The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hungary’s Orban hopes a rabbi can save his country’s controversial new Holocaust museum

The opening of Hungary’s planned new Holocaust museum, known as the House of Fates, has been delayed for years over controversy regarding its interpretation of that historical period. (Ferenc Isza/AFP/Getty Images)

BUDAPEST — The carcass of a dead pigeon lay rotting inside a sculptural Star of David tunnel at Hungary’s new Holocaust museum. Spiders had colonized the stairwells of the empty complex.

Construction of the $23 million museum, known as the House of Fates, was completed three years ago. But controversy has stalled its opening.

Initially, a Hungarian official spoke of a museum that would highlight the “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.”

The premise was decried as Holocaust revisionism by historians and museum professionals worldwide.

And so, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has called on Slomo Koves, a rabbi affiliated with the Hasidic Chabad movement, to direct and reimagine the project.

The House of Fates is an especially stark example of how nationalist governments in central Europe — Hungary, Poland, Lithuania — have sought in various ways to recast their histories of Nazi collaboration and thus their international reputations. These attempts have never had their intended effect.

In 2018, Poland drew worldwide criticism for floating a “Holocaust bill” that would have made it a crime to publicly allege Polish complicity in Nazi atrocities.

In Vilnius, Lithuania, a national museum of genocide was denounced for failing to adequately mention the Holocaust, during which 90 percent of Lithuanian Jews were killed by Nazi officials and their local collaborators. This month, Lithuanian Jewish leaders, citing security concerns, announced the temporary closure of the country’s only functioning synagogue.

Jews in these countries, meanwhile, end up having to decide what to prioritize: an accurate public understanding of a painful past or political security in an uncertain present.

Koves has no background in museum studies. His authority stems from his position as a leader of an observant Jewish community in Hungary, albeit one outside the more representative Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities.

He has a doctorate in Jewish Hungarian history and is the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. He is also a reliable supporter of Orban — despite the prime minister’s use of George Soros, the billionaire Jewish financier, as a punching bag for migration and broader societal ills.

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“Orban is not anti-Semitic in any way,” Koves said in an interview with The Washington Post. “In the last 10 years, he has tried to slowly break away his political family, right-wing Hungarians, from the historical link with anti-Semitism.”

Koves pointed to Orban’s embrace of Israel. While the European Union has called for products manufactured in Israeli settlements in the disputed territories to be labeled as such, Orban has befriended Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and called Israel a role model.

“The positive coverage Israel gets in the right-wing Hungarian media was unimaginable 10 years ago. And the way Israel — the Jewish state — is perceived cannot be separated from public attitudes toward Jews in general,” Koves said. “For the simple Hungarian voter, ‘Israel’ represents the Jews a thousand times more than ‘Soros,’ and if Israel is perceived in a positive way, that will shape his attitude toward the Jews, as well.”

Studies, however, suggest a link between the government’s anti-
Soros rhetoric and a rise in anti-Jewish sentiment. A report published in July by the Hungarian polling firm Median shows that the number of Hungarians saying they believe in a “Jewish world conspiracy” doubled between 2006 and 2018, when Orban ran for reelection largely on an anti-Soros platform. The research was conducted in November 2018, seven months after Orban’s reelection campaign.

“No question it is anti-Semitic,” said Koszeg Ferenc, 80, a Holocaust survivor and literary editor who was a central opposition figure during Hungary’s Soviet occupation.

Why would Orban push for a new Holocaust museum? Supporters say it’s in line with his government’s investments in synagogues and Jewish cemeteries.

A spokesman for the Hungarian government declined to comment.

But like nearly every other major European city that experienced Nazi occupation, Budapest already has a Holocaust museum — the Pava Street Holocaust Memorial Center, opened in 2004, adjoining a renovated synagogue. So in addition to questioning the need for it, some members of Hungary’s Jewish community see the House of Fates as part of a government effort to control how the past is remembered.

