Tag Archives: Gusztáv Zoltai

House of Fates: Mária Schmidt versus János Lázár

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.

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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.

Gusztáv Zoltai, former COO of Mazsihisz, is now János Lázár’s adviser on Jewish affairs

In the last couple of days the Hungarian Jewish community has been up in arms. Magyar Hírlap came out with the startling news that Gusztáv Zoltai, the former chief operating officer of Mazsihisz, had been named János Lázár’s adviser on Jewish matters. Members of the Jewish community were stunned.

(A few words of clarification in passing: when we refer to the Jewish community in Hungary we are talking about people living in Budapest because, as we often discussed, the Jewish population of the provinces almost completely perished in Auschwitz and other death camps. By and large we are not talking about a religious community but about people who are keenly aware of their Jewish heritage although some of them might be the offspring of mixed marriages. Mazsihisz officially represents practicing Jews but lately, especially under the leadership of the new president, András Heisler, more and more secular Jews stand behind the organization in its struggle with the Orbán government over issues connected to the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust.)

Gusztáv Zoltai’s name was practically synonymous with Mazsihisz in the last twenty years.  After all, he ran the show between 1992 and April 2014. His political past was not exactly exemplary. After 1956 he joined MSZMP and became a member of the Workers’ Guard (Munkásőrség), a group of hardcore supporters of the regime even during its most oppressive phase right after the revolution. Yet the new political leadership didn’t seem to be bothered by his past. In 1999 he received the freedom of District VII of Budapest, in 2005 a high decoration from the Medgyessy government, and in 2009 the freedom of Budapest. Perhaps the most interesting decoration he received came from the 1956 Alliance for his devoted cultivation of the spirit of the revolution. Zoltai has always landed on his feet.

As it turned out, under Zoltai’s watch Mazsihisz’s finances were in shambles. Worse, some transactions involving Mazsihisz might have been criminal in nature. I could write reams about the questionable deals linked to Zoltai. Anyone who would like to know more should read an article about the goings on in one of Budapest’s Jewish cemeteries in Szombat, a Jewish weekly. At that time the revelations were so serious that Zoltai could not prevent the new Mazsihisz leadership from hiring an outside firm to audit the past and present financial affairs of the organization. The result was Zoltai’s resignation as COO of Mazsihisz. Heti Válasz learned from a reliable source that the leadership of the organization placed two envelopes in front of him. One contained a letter indicating that Mazsihisz will press charges against him; the other, a letter of resignation. He could choose.

Gusztáv Zoltai, the boss of Mazsihisz

Gusztáv Zoltai as boss of Mazsihisz

I guess Zoltai’s new job really shouldn’t have come as a surprise, still everybody is stunned. Heisler was “in shock” and announced that, if this piece of news is correct, Gusztáv Zoltai “destroyed his life work that was not immaculate in the first place.” A few hours later Zoltai sat next to János Lázár at the Jewish Round Table. Lázár claimed that he was the one who approached Zoltai, whom he described as an independent man “who does not belong to our toadies (szekértolók).” I must say this is an odd way to describe one’s supporters and followers, and I wonder whether Lázár is actually familiar with the meaning of the word.

Lázár might think highly of his new “independent” adviser on Jewish affairs, but the people Heisler talked with had a strikingly different opinion of their earlier leader. “I received unbelievably sharp reactions from members of the Jewish community. In general people consider him a traitor,” said Heisler.  Péter Tordai, vice president of Mazsihisz, described Zoltai’s decision to work for the government as “selling not only himself but the whole Hungarian community to the government.”

Today György Vári of Népszabadság wrote a short opinion piece with the title: “Two men who found each other.” Vári briefly describes Zoltai’s past and notes that, despite many efforts to oust him in the last twenty years or so, it was an impossible task. He outfoxed everybody, including Heisler who while still vice president tried to send him into retirement. Vári points out the similarities between the practices of the Orbán government and those of Mazsihisz under the reign of Zoltai. People often say that Orbán and his minions have no compunctions. They know no limits. The same kind of attitude prevailed in Mazsihisz. Anyone who criticizes the Orbán government is called an anti-Hungarian who slanders the nation from abroad.  The situation was the same in Mazsihisz. If someone tried to criticize Zoltai, he/she was accused of anti-Semitism. “God created Lázár and Zoltai for each other. This marriage was made in heaven.”

