The heads of the UK’s three main Holocaust organisations have warned Israeli leaders not to let Hungary downplay Nazi collaboration in a new Shoah museum due to open in Budapest next year.
The heads of the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the National Holocaust Centre also expressed “deep concern” about antisemitic rhetoric from the Hungarian government, despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cosying up to the country’s right-wing premier in his search for allies.
In a rare and coordinated intervention on a foreign matter which will resonate across Europe, the three Holocaust education and commemoration chiefs felt moved to echo the warnings of Hungary’s Jewish community about the new ‘House of Fates’ museum, fearing truth may take a back seat to politics.
“The concerns are real,” said Henry Grunwald, chairman of the UK National Holocaust Centre and one of the biggest names in Anglo Jewry. “It would be a travesty if, for present day political advantage, the Hungarian government sought to portray historical facts in an inaccurate and misleading manner.”
The trio’s comments came as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban refused to condemn last month’s front cover of a pro-government magazine which showed Hungarian Jewish community leader Andras Heisler showering in cash.
Heisler had earlier said the new government-funded $18 million museum would gloss over Hungarian involvement in Nazi crimes, but Israel’s government nevertheless appears keen to work closely with Orban over the building, even attacking a Jewish critic of his.
Last year Orban’s party was accused of using antisemitic smears in a high-profile poster campaign against Hungarian-born Jewish philanthropist George Soros, an outspoken critic of Orban’s right-wing populism. A Soros-funded university in Budapest is now facing closure after Orban hit back with legislation.
Olivia Marks-Woldman, chief executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT), said: “We are deeply concerned at the populist and often antisemitic rhetoric currently being used in Hungary at the highest levels of government.”
HMDT is a member of the Museums and Memorials Working Group at the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which met in Prague last week, and Marks-Woldman said Hungary was a top agenda item.
“I have been involved in international discussions on this topic with colleagues from around the world,” she said, before addressing concerns raised by Hungary’s Jewish community that the new Budapest museum.
“I urge everyone involved with the new House of Fates museum to engage with the history of the Holocaust with integrity and academic rigour,” she said. “However challenging, Hungary has an opportunity to explore its complex history and create an appropriate museum to the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.”
Holocaust Educational Trust chief executive Karen Pollock also agreed, saying: “We share the widely expressed concerns of the majority of the Hungarian Jewish community and organisations such as Yad Vashem regarding the House of Fates.”
She added: “The Hungarian government should engage constructively with the Jewish community and ensure that the museum honestly addresses the history of the Holocaust in Hungary, including the participation and collaboration of Hungarian citizens, however uncomfortable that may be.”
Netanyahu’s senior advisers recently met Orban’s team to discuss the new museum scheduled to open next year. This raised diplomatic eyebrows, given that such meetings would typically be undertaken by Israeli Foreign Ministry officials.
Orban, who was hosted by Netanyahu in Israel this summer, has been accused by EU leaders of stoking racial and ethnic tensions in Hungary over the European immigration crisis, but his blossoming relationship with Netanyahu has been described as a “bromance”.
On Monday, however, European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans backed the UK’s Holocaust organisations, calling on Orban “to avoid dog-whistle words [and] any form of campaigning that could be seen as implicitly antisemitic… Clearly some of the campaigns he’s been doing have led to anti-Semitic responses in Hungarian society”.
Netanyahu’s critics say he is putting his search for allies over the concerns of Hungarian Jewry, and point to how Israel’s Foreign Ministry attacked Soros for “interference” after Israel’s ambassador to Hungary criticised Orban’s portrayal of Soros.
Israel’s national Holocaust museum Yad Vashem, which refuses to endorse the new Budapest museum, also criticised Netanyahu for similar reasons last year, after he signed a joint statement with his Polish counterpart following the country’s new law criminalising reference to Polish-Nazi collaboration.
Yad Vashem said Netanyahu had adopted Poland’s narrative minimising the role Poles played in helping the Nazis deport and kill Jews yet exaggerating the role Poles played in saving Jews.
Asked about his role in helping Orban build the new museum in Budapest, Netanyahu’s spokesman said: “The Hungarians want to create a consensus regarding the museum’s narrative as a condition for its opening… We are awaiting the Hungarians’ updated approach in an effort to achieve the desired consensus.”
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