Holocaust museum stokes controversy among Hungary’s Jews

1 / 3
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)
2 / 3
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)
3 / 3
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

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.


Afghan delegates head online for crucial talks

Updated 01 June 2020

Afghan delegates head online for crucial talks

  • Peace hopes rest on virtual forum with Taliban amid virus threat

KABUL: Afghan government and Taliban delegates are expected to begin online talks in mid-June in a bid to end a decades-old conflict in the country, officials told Arab News on Sunday.

While past meetings have been held in person, the latest round of negotiations will take place online because of the threat of coronavirus in the war-ravaged country.

“We see no challenges, the atmosphere and preparations are all set for the talks,” Feraidoon Khawzoon, a spokesman for Abdullah Abdullah, newly appointed chief of the High Council for National Reconciliation, told Arab News.

Negotiations could begin in “the next 10 or 15 days,” he said.

“The announcement of a cease-fire, a reduction in violence and the exchange of prisoners were all requirements for the start of the talks, and we have had progress on them recently,” Khawzoon said.

On Wednesday the Afghan government released a list of 20 delegates due to hold peace talks with the Taliban.

The team will be led by Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a former spy chief who has held indirect negotiations with the militants in the past outside Afghanistan, he added.

In the lead-up to the talks, President Ashraf Ghani’s government will release 3,000 more Taliban prisoners, an official close to the Afghan leader told Arab News on condition of anonymity.

More than 2,000 Taliban inmates have already been freed as part of a historic peace deal in February.

In return, the Taliban released hundreds of government troops and, in a surprise move, announced a three-day cease-fire last week for Eid Al-Fitr.

The peace moves follow a buildup in fighting between the two sides despite the pandemic. Taliban attacks killed at least 146 people and injured 430 during Ramadan. 

Fears had been growing that the peace deal signed on Feb. 29 between the Taliban and the US would collapse.

The joint cease-fire followed talks in Qatar last week between the Taliban and Zalmay Khalilzad, US special representative for Afghanistan.

Khalilzad later traveled to Kabul for meetings with Afghan political leaders over a reduction in violence and an exchange of prisoners. 

“We welcome the Taliban’s decision to observe a cease-fire during Eid, as well as the Afghan government reciprocating and announcing its own,” Khalilzad said last Sunday.

Increasing Taliban attacks on government troops, and political infighting between Ghani and Abdullah over who would assume office as president, have delayed the talks.

After Washington failed to reconcile Ghani and Abdullah, both leaders agreed two weeks ago to share power, with Ghani leading the country for another five years and Abdullah appointed as chief of the peace talks.

Khalilzad described the cease-fire agreement as a “momentous opportunity that should not be missed,” and pressed both sides to agree on a new date to start negotiations.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also urged the two sides to start peace talks, with the release of prisoners as a first step. 

Pompeo said that he expected the Taliban “to adhere to their commitment not to allow released prisoners to return to the battlefield.”

Ghani said the release of Taliban inmates would be “expedited” and that his government’s negotiating team was ready to begin talks “as soon as possible.”

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, could not be reached for comment on the Taliban’s stance.

In the past, the group has insisted it will take part in talks with Kabul only after all 5,000 Taliban prisoners are freed.

Experts hope the latest developments are a step in the right direction.

“The Taliban do not seem to have any reservations about the structure of the government team, so the hope is high that the talks will take place by June 15,” Wahidullah Ghazikhail, an analyst, told Arab News.

“Some of Taliban’s field commanders seem to be divided on the talks, hoping to capture power again after the departure of US forces (by next spring), while the political leaders are pushing for a political settlement,” he said.