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Debate over Budapest Museum Overshadowed by Terrorist Threat

April 16, 2004
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It has just been inaugurated, but Budapest’s new, state-run Holocaust Memorial Center already is stirring up a society that has yet to deal fully with its Holocaust history.

A terrorism scare on the eve of Israeli President Moshe Katsav’s arrival for Thursday’s ceremony added further controversy to the opening of a facility that has been generating much debate.

Hungarian police on Tuesday arrested three Arabs for allegedly plotting to blow up “a Jewish museum” in Budapest. In addition to the new Holocaust museum, Budapest has a traditional Jewish museum in the complex that includes the city’s main synagogue.

Police denied a link between the terrorist plot and Katsav’s visit but nevertheless stepped up security around the opening ceremony.

In his remarks at the opening, Katsav praised the center, saying it would serve as a symbol of Hungary’s readiness to accept responsibility for the extermination of more than half a million Jews.

“The only way to strengthen democracy and mold a new generation” is by honestly confronting the past and being willing to understand its implications, he said.

“It was a heinous crime that was committed by Hungarian people against Hungarian people,” Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy said at the ceremony, The Associated Press reported. “There is no excuse, no explanation, only reconciliation.”

Katsav presented the Auschwitz Album, a collection of 235 photographs mostly of Hungarian Jews taken at Auschwitz in 1944, to Culture Minister Istvan Hiller.

Ceremonies coinciding with the Budapest opening were held at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, at Auschwitz and at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. In just eight weeks in 1944, Hungarian authorities rounded up more than 430,000 Jews and deported them to their deaths, mainly at Auschwitz.

Tens of thousands of other Hungarian Jews died in forced labor battalions, on ghetto streets or in mass executions. In Budapest, homegrown fascist thugs from the Arrow Cross movement shot at least 5,000 Jews and dumped their bodies in the Danube.

Tens of thousands of Roma, or Gypsies, also were murdered.

Such history essentially was taboo during the post-World War II communist era.

Even since the fall of communism nearly 15 years ago, the subject of Hungarian involvement in the Shoah has been treated gingerly.

The opening of the national center for the study and commemoration of the Holocaust comes just two weeks before Hungary joins the European Union on May 1, a move that effectively confirms its transformation into a modern western democracy.

Organizers hope the new, state-run center may help Hungary navigate its future by spurring debate on a complex past.

“This is not a Jewish institution,” said Andras Daranyi, director of the Holocaust Memorial Center. “This is a Hungarian institution, founded and funded by the Hungarian government.”

Its aim, he said, is “to present the Holocaust as a Hungarian national tragedy” and “an integral part of Hungarian history.”

Daranyi noted that Hungary’s first anti-Jewish law, restricting university attendance, was introduced in 1920.

“Within 24 years, from that small-scale segregation this country went on to willfully assist in destroying a half million of its citizens,” he said. Without addressing the responsibility of Hungarian authorities, he said, you “cannot discuss the Holocaust honestly.”

In a country where Roma still face forms of discrimination, he said, “We must imbue young people with the conclusions of the Holocaust in a generalized way, so that people will no longer be discriminated against, segregated, destroyed.”

Despite its lofty aims and high-profile inauguration, the Holocaust museum has drawn sharp criticism over its goals, its concept and even its location — not to mention over local political maneuvers involved in its establishment.

The striking, $8.5 million complex centers on an ornate synagogue on Pava Street, just outside the city center. The site served as an internment camp in 1944-45 and stood derelict for many years.

Architects beautifully restored the building, using photographs from the 1930s as a guide. Its classic style provides a contrast to surrounding new structures whose broken contours, slanted walls and narrowing corridors are aimed at evoking a nightmare world.

When fully functional, the complex will include archives and databases concerning the Holocaust in Hungary. It also will include a memorial wall bearing the names of Holocaust victims; more than 40,000 have been inscribed so far.

A permanent exhibition tracing the development of the Shoah in Hungary will be installed next year to coincide with ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Critics, including prominent members of Hungary’s Jewish community, have faulted organizers for building the center too hastily, without first working out details of its scope.

“Construction began in the fall of 2002 without anyone knowing what they wanted — a museum with the necessary amount of space and where collection work is conducted; or a research and education center, where lecture rooms are needed; or maybe a memorial,” wrote Szilvia Varro in Nepszabadsag, a leading Budapest daily. “In the end, they crammed it all into Pava Street.”

She accused the museum curators of incompetence and said it was a “cultural scandal” that the permanent exhibition had not yet been defined.

Varro also said it was a mistake to center the facility around a synagogue owned by the Jewish community.

Among other things, she hinted that the decision was part of a “package deal” whereby the Jewish community could get the derelict building restored without having to pay for it.

Gabor Szanto, editor of the Jewish monthly Szombat, also criticized the decision to put a Holocaust center in a synagogue.

“A Holocaust museum cannot be in a place like this,” he told JTA. “It does not allow for a modern museum. It mixes things. The synagogue was a religious building; the Holocaust was not religious.”

It also undermines the aim of portraying the Shoah as Hungarian — not just Jewish — history, he said.

“The message it sends is that this is a place from Jews to Jews for Jews,” he said.

The center opens two years after the opening of a controversial “House of Terror” museum, whose stated aim was to memorialize victims of both Hungarian wartime fascism and postwar communism. Critics claimed it implied that persecution under communism was far worse than the Holocaust.

Daranyi said he “hoped and expected” that the new center’s opening would spark an in-depth and honest discussion of the Holocaust in Hungary.

“In Hungarian reality, public discourse on this is practically nonexistent,” he said. Not even the fact that novelist Imre Kertesz won the 2002 Nobel Prize in literature for his Holocaust-related writings was enough to start the debate, he said.

Szanto agreed, but regretted that the museum was built before a more extensive debate had taken place.

“One very important aspect of a museum like this is a national coming to terms with the past,” he said.

“The museum could be the starting point, but the debate should have gone on before it was built, because at the end of the debate you could have had some sort of result,” he said. “What we have is a museum with no conception, built before a debate on the issue.”

He added, “I’m afraid that everyone will be very happy that it is finished. They can say, ‘Okay, it’s over.’ “

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