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Jews say Hungary whitewashes past

BUDAPEST, Oct. 31 (JTA) — The Hungarian government has dropped plans to revamp its planned exhibit at Auschwitz after protests that the exhibit dodged the issue of Hungarian anti-Semitism.

Jewish leaders here rejected the proposed text for the exhibit, which lays the blame for the Holocaust in Hungary — in which roughly 600,000 Jews were killed — squarely on Germany’s shoulders.

This whitewashing of the past reinforces the perception of Hungarian Jews and other observers that this nation, like others, is unwilling to confront its role in the Holocaust. But it’s also a sign of the times: Today, the voice of the right wing increasingly prevails in the din of Hungarian politics.

In September the Council of Europe branded two of the six parties in Hungary’s Parliament — including the junior coalition partner — as “extremist.” Earlier this month, Istvan Csurka, the leader of a small far-right party, was the lone politician in Central Europe to praise Jorg Haider for his anti-immigrant Freedom Party’s stunning performance in the Austrian elections.

In another affront to the 100,000 or so Jews still living in Hungary, right-wing politicians last week unveiled a plaque dedicated to the memory of the Hungarian royal police who died during the two world wars.

However, the plaque made no mention that it was mainly these police who, after the German occupation on March 19, 1944, efficiently carried out orders to round up all the Jews from the countryside. In seven weeks, they herded 437,000 Jews into ghettoes and then deported them to various death camps.

Hungarian Jews are especially sensitive about the issue of war memorials because no administration here has ever built a monument to its murdered Jews, said Peter Tordai, head of the Hungarian Federation of Jewish Communities.

“The essence of a public memorial is that it is official acknowledgment of the Jewish martyrs,” Tordai said. “Establishing it, therefore, is the obligation of the Hungarian nation, not of the Jewish community. And all we ask is that any monument be accurate and complete.”

That was clearly not in store for the planned Auschwitz exhibit. Admittedly, the current one needs rewriting. The Hungarian national exhibit — like those for the now-defunct “Soviet Union,” “Czechoslovakia” and “Yugoslavia” — were produced through the ideological prism of the respective Communist regimes.

That meant toning down Hitler’s war against Jews and playing up communism’s victory over fascism.

The historian who installed Hungary’s first Auschwitz exhibit in 1965 was initially criticized by the museum’s Polish director for presenting work that was “too Jewish-centric.” Historian Emil Horn, himself a survivor, was told to add portraits of Communist members of the anti-fascist Resistance group the Hungarian Front.

“That’s why there aren’t so many portraits up there of those who rescued Jews,” Horn told JTA recently.

Horn, now 71, was a curator for 31 years at the Museum for the Hungarian Labor Movement. In addition to the Auschwitz exhibit, which was redone in 1979, he also created the permanent Hungarian exhibits at the Ravensbruck and Sachsenhausen camps, both in Germany.

When Viktor Orban visited the Auschwitz exhibit last spring, just prior to his election as Hungary’s prime minister, he was reportedly shocked by the exhibit’s decrepit conditions and pro-Communist slant. He vowed to modernize it if he was elected.

Horn was pleased to see Orban follow up on his promise, as the prime minister earlier this year set aside about $230,000 from his office’s own budget. But he became alarmed after learning that the man selected to write the new text was an ex-colleague at the labor museum that he considered an anti-Semite.

Hungary’s chief rabbi, Albert Schweitzer, gave feedback on the first draft of the new project. For the second round of feedback, the 73-page draft was sent to various Jewish officials and historians, including Horn and Tordai. The reaction was swift and ferocious. In early September, Jewish leaders took to the airwaves, accusing the government of doctoring the historical record.

Someone even leaked the draft to a leading daily newspaper, accompanied by a threat: If the current text were displayed at Auschwitz, it would spark “a scandal from Washington to Tel Aviv.”

In response, Orban dropped the Auschwitz project — indefinitely, says Maria Schmidt, a close adviser to Orban.

While the Jewish side has since rewritten the text, she says funding for the project will now have to come from the Jewish community alone.

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