All that happened only two days ago, but the Zoltai affair already seems to have created fissures in the Jewish community. Mazsihisz is not the only, although it is perhaps the most important, Jewish organization. Another one called Mazsök (Magyarországi Zsidó Örökség Közalapítvány) has taken the opposing view. It welcomed Zoltai’s becoming a government adviser. György Szabó, head of Mazsök’s board, hopes that with Zoltai’s help Mazsök will be able “to acquire more real estate.” Straightforward honest talk at least. According to Szabó, “Mazsök represents the interests of the whole Jewish community,” implying that Mazsihisz does not. Szabó also found it shameful “to call an eighty-year-old Holocaust surviving Hungarian Jew a traitor.”

And the controversy is spreading. On Facebook there is a group called “Tolerancia Csoport” in which Zoltai’s daughter Andrea is very active. She has also been a visible member of the small group of people who have been holding vigil at the monument that was erected in commemoration of the German occupation of Hungary in 1944. Here she wrote a long story about her father’s travails, which did not convince some members of the group. In response, the not so tolerant administrator of the page deleted the comments that criticized Zoltai’s behavior. Since then Kanadai Magyar Hírlap republished her story, where the comments to the piece are overwhelmingly negative.

The Mazsihisz leadership is acting as if this unexpected turn of events will have no bearing on the organization’s forthcoming negotiations with the government. From what I’ve learned so far about Zoltai, they may be surprised by this “marriage made in heaven.”

Israel and the international Jewish community want deeds, not words

The controversy over the government’s plans for the Holocaust Memorial Year is not subsiding. It was a week ago that Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization representing about a dozen Jewish groups, said that they will boycott the project as long as the government insists on moving ahead with the current plans. Three issues were in contention. First, they disapproved of the appointment of Sándor Szakály, a right-wing military historian, as head of a new historical institute named Veritas. Second, they wanted to be consulted in connection with a new Holocaust Museum named the House of Fates and expressed some doubts about the suitability of Mária Schmidt as the overseer of the project. Finally, they violently objected to the monument to be erected as a memorial to the German “occupation” of Hungary on March 19, 1944. The monument depicts Hungary as an innocent victim of Germany, as a country that lost its sovereignty and was thus absolutely innocent in the murder of about half a million Hungarian Jews.

For a few hours people who are against the Orbán government’s attempts at falsifying history were ecstatic . They praised Mazsihisz’s courageous new leadership. But the next day the government made public a letter Viktor Orbán had received from Mazsihisz which created a huge storm within the Jewish community. It seems to me that the majority of people who publicly expressed their opinions believed that the top leaders of Mazsihisz had recanted on their earlier stance. Accusations of treachery could be heard.

What were the problems with the letter that made so many people unhappy? One was the style of the letter, which a lot of people found too servile. The repeated “Igen Tisztelt Miniszterelnök Úr” (Very much honored Mr. Prime Minister) was too much for those who think very little of Viktor Orbán. The other objection was the omission of Sándor Szakály’s name from the document. Did this mean that Mazsihisz was abandoning its insistence on the removal of the controversial historian who thinks so highly of the Hungarian gendarmerie, the ones primarily responsible for leading Jewish victims to boxcars to be shipped to Auschwitz? Some leading Jewish activists, like Tamás Suchman, formerly MSZP member of parliament, insisted on the resignation of András Heisler, Péter Tordai, and Gusztáv Zoltai who signed the letter.

