For months there was silence on the new Holocaust museum, the brainchild of János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office. I covered the story of the project from its inception to the temporary impasse in October 2014. The project, to be known as the House of Fates, was more or less foisted on the Jewish community, whose religious umbrella organization, Mazsihisz, felt that the 7.5 billion forints allocated to the project could have been better used elsewhere. They thought that some of the money could have been utilized for improvements to and an enlargement of the existing Holocaust Memorial Center.
By now, however, it has become evident that the Orbán government wants to have its own parallel institutions because the existing ones are suspect. They might not serve the Fidesz government. So, the project went ahead without any consultation with representatives of the Jewish community. By October, however, it seemed that the government realized it had overstepped. Lázár announced that there will be no new museum without the express approval of Mazsihisz and the organizations it represents.
Mária Schmidt, who was entrusted with overseeing the project, was largely responsible for the impasse. Since her interpretation of the Hungarian Holocaust is rejected by serious historians, her appointment signaled to the Jewish community that the Orbán government was embarking on another falsification of history. All the blame for the deportation of Jews will be placed on the shoulders of the German occupying forces. That historical view even found its way into the new Hungarian Constitution, adopted by the Orbán government, which in its preamble states that the country’s self-determination was lost on March 19, 1944, and therefore Hungarian authorities were not responsible for anything that happened during the summer of 1944, when the deportations took place. Moreover, Schmidt’s initial proposals indicated that the exhibit would concentrate only on the deportations themselves and would ignore all the anti-Jewish laws that were passed during the Horthy period, starting in 1920. Schmidt also planned to stress the rescue efforts of non-Jewish Hungarians, efforts that were neither widespread nor substantial.
So much by way of background. We don’t know exactly why, but in October Viktor Orbán decided that in order to avoid an international scandal the government might have to sacrifice Mária Schmidt. By December there were rumors that Schmidt might be removed from the project. In early February János Lázár sent Mária Schmidt’s 200-page proposal to the Jewish organizations and to historians who deal with the subject. He gave them a month to look over the material and to give him their opinion. A cursory look at the document reveals that of the 200 pages only 30 deal with the concept of the museum. The rest are photographs, maps, tables, etc.
Well, a month went by and the experts spoke. Not only Jewish organizations but scores of historians, including associates of the National Academy of Sciences, found Schmidt’s proposal unacceptable. I was not surprised about their verdict, but I was astonished at the open fight that ensued between two people so close to Viktor Orbán.
Only yesterday I watched a political discussion among former members of parliament on ATV who described the Orbán government as a rickety structure that is going to fall apart soon. Of course, there’s a hefty dose of wishful thinking in such a description, but there are signs of crisis on all levels. When four important Fidesz members of parliament (János Kövér, Mihály Varga, Miklós Seszták, and Sándor Fazekas) vote against a proposal submitted for consideration by János Lázár, this is something one cannot ignore. The loss of popularity of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán has made party leaders and government members brave. After all, they would like to keep their jobs and their political clout, and it looks as if Orbán’s policies are threatening both.
Mária Schmidt decided to fight for her position and her project. She accused Lázár of “purposely and willfully going against the decision of the government.” Moreover, Lázár, instead of listening to her, is relying on the advice of a former communist. She was talking about Gusztáv Zoltai, the Hungarian representative to the World Jewish Congress and president of one of the Hungarian Jewish organizations, who to everyone’s astonishment became an adviser to Lázár in October.
Lázár was not about to let her charge go unanswered. The next day he said that “there will be a museum with the approval of the Jewish community or not at all.” In order for the museum to be opened, “the organizers, the planners, the historians, and also the government must gain the approval of the Jewry of Hungary. If they don’t support it, then the House of Fates will not be built.”
Schmidt, who is apt to vacillate between the syrupy and the shrill, fought back, claiming that Lázár sent out a preliminary description of the project, not the final one. Lázár in turn told her that he will be happy to oblige if there is a newer, approved version of the document. No new version has emerged, but she gave an interview to András Stumpf, which appeared yesterday in mandiner.hu.
The interview is long and covers a range of subjects. I will deal with only those that are directly related to the House of Fates project.
First, she insisted that a complete project description does exist and that she showed it to Csaba Latorcai, the undersecretary in the prime minister’s office in charge of the project. The problem is that Latorcai has no recollection of the encounter. Otherwise, she refuses to reveal her ideas because “a curator doesn’t need to make his concept public.” The curator gets the job, works out the concept, puts the exhibit together, and after the opening “the public will judge.” This is the same argument the Hungarian government made when critics of the toll-road project complained that the government hadn’t discussed the project with the mayors and the public.
When the government first came up with the idea of the museum, she continued, Lázár never conferred with the Jewish community, which doesn’t even want a second Holocaust museum. This criticism is not unwarranted, but practically all government decisions are made this way and, as the journalist conducting the interview pointed out, Lázár didn’t act on his own in proposing the museum.
It looks as if Schmidt objects to Mazsihisz, or any Jewish organization, having a say in the matter of the Holocaust museum. By acceding to Mazsihisz’s request, Lázár “gave them the right of veto” over the project. To Schmidt this is a serious matter because if “the government decides that it should be Mazsihisz that will do the job, then it must also consent to the notion that the Holocaust is not the concern of Hungarian society. My greatest problem with the activities of Lázár,” she said, “is that he created an internal Jewish affair from the Holocaust.”
Schmidt also accused the Jewish leaders of Mazsihisz of falsely spreading the charge of anti-Semitism in the last twenty-five years. These Jewish leaders are happy that the controversy surrounding this new Holocaust museum deepens the rift within Fidesz and the government. She claimed that the president of Mazsihisz, András Heisler, is a racist who wants to employ people in the new museum who “come from Jewish universities” whereas the government hires people not on the basis of ethnicity but of ability.
When the reporter intimated that János Lázár’s decision to gain the acquiescence of the Jewish community must have the approval of Viktor Orbán, Schmidt loudly protested. No, Viktor Orbán is a brave man while Lázár is a coward who has gone back on his word and abandoned his original plan.
If it depended on Mária Schmidt, she would open an exhibit that was never vetted by the Jewish organizations that currently exist in Hungary. Her position is that Mazsihisz and its affiliates represent only religious Jews, who in her estimate number no more than about 2,000 people. Heisler and others are not entitled to speak in the name of Hungarian Jewry as a whole. Although Schmidt’s figures are most likely right, as a result of the Orbán government’s mishandling of the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust, the entire Jewish community pretty well lined up behind Heisler and the other leaders. This is a new and most likely positive development.