BUDAPEST — It’s been a mixed bag for Rabbi Shlomo Koves since Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban handed him the keys to a highly controversial $22 million Holocaust museum and education center on September 7.
In recent weeks, Hungarian officials met with Israeli Foreign Ministry representatives in Jerusalem, hoping to garner an Israeli endorsement for the museum, which was initially slated to open years ago but was frozen amid a fierce debate on the contents of its main exhibition.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, which has heretofore been largely quiet on the matter, issued a statement saying that the Hungarian government has reaffirmed the museum won’t open without a consensus on the narrative.
The center — known as the House of Fates — is set be the first of its kind outside of Yad Vashem in Israel to be owned outright by a Jewish community, and is slated to bring in 85,000 Hungarian high school students each year alone.
It has also bitterly divided Hungary’s Jews, who were already split along religious and political lines before the left-leaning MAZSIHISZ (Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities) group, who had initially been tapped to head up the center, withdrew support for the museum together with Israel’s national Holocaust museum Yad Vashem.
The latter backed out of an international advisory forum on the project in 2014, citing “substantial criticism of the museum’s concept.” This came amid fears that controversial historian Maria Schmidt, who was tasked with heading up the museum’s permanent exhibition, would downplay the role of wartime Hungary’s government and citizens in the extermination of the country’s Jews during the Holocaust.
Schmidt, who is close with Orban’s right-wing government, and who designed the well-known House of Terror museum addressing victims of fascist and communist regimes in 20th-century Hungary, has likened the Nazi genocide to Communist policies — a comparison which is considered to be a form of Holocaust revisionism.
Since being structurally completed in 2015, the House of Fates, a magnificent landmark with a soaring Star of David that can be seen from blocks away, has lain empty, waiting for a compromise between the government and MAZSIHISZ. And then Orban found a workaround and replaced the mainstream Jewish organization with 39-year-old Koves’s Chabad-affiliated EMIH (Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation).
Now, Budapest-born Koves — himself a grandson of Hungarian Holocaust survivors who holds a PhD in Jewish history from University of Debrecen — faces the challenge of working with the Hungarian government to design a museum scheme that maintains historical fidelity, while simultaneously facing a political battle at home and scathing criticism from Jewish organizations around the world.
Koves sat down with The Times of Israel twice in recent months to speak about his decision to take on the museum, outline his plans for it, and address critics head-on. The following interviews have been amalgamated and edited.
You went against a broad consensus by taking on this project. Why?
I think there are two ways to look at things. You can say: “I don’t like the given phenomenon 100 percent, and what’s most important for me is that I should always be able to say that I’m a good guy, and my integrity and authenticity was not compromised.” You won’t end up doing much, and in a way, this is the easiest way out. But it’s also the least responsible one.
And then there’s another perspective — to say, “Okay, I’m not afraid of being accused or being hurt, because the thing itself has to be done. We have to go into the midst of the situation, and try to change things — if there are things that have to be changed into a positive context — in order to get it done.”
I look at things the second way — and I think that’s the real Jewish approach, especially the approach of the Chabad philosophy that I follow. Maybe it’s the riskier way, maybe it’s the way where you get attacked and accused, but it’s the way you get things done.
In our case, I think it would have been highly irresponsible for our Jewish congregation, and myself as a rabbi, to distance ourselves from the creation of a Holocaust education center just because we would be afraid of the risk of disagreements or accusations in the process.
Can I ask about your family’s experience during the Holocaust?
Sure. All four of my grandparents are Holocaust survivors. Both of my parents were born from second marriages. Most of my grandparents had a family before, and lost their family. My two grandmothers and one of my grandfathers survived the Holocaust either in the ghetto or with a Schutzpasse from Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest. And one of my grandfathers fled from Hungary in the 1930s to Bolivia and came back after the war, but his whole family was killed. My grandparents were not in Auschwitz because they were in Budapest, but their families — most of their families were deported to Auschwitz.
My family was irreversibly hurt by the Holocaust. So much so, that both of my parents weren’t even told they are Jewish. This is what you meant by experience?
Yes, because critics have suggested that the museum puts too positive of a spin on a tragic moment in history.
The use of the word positive is itself a false accusation. Regardless, this so-called criticism is absurd because it’s criticizing content that doesn’t even exist yet. At this point, we are in the beginning of recreating the concept of the exhibition. Our guidelines are to show the tragedy in its full capacity, and to show it in a way that will also serve an educational purpose.
I don’t think there is anyone that would hold that the point of a Holocaust museum is to bring an indictment against the Hungarian state, the overall Hungarian society — and not only to bring an indictment of these institutions and society of the past, but to connect it to present-day politics. This wouldn’t be proper, achievable, or even moral.
“Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin,” as it says in the Torah. So in my view, the point of teaching and speaking about the Holocaust is to have an educational effect on current people’s morals and worldview. And if you want to do that, you have to find the right means to get there.
Many Holocaust museums tell the story from the Nazis’ point of view — they emphasize the goals of the Nazis, how their cruel ideology developed, and how they massacred the helpless Jews who wind up in this narrative as sheep dragged to slaughter. In this narrative the spectator of the exhibit might deplore the Nazis, but definitely won’t look at the victims as people he can learn from.
These exhibitions show less of the physical or spiritual resistance. How, for example, Jews themselves reacted — by holding onto their principals or their Jewish heritage even in terrible situations, like people studying Talmud in Auschwitz, or setting up a school in the Warsaw Ghetto. Or how universal values that are also embedded in Jewish heritage — family, studying, teaching, charity, loyalty, friendship — can assure human dignity and hope even in the worst historical situations.
