates—a controversial $18 million Holocaust museum six years in the making—would open in 2019.
Who did and did not attend the press conference for that announcement is a revealing encapsulation of the crisis. There stood Minister in Charge of the Prime Minister’s Office Gergely Gulyás, representing the government of Viktor Orbán, who since 2010 has slowly and deliberately transformed Hungary into a self-described “illiberal democracy.” With him was museum head and historian Mária Schmidt, Orbán’s close adviser, who has been accused of promoting a revisionist, nationalistic view of Hungarian history that minimizes the Holocaust. Finally, there was Slomó Köves, executive rabbi of the small Chabad-affiliated Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH), a group brought in late in the process to represent the Jewish community.
Absent, on the other hand, was anyone from Israel’s Holocaust remembrance center, Yad Vashem, which has condemned the House of Fates as a falsification of history. It is one of many renowned institutions, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, that are refusing to cooperate with the project. Nor was anyone from the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (MAZSIHISZ), the country’s largest Jewish community organization and its representative to the European and World Jewish congresses, in attendance. It has announced it is boycotting the House of Fates until Schmidt is gone, her plans for the core exhibition are reviewed by other Holocaust scholars, and the museum operates as a government institution rather than an ostensibly Jewish one under the auspices of Chabad.
The House of Fates is ground zero in a struggle over history and memory, raising questions that are pertinent today not only in Hungary but also across post-communist Europe. The struggle is about the politicization of the Holocaust by an increasingly autocratic government and about who gets to tell its story, and how. To find out how a country creates a Holocaust memorial rejected by most of its Jewish community, I traveled to Budapest.
The story starts at Budapest’s existing Holocaust Memorial Center. Known as Páva Street, it was established in 2002 and since 2004 has housed a permanent exhibition in which visitors learn the history of the Hungarian Holocaust in which 565,000 Jews were exterminated. The central question—one that is at the core of the debate surrounding the House of Fates and of the broader struggle to understand Hungary’s past—is whether the Hungarian state itself was culpable in this atrocity and, if so, to what extent. The Páva Street exhibition answers this question clearly: Hungarian Jews were subject to discrimination long before the Nazis invaded. In 1920, laws were passed limiting the number of Jews who could attend Hungarian universities, and in 1938, the first of a series of anti-Jewish laws aimed at disenfranchising Hungarian Jews were enacted, limiting Jewish participation in the nation’s economic and political life. Jewish property was confiscated, marriage between Jews and non-Jews was forbidden and, after 1939, Jewish men were subject to forced labor and later organized into work battalions under the command of Hungarian military officers.
After Germany occupied the country in March 1944, Hungarian authorities actively collaborated in the destruction of the country’s Jewish population. In 1944, between May 15 and July 9, more than 437,000 mostly rural Hungarian Jews were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. With only 150 people under his command, Adolf Eichmann could not have run what was the fastest deportation operation to take place during the Holocaust without the efficient work of helpful Hungarian authorities.
Walking around the exhibition, which hasn’t changed since I first visited some years ago, I saw few other museumgoers. The Holocaust Memorial Center is located in a neighborhood rarely visited by tourists. The exhibition is text-heavy and old. Letters were peeling off or simply missing from explanatory panels. Szabolcs Szita, the jovial director of the Center, says the resources to renovate the main exhibition are currently unavailable, the Hungarian government having squeezed Páva Street’s budget in recent years: “We are not starving to death but not fed to saturation either.”
Szita told me that it was he who first proposed to the Hungarian government in June 2013 that something be done with the dilapidated Józsefváros station. “My idea was to establish a European Holocaust educational center in the buildings of the abandoned railway station, since this station was an authentic place from which deportations were carried out,” he says. “I wanted to have an exhibition on the deportation there where boxcars could have been placed on the railway tracks.” Szita approached János Lázár, then Orbán’s right-hand man, who was encouraging. But he heard nothing more on his proposal. One month later, Szita was surprised to hear that the Hungarian government planned to open a new Holocaust museum in Józsefváros, albeit one under the supervision of Mária Schmidt.
