Hungary’s Holocaust museum triggers bitter conflict between Jewish groups

Cnaan Liphshiz

(JTA) — The planned opening of a Holocaust museum in Budapest has triggered an acrimonious exchange between the European Jewish Congress and Chabad of Hungary.

In a statement Monday, EJC President Moshe Kantor called the Hungarian Chabad affiliate EMIH a group with “no tradition and no historical roots in Hungary” that is favored by the government for its moral pliability but not by local Jews. EMIH fired back by calling him a dodgy oligarch who is ignorant of Hungarian history.

The unusually harsh-worded exchange is an escalation in the controversy over the House of Fates state-funded museum ahead of its opening next year under the ownership of EMIH.

The Mazsihisz federation of Hungarian Jewish communities, which is an EJC affiliate and which has tense relations with EMIH, has refused to cooperate with the government on the museum, as has Israel’s Yad Vashem museum on the Holocaust.

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The boycott was over the government’s appointment of Maria Schmidt, a historian who has equated Nazism and communism, to head the museum. The controversy over this issue delayed the museum’s opening by at least four years. Last week, EMIH announced that it had taken over ownership of the museum from the government. EMIH also said that Schmidt will have a say in designing the permanent exhibition but will not be running the museum. Mazsihisz, which has warned that Hungary’s right-wing government is encouraging anti-Semitism and whitewashing complicity during the Holocaust, said it believes the museum will not operate independently.

“Holocaust memory in Hungary is not a plaything to reward political friends,” Kantor said in his statement. The government’s preference to “whitewash this Holocaust memory” through the House of Fates, he added, “is unworthy” of an E.U. member country.

Rabbi Slomo Koves, EMIH’s chief rabbi, fired back at Kantor, calling him a “post-Soviet oligarch included in the ‘Putin List.’” It was a reference to a list issued by the United States Treasury in January, identifying individuals they are considering for sanctions. The list exactly corresponds to Forbes Magazine’s list of Russian billionaires.

Kantor’s EJC title reflects only his “enormous wealth and hence, influence. An outsider in Europe, he has come under continuous attack by the leaders of diverse Jewish communities throughout Europe,” Koves wrote.

He went on to accuse Kantor of being easily “willing to trample on the memory of Jews murdered in the Holocaust” and “meddle in Hungarian Jewish affairs.”

Koves also noted that he himself is “descended from an illustrious six-generation Hungarian legacy, and the grandson of a Holocaust survivors, a rabbi with a PhD in Hungarian Jewish History.”

An EJC spokesperson told JTA about Koves’ statement: “We find it extremely disappointing that on the eve of Yom Kippur a rabbi would engage in such malicious gossip and attack a fellow Jew, especially one who has dedicated his life to Jewish causes in Europe.” The EJC “and its democratically-elected leadership will continue to stand with our affiliate which remains the representative organization of Hungarian Jewry,” the spokesperson added.

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