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Around the Jewish World Terror Museum in Budapest Frightens Some Hungarian Jews

July 22, 2002
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Five months after it opened, Budapest’s controversial “House of Terror” has emerged as one of the capital’s most popular destinations among both young and old, regularly drawing crowds that endure two-hour lines in sweltering heat.

However, rather than achieving its aim of memorializing the victims of totalitarian terror — of both Hungarian wartime fascism and postwar communism — critics say the lavish museum symbolizes the charged, right-wing atmosphere that has swept Hungary.

The museum’s prominent location at 60 Andrassy Street was chosen not because it sits among the elegant, fin-de-siecle mansions of Andrassy — known to some as “the Champs-Elysees of Budapest” — but because it was headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis between 1944 and 1945, then was taken over by the Communist secret police once Soviet troops liberated, then occupied, Hungary.

Hungary suffered under both Nazism and communism, “but Hungarian society has never confronted the crimes of these terror systems, or had a memorial to its victims,” said the museum’s director, Maria Schmidt, in an e-mail interview with JTA.

Hungary’s Jews, though, are deeply troubled by the House of Terror.

They have several concerns: By presenting all victims as equal, and all victimizers as equal, the museum diminishes the uniqueness of the Holocaust, not to mention the Communist era; by painting Hungary as one of Germany’s victims rather than an accomplice, it continues a trend in which right-wing Hungarian historians are whitewashing Hungary’s role in the death of some 550,000 Hungarian Jews; and by devoting only one of nearly two dozen rooms exclusively to the Holocaust, it implies that communism was far worse than the Holocaust.

Finally, though Jews are mentioned nowhere in the Communist portion of the museum, the fact that the Hungarian right wing — especially its media — routinely highlights the Jewishness of some of Hungary’s most notorious Communists means that many visitors to the House of Terror receive an implicit message that Hungarian Jews are to blame for communism.

“For several years, it’s been in the air: They hint that communism was Jewish revenge for the Holocaust,” said Gyorgy Litvan, a renowned Hungarian historian who as a teen-aged Holocaust survivor was himself drawn to the Communist Party, but later criticized the party leadership for its brutal excesses and was imprisoned for four years.

Following the war, of the couple hundred thousand Jews who survived and remained in Hungary — many others had emigrated to Palestine or to the West — a substantial number did indeed join the Communist Party.

Party records never detailed a cadre’s religion or ethnicity, but historians estimate that anywhere from one-quarter to one-half of the remaining Jews — especially young people — flocked to the movement.

Their reasons for joining were myriad: gratitude, to the Soviet Communists who had liberated them from ghettoes, forced labor and concentration camps; idealism, fueled by pervasive Communist propaganda that promised a society with no distinction between rich and poor, Christian and Jew; revenge, as it was clear that some of the Hungarian perpetrators of genocide roamed freely afterward; and opportunism and survivalism, as the Communist purge of fascists from power created many new job opportunities for Jews, who were viewed as reliably anti-fascist and, thus, trustworthy.

Some Hungarian Jews assumed highly visible positions, including the first Communist dictator, Matyas Rakosi and the first head of the secret police, Peter Gabor.

Yet, most Jews in the party were ordinary card-carrying members.

“Communism was our only guarantee that fascism would never return,” said Agota Engel, who was 12 when Hungarian Nazis shot and killed her older sister in 1944, and dumped her corpse in the icy waters of the Danube River, which flows through Budapest.

Engel then joined the Communist youth movement. Now 70 and a librarian, she remains loyal to the ideology to this day.

“However, not every Communist was a Jew,” Engel said, “nor was every Jew a Communist.”

Indeed, one detail Hungarian anti-Semites conveniently overlook is the fact that at its peak, in the early 1950s, the party numbered some 800,000 members, which underscores the fact that legions of workers and peasants also embraced the system.

Moreover, by the early 1960s, the party had purged virtually all Jews from prominent positions.

Blaming Jews for communism “is a falsification of history,” Litvan said.

“It wasn’t a terror by only a handful of secret police. Millions participated.”

This distortion is not only aimed at scapegoating Jews and exculpating Hungarians; observers say the House of Terror also has contemporary political motives.

The right-wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban seemed to spare no expense in creating the museum, from the ubiquitous marble and high-tech multimedia exhibits, to the authentic Soviet tank parked in the atrium and the restored torture chambers in the cellar.

The museum opened in February of this year, with two months left in a heated election campaign.

The main opposition party was the Socialists, the increasingly centrist heirs of the Communist Party. Together with the small, liberal Alliance of Free Democrats, they attracted the vast majority of Jewish voters.

After Orban’s Fidesz, as his Young Democrats are known, assumed power in 1998, they missed no opportunity to remind the public of their opponents’ Communist past.

In the process, Orban has earned a reputation for nationalist excess and chumminess with a flagrantly anti-Semitic party, the Hungarian Justice and Life Party.

As the elections approached and polls indicated it was too close to call, Orban began using with-us-or-against-us rhetoric to rally patriotic Hungarians, and warning, implausibly, that a vote for the Socialists meant a return to dictatorship.

The incitement frightened many of Hungary’s roughly 100,000 Jews.

“That was the first time in my life that I thought maybe I have something to be afraid of,” said Andras Daranyi, 33, the executive director of the Budapest Holocaust Museum, which will break ground this fall and open its doors in 2004.

“You can be freely Jewish here, but at that moment I felt there was something under the water’s surface that could blow up.”

Among the rhetorical weapons against the Socialists and liberals, say critics, was the House of Terror.

“That was why it got immense money and was completed in record time,” said Tibor Vamos, a Holocaust survivor and former Communist who is the head of Hungary’s Auschwitz Foundation.

The main message was that the Socialists “are a direct continuation of the Stalinist regime” and its leaders “are the same who introduced the Stalinist terror,” Vamos said. “That is a really terrible, brazen lie.”

Schmidt, the museum’s director and a close adviser to Orban, denies the charge.

“I trust that the explanation” for this “is just coincidental timing,” Schmidt told JTA.

“If the Socialist-liberal elites thought this museum is some kind of ‘weapon’ against them, then that reflects poorly on them, not us, since with this they are finding community with those behind the eras of terror. No one forced them to do that.”

In the April 21 elections, the coalition of Socialists and liberals ousted Orban, but at age 38, most of his political career is still ahead of him.

Earlier this month, Budapest police fired tear gas to put down a violent demonstration by Orban’s supporters, who insisted the election was stolen and demanded a recount.

Also in early July, a campaign by Fidesz to expose politicians with links to the former Communist secret police — an effort that succeeded in forcing a confession from the new Socialist prime minister, Peter Medgyessy — backfired when the media revealed that the father of the politician leading the charge, Fidesz Chairman Zoltan Pokorni, was himself a Communist informer for three decades.

Pokorni resigned his position.

As for the House of Terror, some Socialists had indicated prior to the elections that, if elected, they would convert it to a “House of Remembrance and Reconciliation.”

With tensions still running high two months after the elections, the new Socialist government has yet to speak out about the fate of the museum.

Orban, who is now in the opposition, cites the House of Terror as one of his administration’s greatest achievements and has vowed to put up a fight.

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