Before she became Orbán’s “intellectual-in-chief” and the most politically powerful historian in Hungary, Schmidt, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was one of a number of Holocaust scholars who gained prominence near the end of communism in the late 1980s. A protégé of the most famous Hungarian historian of the time, György Ránki, she won scholarships to study at institutions such as Yad Vashem and Tel Aviv University.
Schmidt, who is not Jewish, married a wealthy Hungarian Jewish businessman, András Ungár, with whom she had two children. Jewish community insiders acknowledge that, as the non-Jewish wife of a Jewish husband, she was not embraced by the Jewish community. (Ungár passed away in 2006, leaving her his fortune of nearly $18 million and interests in a range of companies.) According to the leading historian of the Hungarian Holocaust, Randolph L. Braham (who died this past November), Schmidt radically changed paths in 1989. Whatever the reason, she gave herself over to nationalist reinterpretations of Hungarian history and became interested in the crimes of the communist-era regime.
Her influence grew after she became an adviser to Orbán during his first term in office, from 1998 to 2002. Hungarian observers such as historian Eva S. Balogh, author of the highly regarded Hungarian Spectrum blog, have written that it is Schmidt who guides Orbán on historical matters and not the other way around. With Orbán’s support, in 2002 Schmidt opened Budapest’s House of Terror Museum, which she has presided over since and which serves as a monument to her influence, connections and tendentious historical views.
The House of Terror focuses on the horrors of Hungary’s 20th-century fascist and communist regimes and serves as a memorial to their victims, including those detained, interrogated, tortured or killed. It is located inside a building that served first as the headquarters of the fascist collaborationist Arrow Cross Party, and later by the Soviet-supported secret police force. The period covered by the museum exhibition begins in October 1944, when the Arrow Cross established the Nazi puppet Government of National Unity, which lasted until May 1945. It then turns to the Soviet era, when Hungary became a satellite state, opposition parties were suppressed and a prison camp system modeled on the Soviet Gulag was established. The exhibition ends with the failed uprising against the communist regime in 1956. The conflation of the Nazi era with the communist one has alarmed critics. “Schmidt has, in the view of many historians, used this richly funded institution to denigrate and minimize the Holocaust and emphasize the crimes that had been committed during the communist era,” wrote historian Braham, who was a Holocaust survivor himself.
When I visited the House of Terror, it seemed to me to be more amusement-park-style haunted house than museum. A stairwell lit in bloodred leads to the exhibition. Loud, driving, portentous music blares throughout. Since explanatory plaques are eschewed, patrons are not able to separate artifacts from replicas and learn little about the years the museum purports to explain. Indeed, the House of Terrors is more about setting a mood and advancing a particular message than imparting historical information.
That message—in an exhibition that accentuates and even glorifies Hungarian national suffering—is not subtle. Images of the Nazi occupation and the Soviet occupation flicker on opposite sides of a central wall in the opening hall. On the same floor a uniform of the Arrow Cross rotates back-to-back with the attire of a communist enforcer. In other words, the Nazi and Soviets periods of Hungarian history are explicitly portrayed as moral equivalents.
Another point of contention, especially within the Hungarian Jewish community, is Schmidt’s track record of questionable statements. In 1999, for example, while giving a lecture before a largely right-wing audience, she said: “The extermination or rescue of the Jews represented but a secondary, marginal point of view not among the war aims of either belligerent.” MAZSIHISZ president András Heisler finds statements such as this troubling. “Mária Schmidt’s views on the Holocaust are very divisive,” he says. “Most Holocaust researchers don’t share them.” He warns that her views should not be portrayed “inside a state institution” without further public debate.
With Schmidt at the forefront, the Józsefváros project provoked suspicion from the start. MAZSIHISZ was concerned that, like the House of Terror, the museum would focus on events after March 1944, ignoring prior Hungarian anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish legislation. Despite their reservations, groups such as Yad Vashem and scholars such as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian Anne Applebaum initially agreed to be on the House of Fates’ advisory board. The group met once in Budapest, and board member Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director for international Jewish affairs, recalls the meeting was “rather stormy.” Schmidt, he says, had “kept most of her planning to herself, and that meeting was the first occasion for any of us to see what she intended. She was more in search of endorsement rather than advice”—and Yad Vashem, which disassociated itself totally from the project in 2014, and others didn’t want to play ball. “The group never met again,” says Baker.
