April 10th, 2017

Hungary’s new Holocaust museum said to stand unopened because of feud beween gov’t office chief and historian

The House of Fates, a HUF 7.5 billion Holocaust museum strongly based on conservative historian Mária Schmidt’s concepts, has stood ready but unopened to the public for two years now. The reason for this is partly coordination issues with Hungarian Jewish organizations, which also have a say regarding the concept and the content, and more importantly an alleged feud between Schmidt and government office chief János Lázár, who gradually took over the coordination talks from the historian, writes 444.hu.

The construction of the museum itself was completed in the spring of 2015 on a several thousand square meters site at Budapest’s Józsefváros Railway station, where the transports had departed to death camps during WW2. Mária Schmidt – considered the Orbán government’s favourite historian – and her public foundation were mandated to carry out the project by a government decree in the summer of 2014. Schmidt’s appointment was not warmly greeted by Mazsihisz and other Jewish organizations, as she is known for her apologetic stance regarding the role of Hungarian authorities in the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews in 1944.

While Schmidt was supposed to be engaged in dialogue with these organizations, the construction was completed with extraordinary speed. The museum building is also said to be of superb quality and engaging design, as László Szily, 444’s journalist wrote based on his personal visit at the premises. Szily also remarked that though the exhibitions are yet to be installed, the presence of Schmidt’s prevailing concept is obvious.

One could classify this as a typical example of (the lack of) coordination in big money government projects funded at least partly from the taxpayers’ money. However, as the negotiations reached a stalemate, government office chief János Lázár got involved, and announced at the Jewish Community Roundtable in September 2014 that the government will only open the museum if a consensus is reached. Schmidt was so displeased with Lázár’s intervention that she openly criticized him in a Facebook post for “obstructing the opening” of House of Fates. The historian attributed this to the influence of Gusztáv Zoltai, former leader of Mazsihisz, whom Lázár took on board as an adviser on the issue, and who has got a “thick one-party state past” according to Schmidt.

While it cannot be known for certain why Lázár got involved in the issue, rumor has it that he is on friendly terms with onetime Fidesz favorite but now fallen-from-grace banker and media tycoon Zoltán Spéder. Spéder and Schmidt were also on good terms and co-owners of the BIF property firm, which also made the historian a billionaire. Still, they fell out over the leadership of the company, and Spéder ended up selling his share below market price. It is not as far-fetched in present day Hungary as it may sound at first hearing that Lázár and Spéder wanted to hit back at Schimdt where it really hurts by derailing her beloved museum project, parts of which she designed herself. According to a Fidesz-insider source, by 2016 Lázár completely took over the House of Fates project from Schmidt, and now he negotiates by himself with the Jewish organizations without any significant result.

The bottom line is that there is no foreseeable date for the opening of a museum built from a vast expense, the design of which in itself would be able to make people think and evoke a feeling of catharsis.

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