Europe’s missing museums

Europe’s missing museums

As we approach the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Holocaust museums are still missing from key historical sites

A picture from the opening ceremony of The Museum of the History of Polish Jews
A picture from the opening ceremony of The Museum of the History of Polish Jews

In the capital of Lithuania, an institution formerly known as the Museum of Genocide Victims barely mentions the murder of nearly all the country’s Jews by Nazis and locals, focusing instead on the years of abusive Soviet rule.

In Kaunas, Lithuania’s second-largest city, another so-called museum hosts festivals and summer camps on the grounds of a former concentration camp for Jews known as the Seventh Fort, where the victims are not commemorated.

In the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, a Holocaust museum called Tkuma features a controversial exhibition on Jews complicit in Soviet policies that led to a mass famine, known as the Holodomor, a whole decade before the Nazis began implementing their “final solution”.

And in the capitals of Romania and Ukraine, where Nazis and collaborators organised the murder of more than 1.5 million Jews, there are no national Holocaust museums at all. Infighting and debates about history and complicity have prevented their opening.

The former KGB building that hosts the museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights in Lithuania (Algirdas at the Lithuanian language Wikipedia)

These are just a few examples of a broader trend in Eastern Europe, where institutions whose stated goal is to educate the public about the Holocaust end up trivialising, inverting or ignoring it altogether. Commemoration activists from the region blame a varying mix of factors, including nationalist revisionism, anti-semitism, a lack of funds, personal animosities and incompetence.

All these elements are on display today in the ongoing sagas of the National Museum of Jewish History and Holocaust in Romania, which does not yet exist, and the House of Fates museum in Budapest, Hungary, which exists but remains closed five years after its scheduled opening.

In Bucharest, disagreements over what began as a generous municipal plan in 2016 to finally establish a Holocaust museum this year deteriorated. The city’s deputy mayor, Aurelian Badulescu, threatened to unveil in Bucharest a bust of Ion Antonescu, the war-time leader who collaborated with Hitler. His threat was seen as a measure to spite local Jews.

The municipality, which designated for the project a magnificent building that was formerly a bank in the city centre, failed to get the proposal approved. Opponents of the plan wanted the museum moved to the city’s outskirts. After protests by two groups – the government institution charged with running the museum, the Elie Wiesel National Institute for Studying the Holocaust in Romania, and the MCA Romania watchdog on antisemitism – Badulescu announced his plan to honour

Badulescu also wrote to Maximilian Marco Katz, a Romanian Jewish citizen who was born in Bucharest and who heads MCA, a letter telling him to “go back where you came from”. The museum’s future is currently uncertain.

Meanwhile in Budapest, the House of Fates museum, located at a former train station where Hungarian Jews were shipped off to be killed, has been standing empty for about five years owing to a dispute between the Federation of Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz) and the government. It involves the government’s appointment of Maria Schmidt, a historian accused of minimising the Holocaust by equating it to Soviet domination, to head the museum.

Budapest’s Holocaust memorial. Shoes on the river bank

To break the stalemate, the government this year tasked EMIH, a Chabad-affiliated group, to head the museum. EMIH has said Schmidt is out. The Jewish infighting has further stalled the project, in a country where critics say a right-wing government seeks to whitewash Holocaust-era collaboration.

An acclaimed Holocaust museum, the Holocaust Memorial Center, opened in 2004 on Budapest’s Pava Street with government funding. But it has suffered from internal fights, cutbacks and a decline in visitors that have raised doubts about its viability, historian Ferencz Laczo noted in 2016.

Inter-communal rivalries have also featured in the seemingly interminable effort to build a Holocaust museum in Kiev, Ukraine. It began in 2001 and is ongoing.

But alleged attempts to whitewash Holocaust-era complicity in Nazi-occupied territories is at the heart of much of the dysfunctionality surrounding Holocaust commemoration in Eastern Europe, according to Dovid Katz, an American-born, Vilna-based Yiddish scholar who in 2016 published a comprehensive essay on the subject.

Katz writes of a “drive to equalise Nazi and Soviet crimes [that’s] part of a larger effort to cleanse ‘the lands between’ (in Eastern Europe) of their historical record of wartime collaboration”. A more sophisticated technique is what Katz calls “double genocide” – the lumping together of the Holocaust and Soviet occupation, often with the latter eclipsing the former, as in Vilnius’ genocide museum.

In 2011, after years of complaints that fate of Jews was ignored, the museum directors added a small plaque to its cellar referencing the killing of Jews. Still, the museum is almost entirely devoted to Soviet rule and to defending the position of Lithuania as the only country in the world that considers the country’s domination by the Soviet Union as a form of genocide. Polish officials have claimed that there have been about 70,000 Righteous in Poland, although Yad Vashem has recognised fewer than 7,000.

With rescuers who have been recognised by Yad Vashem, their elevation in Eastern European museums is “in itself a worthy cause”, said Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “But not when it comes instead of the recognition of complicity in Nazi crimes, that is missing in the post-communist countries today.”  

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