Orban’s government already has altered the country’s constitution and erected memorials to portray Hungary as a victim, with no responsibility for what happened after March 1944. It has exerted authority over academic research and approved a national core curriculum for schools that includes fascist writers. And it has sought to rehabilitate the reputation of Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s wartime leader, who passed laws that deprived Jewish citizens of basic rights, forced Jews into labor camps and oversaw the deportation of more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz.

Jewish groups in Hungary and beyond objected when Orban described Horthy as an “exceptional” statesman. But the Israeli Foreign Ministry said it was satisfied by the subsequent “clarification” that Horthy had “positive periods but also very negative periods.”

The House of Fates has prompted skepticism since its announcement in 2013. Even the name, an homage to the novel “Fatelessness,” by the late Hungarian Holocaust survivor Imre Kertesz, has been criticized. One Hungarian rabbi asked: Should mass murder really be seen as the “fate” of all Jews?

“This is maybe not outright denial but revisionism,” Laszlo Karsai, Hungary’s leading Holocaust historian, said of the initial proposal. “They were trying to create a new, whitewashed history of the Holocaust in which the chief responsibility lay with the Germans, with maybe a few Hungarians involved.”

Originally the project was tasked to Maria Schmidt, a controversial historian and Orban confidante.

Schmidt, who declined to comment for this report, created Budapest’s popular House of Terror Museum, devoted to Hungary’s fascist and communist history, which is similarly accused of minimizing Hungary’s role in turning against its Jewish citizens during World War II.

After seeing Schmidt’s plan for the House of Fates, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum offered a harsh critique, describing it as a “highly selective, distorted, and misleading representation of Holocaust history.”

Amid the blowback, the Hungarian government agreed to remove Schmidt from the project and involve the country’s Jewish community. At a meeting in Brazil in January, Orban also sought to assure Netanyahu that he was pushing ahead with a “new plan” for the museum.

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But even after the attempted rebranding, Hungary’s largest Jewish organization and major Holocaust historians have kept their distance.

Andras Heisler, the head of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, said Chabad was allowing itself to be used by the government. Karsai, the historian, called Koves’s nomination a “kosher stamp.”

It remains unclear how much of Schmidt’s plan will carry over. Koves insists Schmidt is not involved “in the creation of the new concept we are working on.”

That “new concept” was expressed in a confidential statement presented to the Berlin-based International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in June. The ideas in the memo, obtained by The Post, are largely uncontroversial.

“Our aim is to give voice to Jewish attitudes, perceptions, reaction and lives, touching on the perspective of the various Jewish communities,” the proposal reads.

The IHRA disputes that there is a new “concept” yet.

“What we have seen is a basic vision document,” said Kathrin Meyer, the alliance’s executive secretary. “I think a concept has to be more detailed.”

Koves has found a handful of respected experts to join a steering committee, including Yitzhak Mais, a former director of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Koves said the new iteration of the museum probably will open in 2021.

But three historians who refused to participate in the project left or were removed from their posts at the Chabad-run Milton Friedman University in Budapest this month. Koves denied that the departures were connected to the museum.

One of the three, Attila Novak, said he wanted to avoid politicized history. The essence of the House of Fates, he said, is “not established. We can’t see the outcome.”

Koves defended his willingness to work with Orban as the surest way to protect Jewish interests, which he defined as ensuring safe communal life and religious exercise. That has long been the philosophy of Chabad, whose rabbis also have cultivated good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Politics should be irrelevant to a Jewish leader, Koves said. “I can have my political opinions, but first I’m responsible for my heritage and community, and for maintaining Jewish existence and practice, wherever and however.”

For Heisler, however, there is also the question of dignity, especially after the brutal experiences of the 20th century.

“Members of the Jewish community lost their pride,” he said. “One of the most important roles for a Jewish leader is to give back that pride. We have our opinions, and we share those opinions — but sometimes these will be different from those of the powers that be.”

Gergo Saling and Szabolcs Panyi contributed to this report.

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