One of the biggest objections to the House of Fates is that its planning remains so secretive. One person I talked with who did seem to have real information about its proposed contents was András Gerö, director of Budapest’s Habsburg Historical Institute, an organization that funds and publishes research on the Habsburg Empire. Gerö, a secular Jew, contributed to the initial concept for the House of Fates around four years ago, submitting his ideas to a small circle of people who were working on its design. Although he says he no longer has any connection with the project, he has ties to Schmidt. His Habsburg Historical Institute is government-funded, and Gerö is vice-chair of Hungary’s First World War Centennial Committee, which Schmidt chairs.
To the best of Gerö’s knowledge, the plan, at least initially, was for the House of Fates to be divided into four parts: an exhibition, a “knowledge center,” an educational institution and an event center. The main exhibition, he says, will cover the years 1938 (the year that anti-Jewish laws modeled on the Nuremberg Laws were instituted in Hungary) to 1948 (the year before communism was institutionalized in Hungary and the year the State of Israel was established). It will include not just the events of the Holocaust but the road to it—in order to explore how a group of Hungarian citizens could be stripped of their dignity, stigmatized and sent to their deaths, and how survivors’ lives were irrevocably altered.
Presented as a Hungarian tragedy as opposed to an inherently Jewish one, the exhibition will tell the story through video recordings of people who were children at the time of the Holocaust. With 14- to 25-year-olds as the target audience, it will be a museum about and for young people. As in the House of Terror, the plan is to display objects, but few, if any, explanatory captions.
The House of Fates exhibition is intended to have an emotional impact, Gerö explains, and show how the world was turned upside down by the Holocaust. “The Holocaust is an unfinished story,” he says. “Maybe historically it finished when the last Nazi death camp was liberated, but there are survivors, and their lives were completely changed by the Holocaust.” This, he says, is why the plan is for the main exhibition to conclude with Hungarian survivors facing a choice between remaining in communist Hungary or leaving for Israel. The House of Fates will also highlight the role of the Righteous Among the Nations and the power of the individual, he says, in order to heighten the distinction between good and evil.
But what Zsuzsanna Toronyi, director of the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archive (an institution founded in the early 1900s and located within the building complex of Budapest’s Dohány Street Synagogue) has learned so far has been enough to make her oppose the plans for the main exhibition. Her objections fall broadly into two categories. The first is what is being told: what has been included or omitted from the museum’s narrative. The second is how that story is told: how the materials on display control the flow of information the visitor receives.
“For me, it is not a museum,” Toronyi says of the House of Fates. “It is only a place where something will be exhibited. It is like a theater.” As an example, she describes a proposed replica of a school classroom that has all its furniture on the ceiling—a literal representation of the world turned on its head. Toronyi also believes that a museum dedicated to the memories of those who were children during World War II is inherently problematic, as a young person cannot comprehend the magnitude of the Holocaust. Moreover, she says, if a museum looks at the Holocaust only through the eyes of those who can provide testimony, then it sees events only through the perspectives of survivors and non-Jews who saved Jews. Those who were murdered, bystanders and collaborators are underrepresented or omitted altogether. Although the exhibition will use video testimonies recorded by the USC Shoah Foundation, which was founded by Steven Spielberg in 1994, Toronyi says the message will rest in the hands of those who edit the material.
In addition, she believes that limiting the exhibition to the years 1938 to 1948 avoids discussion of deep-rooted Hungarian anti-Semitism. And lastly, Toronyi views the proposed ending of the exhibition, the binary choice between Zionism and communism, as untrue. In reality, she says, the situation and choices were more difficult and complicated.