In today’s generation we have to make sure that we give the full historical context, and we do so in a way that even a 15-year-old Korean teenager who may never even have heard of WWII or the Holocaust will be touched emotionally and morally, and will leave with a lasting impact after a 45 or 50-minute visit.
I also think there’s an additional important link that must be made in this museum. You can’t separate remembering the Holocaust from fighting current-day anti-Semitism — combating the extreme right wing anti-Semitism which has a direct link to the story of the Holocaust, as well as the new age anti-Semitic threat of the anti-Israel bias or BDS [the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement]. If we really want to remember the Holocaust as Europeans and as Jews living on this continent, and to take real lessons, we have to sharpen our perception to what’s going on in Europe today as well.
People are continuing to be concerned about the involvement of Maria Schmidt. How’s it going with that?
In the last few years, the public discourse regarding the House of Fates has been largely about Maria Schmidt, her personality, her ideology and expertise – and it has sometimes gotten very personal and derogatory. We need to shift these discussions to be about content, and not about personal or political agendas.
According to the government resolution this past September, ownership of the museum is to be transferred to our congregation. Being granted ownership means that we can shape the content of the exhibitions.
In the last two months we’ve retained experts that have experience, including one very well-known museum expert who worked in Yad Vashem for almost 20 years in a leading position. He has created Holocaust museums around the world — three in the USA, one in Europe; his expertise in museums and exhibitions, and Holocaust history, are unquestionable. Together with him and some other experts from Israel and Hungary, we are currently recreating the concept.
Hopefully by the beginning of January we’ll have the general vision for this new concept, and once the Hungarian government approves it, we can present it and hopefully shift the discussion so people will see what we are aiming for.
A magazine owned by Maria Schmidt recently featured a cover photo of your opponent, MAZSIHISZ president Andras Heisler, with cash raining down around him. Is it harder to shift the conversation when a key figure in this controversy features what has been called anti-Semitic imagery on the cover of one of her publications?
If we’re speaking about the museum, it definitely doesn’t make it easier if this becomes a personal fight between Mr. Heisler and Mrs. Schmidt. We need to focus on our job and responsibility of commemorating the Shoah. I would suggest Mr. Heisler put aside political agendas, community politics and his personal interests, and instead of accusing Mrs. Schmidt of being anti-Semitic – and accusing our congregation of being senseless and ignorant about Jewish history — he should come to the table with constructive propositions. He knows very well that he doesn’t need to deal with Mrs. Schmidt if he doesn’t want to. He can deal with us, his fellow Jews.
But do you find the picture to be offensive in any way?
The cover of the Figyelo magazine might be humiliating, but it is not anti-Semitic. The truth is that such pictures of public figures — including myself — are constantly on the covers of Hungarian papers and billboards. A similar cover introduced me a few months ago with the words, “The government billions of Shlomo Koves; Judaism and business,” next to my photo. I didn’t think that it wasn’t offensive — but I also didn’t think it was anti-Semitic.
[Author’s note: Figyelo magazine published an English-language defense of the photo and article on December 12, also citing the cover of Hungarian satirical magazine Magyar Narancs featuring Koves.]
Couldn’t the magazine covers be anti-Semitic in both cases?
I’m not saying that it’s impossible for the photos to be anti-Semitic — but you have to deal with the cover together with the contents of the article. If you read the article in Figyelo, you’ll see that it tries to unfold the story of the renovations of the Rumbach Synagogue. MAZSIHISZ, the Neolog Jewish congregation [associated with the Conservative movement] led by Mr. Heisler, received 10 million euro to renovate this synagogue and create a museum there about Hungarian-Jewish coexistence. The article was raising questions about how the money was spent, and whether there is a script yet for this museum — since the money was given to them years ago and there’s still no script known. I think Mr. Heisler made a mistake by refusing to answer these questions and instead accusing the paper of being anti-Semitic.
Can you speak about the recent negotiations between Israel and Hungary regarding the museum?
I think here again Mr. Heisler is misleading the Israeli public and politicians about what’s going on. He’s claimed that Hungarian government officials went to Israel to discuss the content of the museum with representatives from the Israeli prime minister’s office, which is a total hoax. It’s a lie.
Both governments have stated several times that they don’t want to get involved in creating content, and that they’re not discussing content. All they want is to create a platform where experts can develop the content. And with the untrue narrative of what’s going on, this story is turning into an Israeli political issue, which I think is a total dead end. It was enough that this was a politicized issue here in Hungary; it should not become a politicized issue in Israel. Instead of coming together to work together on commemorating the Holocaust, Mr. Heisler is using the accusation of anti-Semitism as a tool for his internal politics to ensure his reelection in May.
I actually just came back from Israel, where I spent my time in the Knesset explaining to MKs that at the current point, when the government resolution clearly dictates the transfer of ownership of the museum to our Jewish congregation, and international experts chosen by us are working on the vision and content of the exhibit, Mr. Heisler’s conduct of misinforming and stirring up tensions among the public is really irresponsible.
The Israeli government issued a statement recently that they were hoping for MAZSIHISZ inclusion.
The greatest and only obstacle for MAZSIHISZ to be included in the development of this museum is Mr. Heisler. Responsible leaders in the organization should reject the conduct of boycotting and defaming everyone, and need to understand that we have to put aside our interests and personal agendas, and need to build trust in order to work together to commemorate the devastation of our forefathers.
It is hard to build a Holocaust museum with a message of solidarity when some figures in our own community are so divisive. We have to remember that our parents and grandparents were not divided on the trains to Auschwitz according to their congregational affiliations, and I think we don’t have the luxury today, either, of denouncing each other when we pay tribute to their suffering.