Holocaust museum stokes controversy among Hungary’s Jews

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A man visits the new holocaust museum 'House of Fates' housed in what was the former 'Jozsefvarosi' railway station in Budapest on January 21, 2019. (AFP)
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People visit the new holocaust museum 'House of Fates' housed in what was the former 'Jozsefvarosi' railway station in Budapest on January 21, 2019. (AFP)
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The new holocaust museum 'House of Fates' housed in what was the former 'Jozsefvarosi' railway station is pictured in Budapest on January 21, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 26 January 2019
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Holocaust museum stokes controversy among Hungary’s Jews

  • The 24-million-euro ($27 million) revamp of the sprawling site, a former railway station where Jews were deported to Nazi German death camps, was largely finished by 2015

BUDAPEST: As the world prepares to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Sunday, Hungarian Jews find themselves divided in a bitter dispute over the long-delayed opening of a new Holocaust museum in Budapest.
The “House of Fates” complex, located on the run-down fringe of the city center, is fronted by two 15-meter (49-foot) high towers of stacked cattle wagons connected by a giant, floodlit metal bridge in the shape of the Jewish Star of David.
The 24-million-euro ($27 million) revamp of the sprawling site, a former railway station where Jews were deported to Nazi German death camps, was largely finished by 2015.
But it has remained shuttered ever since, its exhibition space empty save for furniture in dusty bubble wrap, amid wrangles over its concept, suspicions from many Jews of official attempts to whitewash history, and political connections in its development.
Some 600,000 Hungarian Jews perished during the Holocaust, most of them deported in the space of a few months in 1944 with the assistance of the Hungarian authorities.
Last September the government suddenly announced that it was handing ownership of the museum to EMIH (the United Hungarian Jewish Congregation).
The group, affiliated with the international orthodox Chabad movement, was also tasked with finalizing the exhibition with a historian, Maria Schmidt, who is close to Hungary’s nationalist-conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
“A Holocaust museum should grab attention and stir emotion, and provide moral direction, not just information,” Slomo Koves, chief rabbi of EMIH, told AFP last week.
Koves says the museum — not likely to open before next year — will focus on personal stories of young people and aims to draw more than 100,000 high school students annually.
“Kids these days are ignorant about the Holocaust, even Jewish kids, they need to be shaken out of their apathy,” said Koves, 39, whose grandparents were Holocaust survivors.

But the largest and longest-established Jewish organization Mazsihisz worries that EMIH lacks the necessary expertise and that Schmidt has a reputation for glossing over the Holocaust.
“She is not considered by experts as credible, no one knows what the museum’s historical message will be,” Mazsihisz leader Andras Heisler told AFP.
Schmidt’s previous concept for the House of Fates covered just the years between 1938 and 1948, omitting rising anti-Semitism and the introduction of the first anti-Jewish law in post-World War I Europe under Hungary’s interwar leader Miklos Horthy.
Mazsihisz and international academics — including from the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem — resigned from an advisory board over the distorted concept, leading to the deadlock.
Orban’s government vehemently insists on its good faith toward the Jewish community, which at around 100,000 is the largest in central Europe.
It introduced Holocaust education in schools, has supported another Holocaust museum in Budapest, and the renovation of several synagogues.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also lauded Orban for his proclamation of “zero tolerance” of anti-Semitism.

But many Jews regard Orban’s track record on Jewish issues as chequered.
An official memorial erected in 2014 that portrayed Hungary as an innocent victim of Nazi Germany incensed many Holocaust survivors.
At a ceremony last week at the Grand Synagogue in Budapest — Europe’s largest — to mark the anniversary of the liberation of the Budapest ghetto in 1945, some in the audience were unimpressed by a speech from a government official.
“He talked about Jewish-Christian European culture but outside a synagogue the government only ever speaks about Christian culture,” Eva, 85, a Holocaust survivor, told AFP.
Still others have accused the government of exploiting anti-Semitic tropes in its ferocious propaganda campaign against George Soros, the US-Hungarian billionaire of Jewish descent, whom Orban accuses of fomenting migration flows to Europe.
Last November, on the same day as the government announced funding for an anti-Semitism watchdog to be run by EMIH, a magazine owned by Schmidt depicted Jewish leader Andras Heisler surrounded by swirling banknotes.
Orban plays a “double game” with the Jewish community, according to historian and author Krisztian Ungvary.
“He is a populist trying to maximize votes, and that leads to sending signals toward the extreme right,” Ungvary told AFP.
As for the row over the museum, Ungvary says: “It would have been better to improve the existing albeit poorly run and designed Holocaust museum, the city does not need two.”
Koves insisted to AFP that the House of Fates exhibition is being reworked with international experts involved, and that it will tell the full story of the Holocaust.
“Usually it is better to try work with the powers-that-be and make progress rather than protest and get nowhere,” he said.


Women cleared of defamation in French sexual misconduct case

In this Sept. 21, 2014 file photo, Denis Baupin, a prominent Green Party member and former Paris city official, takes part in a climate change demonstration in Paris. (AP)
Updated 20 April 2019
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Women cleared of defamation in French sexual misconduct case

  • The court considered that the women and journalists acted in good faith, which is a defense for defamation under French law

PARIS: A Paris court has dismissed a defamation case against six women who accused a former French lawmaker of sexual misconduct and the journalists who reported the allegations.
The court on Friday ordered Denis Baupin to pay 1,000 euros ($1,120) in damages to each of the 12 people he sued.
In May 2016, investigative website Mediapart and radio station France Inter published and broadcast accounts from 14 women who alleged Baupin had groped, sexted or otherwise harassed them.
The prominent Green Party member resigned as vice president of the lower House of Parliament but denied wrongdoing and launched a defamation lawsuit against the six women who were identified in the reports, some witnesses and journalists.
The case had been under particular scrutiny in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
Women rights activists have seen it as a test of French women’s ability to speak out when they think powerful men have sexually harassed or abused them — and how journalists can report it.
The court considered that the women and journalists acted in good faith, which is a defense for defamation under French law.
In addition, it considered France Inter and Mediapart respected their additional obligations: the legitimacy of journalists’ goals in producing a story, demonstrating an absence of personal animosity, prudence and balance, and the quality of the investigation.
Most of the women who spoke about Baupin’s alleged behavior from 1998 to 2013 were fellow Green Party members, and outrage greeted their descriptions.
Four filed criminal complaints for sexual harassment at the time. A nine-month judicial investigation ended without charges. Prosecutors said the three-year statute of limitations had expired, but released a statement saying the women’s “measured, constant statements” and witness corroboration created a set of facts to support allegations of actions that “may for some of them be classified as criminal.”
The cleared women greeted the ruling with tears of joy and relief.
Lawyer Claire Moleon, a lawyer for one of them, told The Associated Press that “this is a great victory.”
“This is a very strong signal given by justice. It’s putting an end to a move that we were noticing to use defamation lawsuits to put more pressure on the victims of sexual harassment and sexual abuse,” she said.
Moleon stressed that Baupin’s order to pay damages to the people he sent on trial shows that “sanctions apply” to such cases.
During the February trial, women had described, often with lots of emotion, their alleged harassment through text messages and inappropriate comments, and in some cases, alleged sexual assault attempts.
Some former officials of France’s Green Party also testified in court, saying they should have acted earlier on reports of sexual misconduct. They stressed that the #MeToo movement has raised their awareness.
Baupin’s lawyer Emmanuel Pierrat, had argued his client did nothing illegal and had filed a defamation lawsuit to “fully clear his name.”
Baupin had decided not to attend the trial.