Schmidt stuck by her plans, despite the opposition, and construction began on the House of Fates in December 2013, with a plan to open the museum in April 2014. Most of the building was finished, but, in part because of the uproar in and outside of Hungary, the project ground to a halt. The AJC’s Baker led reconciliation efforts between Schmidt, MAZSIHISZ and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in June 2014. All groups agreed to a “road map” for the House of Fates completion, but it fell apart a month later. In August 2014, János Lázár, who had initially proposed the project, essentially put it on ice by promising MAZSIHISZ and Yad Vashem that no exhibition would be mounted without the active cooperation of Jewish communal institutions and international Holocaust scholars. In an op-ed published in October 2014, Schmidt grumbled that this gave MAZSIHISZ “the right of veto concerning the House of Fates project.”
In 2014, the feud between Schmidt and Lázár played out in the Hungarian press, and rumors circulated that Schmidt was going to be removed from the House of Fates leadership so that the project might proceed. Schmidt attacked the Hungarian Jewish community for insisting on what she calls a “victim status” regarding the Holocaust. “They would like [this] to bleed to generations of those who suffered no harm,” she wrote in an article, arguing that certain Jews “would like to consider their ancestors’ tragic fate an inheritable and advantageous privilege.” Progress on the museum remained frozen until April 2018, when Lázár announced he was stepping down from his role in the prime minister’s office. In September, the government sidestepped MAZSIHISZ by announcing a new partner: Chabad.
The Chabad-affiliated organization, EMIH, can be found on the top floor of a small building on Budapest’s left bank that the group shares with a radio station. Chabad arrived in Hungary in the summer of 1989 in the form of New York-born rabbi Baruch Oberlander, the son of Hungarian Holocaust survivors. His presence there was crucial to Chabad’s outreach during the 1990s and 2000s, says András Kovács, director of Jewish studies at Central European University. Oberlander not only spoke Hungarian but was prepared to entertain any and all questions from those who were looking to reconnect with their Jewish identity.
Under Oberlander and with Slomó Köves as EMIH’s executive rabbi, Chabad became Hungary’s second-largest Jewish religious community (although still much smaller than MAZSIHISZ). Köves was born in Budapest and was ten years old when Chabad arrived. He explains that the Hasidic movement was the only group actively reaching out during the Jewish revival of his youth, and he was drawn to what he calls its philosophical approach to Judaism. These factors, he says, helped Chabad develop deep roots in Hungary.
Köves, who moves effortlessly between English, Hebrew and Hungarian, has no qualms about working with the Orbán government. He tells me that it is better to be involved in a project such as the House of Fates in order to influence it than to stand on the outside and oppose it, as he accuses MAZSIHISZ of doing. He says his goal, plain and simple, is to revive Jewish life, and that he has heard that Mária Schmidt’s role with the House of Fates will end upon its opening, something the Hungarian government would neither confirm nor deny.
But the museum’s critics remain deeply unconvinced. Will EMIH control the House of Fates, or has it been brought on board to give it a hechsher, Toronyi asks, insinuating EMIH is just there to give a kosher seal of approval to a government opposed by Hungarian Jews. (András Kovács’s research has shown that nearly 100 percent of Jews in Hungary vote for parties other than Orbán’s Fidesz.) MAZSIHISZ rabbi Zoltan Radnoti doesn’t buy Köves’s assurances about his ability to influence the House of Fates either. To MAZSIHISZ it appears that the government is attempting to do an end run around them by aligning itself with Chabad.
MAZSIHISZ president Heisler believes the Hungarian government should not “outsource the remembrance of the Hungarian Holocaust” to any Jewish organization—including MAZSIHISZ: “It is the state’s responsibility to operate [the House of Fates] since this is not a Jewish issue but one for the entire Hungarian society.” Jewish organizations, he says, should serve God and their brethren—not political parties.
Köves defends his role by saying that, in Budapest as anywhere else in the world, there is friction and competition among factions of the Jewish community. Köves says MAZSIHISZ does not have a monopoly on speaking for Hungarian Jews. It is “not legitimate” historically or philosophically, says Köves, for one group to represent the entire Jewish community.
