The controversial House of Fates Holocaust Museum in Hungary
is a festering sore infecting the relationship between Victor Orban and the Jewish world.
BY ALEX STERNBERG
A STAR of David is seen at the new Holocaust museum called the House of Fates in Budapest,
Hungary, last year. (photo credit: REUTERS)
The controversial House of Fates Holocaust Museum in Hungary is a
festering sore infecting the relationship between Victor Orban and the
More than five years ago, Orban and his right-wing government
proposed building an additional Holocaust museum in Budapest. The
museum, to be called the “House of Fates” was designed to focus on
the suffering of Jewish children during the Second World War.
To assure that the content of the project would be historically
accurate, the Hungarian Jewish Federation (Mazsihisz), the
International Jewish Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem in Israel and
the US Holocaust Memorial Museum based in Washington were
asked to provide experts. For added authenticity, the late Prof.
Randolph Braham, the pre-eminent authority on the fate of Hungarian
Jewry, also agreed to participate.
In order to maintain control over the project, the government of
Hungary appointed Maria Schmidt, a Hungarian Holocaust researcher,
as head of the expert panel. Dr. Schmidt has previous experience in
developing such museums.
During the inter-war years, Hungary enacted a series of anti-Jewish
laws aimed at stripping away all political, social and economic rights
from their Jewish citizens. With these laws, the government seized
Jewish property and began a step-by-step effort to isolate Jews from
In 1944, Hungarian gendarmes – the final step in Hungary’s eager
cooperation with their ally Nazi Germany – forced 500,000 Jews into
cattle cars on direct orders of the government and shipped them off to
Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in Poland. So eager was the
cooperation of the Hungarians, that Adolf Eichmann needed only 150
Germans to assist the Hungarians in the deportation process. In fact,
Eichmann said during his trial in Jerusalem that the Hungarians were
never satisfied with the speed with which the deportation was
proceeding – they wanted it to speed up even more!
Hungarian Arrow Cross militiamen butchered an additional 100,000
Jews in a countrywide orgy of looting and murder.
IN 1945, with the war’s end, the attempt to minimize Hungarian
complicity in this shameful atrocity began. But rather than deny the
existence of the Holocaust as some others have done, a cadre of
Hungarian “experts” began to minimize the role of Hungarians in the
murder, by shifting the blame from Hungarians to Nazi Germany. In
their “sanitized” version, it was Nazi Germany alone who was
responsible for the murder of the Jews, while the Hungarians were
actually eagerly saving them. This narrative met with immediate
resistance from Holocaust historians worldwide. Hungarian survivors
of Auschwitz were equally outraged, strenuously objecting to this
attempt to whitewash or “sanitize” history.
According to Prof. Braham, Maria Schmidt is the foremost Hungarian
“sanitizer,” who has maintained that the death of Jews was an
unintentional, secondary effect, a collateral damage of the war. In her
narrative, the House of Fates Museum would focus on the suffering of
Jews as well as the suffering of Hungarian gentiles during the period
of communism. Suffering is suffering, neither version more unique
than the other.
When Schmidt was appointed to head the expert panel, it was like the
proverbial “skunk who stunk up the picnic.” Faced with her false and
misleading narrative, the Holocaust historians walked away from the
project. The government, embarrassed at their inability to find a
Jewish partner for the project, delayed opening the museum until a
consensus on the narrative could be arrived at.
Years passed, and the museum – the House of Fates – sat empty, as
no recognized Holocaust historian would get involved with it. It
became an embarrassment for Victor Orban and his cadre of
ENTER THE Chabad Jewish group to save the Orban government.
Chabad, a Brooklyn based Hassidic group originating in Russia, has
established a presence of late in Hungary. In the short time of its
existence, its ambitious and politically savvy leader, Rabbi Slomo
Koves, has developed numerous important and lucrative contacts with
the Orban-led Fidesz government.
Koves received ownership of the entire multi-million-dollar museum
project and promptly announced that he found no issue with the
Schmidt narrative – and that the project would soon open. Victor
Orban finally found a Jewish partner with Rabbi Koves, giving his
rabbinical blessing and proclaiming the project “kosher.”
In interviews, Koves has vehemently denied any connection with his
unqualified support for Orban (and Schmidt) with monies he has
received from the Hungarian government. (This was not the only large
grant that Koves has received from the Fidesz government.)
After some urging, Rabbi Koves agreed to answer some questions
about his role in this project.
He maintained that the museum will open shortly.
“Although the government resolution sets the date for 2019, I am
almost certain that it is impossible to finish off the main exhibit in less
than a year and a half.”
When answering about Schmidt’s role determining the content of the
museum, Rabbi Koves maintained, “The reformation of the content is
done by international and local experts we have involved in the past
two months – people with decades of international experience in
setting up and running Holocaust museums. Ms. Schmidt won’t have a
role in operating the museum.”
When asked to identify the people with “decades of international
experience,” he refused to answer. He also refused to clarify the role
of Schmidt. While he maintains emphatically that she won’t have a
role “operating” the museum, he has steadfastly refused to rule out
her role in developing the contents prior to the opening.
All follow-up questions regarding his “experts” were met with
“As I mentioned above, we are working with international experts on
the content, whose expertise is unquestionable, and we have full trust
in their work.”
Who are these “international experts?” Why won’t the rabbi name
Rabbi Koves’s evasive answers seem to reinforce complaints of his
lack of suitability as a “mashgiach” or qualified overseer of such a
It appears to many that the naïve rabbi is the latest dupe in Orban’s
ongoing attempt to whitewash the Hungarian role in the barbaric
murder of 600,000 Jews. Others, less generous, argue that the rabbi
has sold his soul to the devil.
The writer, a DrPH, MPH, Sc.D, M.Sc.ed Holocaust and Jewish
history educator, writer and lecturer, was born in Hungary. His
frequent visits and contacts there enable him to closely follow
Hungarian Jewish issues. His articles on Hungarian antisemitism have
appeared in The Jerusalem Post and elsewhere.