Israel in talks with Hungary over controversial Budapest Holocaust museum

Some local Hungarian Jews and Yad Vashem are concerned that new institute will whitewash country’s involvement in the Nazi murder of half a million Jewish citizens

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

The House of Fates Holocaust museum and education center in Budapest. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)
The House of Fates Holocaust museum and education center in Budapest. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)

Israeli officials are negotiating with the Hungarian government to reach a compromise over a new Holocaust museum in Budapest that some fear could  minimize its countrymen’s role in the killing of half a million Jewish citizens during the Holocaust, according to a television report on Wednesday.

Some members of the Hungarian Jewish community, as well as Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center, have boycotted the project due to the historical account presented by the museum on events leading up to and during World War II.

Two advisers to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have arrived in Israel and were to hold talks with representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office on Thursday, Channel 10 television news reported Wednesday, citing senior Israeli officials.

An Israeli official, who asked to remain anonymous, told the station that the Foreign Ministry is firmly against any deviation from the historical facts about Hungarian Jews in the Holocaust, as documented by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Center in Israel and the Washington Holocaust museum.

According to the official, the PMO has not completely adopted the Foreign Ministry stance and ministry officials were not invited to participate in the talks.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his wife Aniko Levai (L) lay a wreath at the Hall of Remembrance on July 19, 2018 during their visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem. (AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON)

The new institute, named “The House of Fates,” is scheduled to open next year, marking 75 years since the extermination of Hungarian Jewry began in 1944.

Andras Heisler, head of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz) which rejects the museum, also arrived in Israel this week for an emergency visit about the project and anti-Semitism in Hungary, Channel 10 reported. He will meet with Jewish Agency chief Isaac Herzog, Yad Vashem officials, and chairman of the Yesh Atid political party Yair Lapid, whose father was a Hungarian Holocaust survivor. But Heisler will not meet with anyone from the Prime Minister’s Office.

The PMO said in a statement that Hungary is open to Israeli suggestions and eager to reach a compromise.

“Concerning the House of Fates, the Hungarians have a desire to create a consensus about the narrative as a condition for its opening. Israel and other entities involved in the matter are waiting for the updated Hungarian approach with the goal of reaching the desired consensus.”

The House of Fates Holocaust museum and education center in Budapest. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)

Yad Vashem said it backed out of an international advisory forum on the House of Fates project in 2014 “due to substantial criticism of the museum’s concept and content presented to the forum. Since then no different concept has been presented, and Yad Vashem’s position remains unchanged.”

“If Hungary adopts a concept and alternative content for the fateful home, they can present it to relevant bodies in Hungary and around the world, including International Holocaust Remembrance Association where Yad Vashem is active in the framework of the Israeli delegation to the organization,” the institute said.

In a commentary published by The Times of Israel in September, Robert Rozett, a senior Yad Vashem historian, wrote that the concept of the museum was to distort the history of events during the Holocaust.

“Visitors to the House of Fates are to be shown and taught that, except for a tiny, criminal and fanatic minority, the citizens of Hungary were essentially blameless for what was inflicted upon their Jewish neighbors,” he noted. “To this patently misleading distortion, the concept’s planners have added a statistically disproportional over-emphasis on rescue attempts on behalf of Jews, by Hungarians. Thus, it is implied, that Hungary was actually a nation of rescuers. This is a grave falsification of history.”

The Hungarian government in September handed over ownership of the $22 million House of Fates and education center to the Jewish community, which is deeply divided over the project.

Control of the museum was entrusted to the Association of United Hungarian Jewish Congregation, or EMIH, which is working with the government on anti-Semitism projects.

However, the Mazsihisz community group, which has warned that Hungary’s right-wing government is encouraging anti-Semitism and whitewashing complicity during the Holocaust, said it believes the museum will not operate independently.

A key concern was over the government’s appointment of Maria Schmidt, a historian who has equated Nazism and communism, to head the museum. The controversy over this issue, which serves to depict all Hungarians as victims of invaders, delayed the museum’s opening by at least four years.

Many Jewish groups consider equating Nazism and Communism a form of Holocaust distortion. Hungarian troops and officials under Nazi collaborators Miklos Horthy and later Ferenc Szálasi actively hunted hundreds of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, at times killing them brutally without German involvement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on July 19, 2018 (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Under Netanyahu’s leadership, ties with Orban have warmed, prompting criticism from the local Jewish community over the Hungarian prime minister’s attacks on Jewish billionaire George Soros, which critics say flirt with anti-Semitic stereotypes, and his past praise for a former Nazi ally.

The controversial Hungarian statesman, who has been accused of playing up anti-Semitic stereotypes, visited Israel in 2018.

Orban also met with Netanyahu in 2017 in Budapest and declared at the time “that the Government of Hungary, in a previous period, committed a mistake, even committed a sin, when it did not protect the Jewish citizens of Hungary.”

Netanyahu, who also holds the position of foreign minister, has come under criticism for developing ties with Hungary and Poland, two countries whose leaderships have raised ire in Israel over their embrace of nationalistic policies and their attitudes to the Holocaust.

Hungary’s government last month earmarked $3.4 million for combating anti-Semitism in Europe.

Poland has caused anger in Israel and the Jewish world with legislative efforts seen as seeking to divorce itself from responsibility in the Holocaust.

In June, Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki ended a diplomatic standoff over a Polish law that made it a criminal offense to accuse the Polish nation of complicity in the extermination of Jews during World War II. The two leaders issued a joint statement which was criticized in Israel for appearing to accept Poland’s official position that it was not in any way responsible for the crimes of the Holocaust.

JTA contributed to this report.

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