I would most likely have been outnumbered with my own opinion that sending a letter, admittedly one less servile than the letter Mazsihisz sent to Orbán, was a good move. I talked about my feelings on the subject once already. The suggestion of establishing a House of Co-existence devoted to the symbiosis of Jewish and non-Jewish cultures in Hungary is a wonderful idea. I interpreted the absence of Szakály’s name in the letter as an indication that his appointment was not subject to negotiation; he had to go. As for the  monument, Mazsihisz asked that its very concept be revised. Their position was strengthened by the support of  the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’s Division of Philosophy and History which declared that the monument gives a false impression of the history of the German “occupation” and Hungary’s position vis-à-vis Germany between March and October 1944.

But this was not the only reason for public outcry. Ilan Mor, Israeli ambassador to Hungary, gave an interview to Heti Válasz, a right-wing weekly, on February 12. In this interview Mor announced that he “has no doubt about the good intentions of the government” and spoke critically of Mazsihisz. Unfortunately, the interview is not yet available in its entirety on the Internet, but Mazsihisz didn’t take too kindly to Mor’s remarks. Gusztáv Zoltai, one of the three who signed the letter to Orbán, responded that “although we think very highly of the Israeli ambassador, we are an independent religious community in Hungary. We have very good relations with the Israeli ambassador but he should not make declarations in our name. It is our job and we disagree with him.” Well, this is clear enough.

To c0mplicate matters, a day after Mor’s interview the Hungarian ambassador was summoned by the Israeli foreign ministry. The topic was rising anti-Semitism in Hungary, but Rafi Schutz, deputy-director-general for Europe, also brought up the Orbán government’s attempt to rehabilitate Miklós Horthy, “who was complicit in the mass deportations of Jews to Nazi death camps in 1944, which resulted in the deaths of around 450,000 Hungarian Jews.” The infamous monument didn’t escape the attention of the Israeli foreign ministry either: “Hungary’s whitewashing of history has included plans to build a massive monument commemorating the 1944 invasion of Hungary by the Nazis, which is seen as an attempt to portray Hungary as a victim rather than an active partner of the Nazis. … The recent trends of historical whitewashing raise concerns in Israel, particularly since Hungary decided to hold a series of events memorializing the Holocaust. While the Jewish state initially supported the decision, it now fears the trends throw such efforts into doubt as further attempts to rewrite history.” Rafi Schutz added that Hungary was chosen to chair the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) starting in March 2015, but doubts are now being raised “about Hungary’s ability to properly preserve the memory of the Holocaust.” Strong language.

Thus the Israeli government stood squarely behind Mazsihisz while Israel’s ambassador to Hungary, believing in the trustworthiness of the Hungarian government, criticized the organization for its stridency. I think Ilan Mor is too charitable to the government.

Yesterday Ronald S. Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress, wrote an article that appeared on Népszabadság‘s op/ed page. Lauder is heavily involved in Hungarian affairs on account of his mother, Estee Lauder, who was born and brought up in a Hungarian Jewish household in the United States. Among other things, Lauder established the Lauder Javne School, a Jewish educational institution that houses a kindergarten, an elementary school, a gymnasium, and a conservatory. He was also involved in the project to build a resort complex with an attached casino at Lake Velence in Sukoró which was torpedoed by Viktor Orbán, then still in opposition.

deedsLauder’s article bears the title: “To unify, not to divide.” In it he announced that the decision of Mazsihisz is fully supported by the World Jewish Congress. He expressed his disappointment that instead of remembrance of the victims, the Hungarian government is trying to rewrite history. The year 2014 was an opportunity for Viktor Orbán to confirm his good intentions hitherto only expressed in words by deeds. László Kövér accused Hungarian Jewry of “standing by the left again.” The Holocaust for the Jewish people is not a question of left or right and the government must make sure that it is not.

According to Lauder, it is worrisome that the Hungarian government is sending out contradictory messages: it recognizes the country’s responsibility in the deportation of Jews on the one hand and, on the other, it wants to erect a memorial which is offensive to Jews. The picture that has emerged of Hungary in America, Europe, and Israel is completely negative.

Viktor Orbán remains silent.