According to Kovács, MAZSIHISZ—which aligns most closely with American Conservative Judaism—is seen by Hungarian Jews as more representative of their views than EMIH. But he adds that this dispute has to be understood in context. His research shows that while there are 100,000 to 120,000 Jews in Hungary today—almost all in Budapest—only 10,500 elect to give 1 percent of their income tax to one of its three recognized Jewish communities: 7,400 to MAZSIHISZ, 2,840 to EMIH and the reminder to a tiny Orthodox community that broke off from MAZSIHISZ. And of that 10,500, only about 1,000 go to synagogue on a regular basis. MAZSIHISZ and EMIH, therefore, are competing over a small fraction of the Hungarian Jewish community.
House of Fates supporter Gerö, meanwhile, is not interested in this internal Jewish conflict. He argues that MAZSIHISZ is an organization with many internal conflicts, for which the House of Fates serves as a useful foil. Says Gerö: “The memory of the Holocaust is proclaimed as a national issue, but in practice it is in a ghetto. If you want to open the gates or deconstruct the walls of this ghetto, you have to do something new; otherwise Holocaust remembrance will remain in a ghetto.”
The government says that the House of Fates will open in time to commemorate this year’s 75th anniversary of the deportation of Hungarian Jews, although whether it will is unclear. A government spokesperson I asked hedged. “In the Hungarian capital a Holocaust museum and memorial center has operated for almost 20 years with the Hungarian government’s support,” he said. “Therefore, there is no need to rush with the opening of the House of Fates museum until a peaceful resolution is reached. Once there is an agreed [upon] concept regarding the content of the museum, it can then be widely discussed.”
Orbán does have a record of backing down on occasion under international pressure. When the American government joined protests against a statue honoring Bálint Hóman, a proponent of anti-Jewish laws during the 1930s and 1940s, Orbán did not move forward. In 2016, demonstrations against a proposed statue at Páva Street of György Donáth, a Holocaust-era politician who supported anti-Semitic legislation, persuaded government aligned supporters to pull the plug. Perhaps, then, if major American Jewish institutions such as the American Jewish Committee or Anti-Defamation League or Jewish Federations of North America vocalize their discontent, the Hungarian government will decide that the House of Fates isn’t worth it and quietly remove it as a topic from its agenda once more.
Then again, perhaps not. Orbán defiantly withstood protests and allowed the controversial Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation to proceed—even though critics believe it whitewashes Hungary’s role in the Holocaust. Orbán did not back down from his anti-Semitic propaganda campaign against George Soros or the recent eviction of Soros’s Central European University from Budapest, despite international outcry. He refused to condemn Figyelö—a newsweekly owned until recently by Mária Schmidt—when it published a cover in December depicting MAZSIHISZ president András Heisler surrounded by banknotes and when World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder demanded that Orbán denounce the cover, Orbán lashed out at him and accused him of having a left-wing political agenda.
There are many variables, and one of them is Orbán’s new ally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu and Orbán have a close relationship, and in 2017, Netanyahu became the first Israeli prime minister to visit Budapest since the fall of communism in 1989. This past July, Orbán traveled to Israel for the first time and was warmly welcomed by Netanyahu. In December, Netanyahu inserted himself into the House of Fates debate when the Israeli press reported that, in spite of opposition from the Israeli foreign ministry and Yad Vashem, Netanyahu was working “to reach consensus regarding the narrative” of the museum, according to a statement released by his office. It was also reported that during his most recent trip to the Hungarian capital, Netanyahu did not meet with MAZSIHISZ president and House of Fates opponent Heisler as he has in the past—ostensibly because he did not have the time, though more likely because he did not wish to irk Orbán. In January, the two leaders discussed the House of Fates again at the inauguration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, where Orbán reportedly told Netanyahu that Hungary will soon put forward a new plan for the Holocaust museum.
Meanwhile, the cattle car towers connected by a Star of David in Budapest wait expectantly.
Photos in this story by Akos Stiller, unless otherwise noted.