Culture, Global, Identity

Hungarians and the Holocaust

Crossposted to New Voices Magazine

You kill 10 people, you go to Texas, they hit you with a brick, that’s what they do. 20 people, you go to a hospital, they look through a small window at you forever. And over that, we can’t deal with it, you know? Someone’s killed 100,000 people, we’re almost going, “Well done! You killed 100,000 people!? You must get up very early in the morning!”
-Eddie Izzard, comedian

I got back from Europe on Monday. While in Budapest, I had the chance to visit Budapest’s Holocaust museum, the best I’ve ever been to. Everyone who visits Budapest visits the Great Synaoguge, the largest in the world when it was built, but few visit the Holocaust museum, which itself was built around an existing shul from the 1920s. Here’s why it’s a must-see and why it topped Yad Vashem and the one in DC for me.

The museum in Budapest is quick, easily digestible and features a very limited narrative. Others overwhelm visitors with a huge narrative covering all of Europe, trying to impact people with the sheer numbers, the gargantuan size of the tragedy. Budapest takes the opposite approach, covering only Hungary’s WWII/Holocaust story, focusing in closely on five Hungarian families and following them straight through. One of the families, by the way, is Roma (gypsie), a story that rarely gets its due in Holocaust education. It’s apt, of course–apparently most of the Roma murdered in the Holocaust were from Hungary.
In this retelling, the story is related in clear, cold steps. Each room is numbered and explains a particular step in the dehumanization of Hungary’s Jews. One is about limiting Jews in academia, another about limiting the professions Jews could work in. Each room includes explanations of each step impacted the five families as well as copies of the legal documents involved.
There is a perfect irony in the storytelling. On the one hand, it tells the story the way the Nazis and Hungarian Arrow Cross imagined it–a logical process, a series of carefully planned steps. On the other hand, the museum subverts that through indignant language and the personalizing effect of the five families.
Totally new to me was the story of the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s own militant nationalists. They allied themselves with the Nazis, but were less brutally organized than the Nazis. Hungary was left mostly alone by the Nazis at first, but when it became clear that Hungary was not proceeding fast enough with their own Jews, the Nazis invaded and sped things up.

The best part of the museum to me was the synagogue. They built the museum complex around an existing synagogue from 1920s, beautifully restored, but sadly it is hidden from the street inside the museum’s courtyard.

9 thoughts on “Hungarians and the Holocaust

  1. Every other year the Pinskers in Israel organization a memorial trip to the khurban on the pripyet. They say Kaddish at the massacre sites, tour around a bit and visit the poor elderly Jews living there and serviced by JDC. My cousins went and swore not to go back.
    Most communities dont have even that- its a plaque or monument over a mound of our murdered kin. That’s all there is. The intensity is in the silence, the lack of a living community.
    Hungary’s museum sounds intense, effective even. Most of them are. That said, they sink incredible precious resources into memorializing the dead past rather than building a vibrant future.
    Holocaust museums are the golden calves of our time. Fresh from the trauma of the Egypt, Bnei Yisrael, their leader atop a fiery mountain, turned to idolatry. In the years following the shoah, so did we, pouring all our god and precious jewels into a foundries of forced communal memory with little thought to what happens when Moshe came down the mountain.
    Moshe has returned with the luchot of culture and meaning, and too often our communities are busy dancing around golden cows.

  2. I’ll agree that it would be bad if the only vibrantly Jewish think in a community was its Holocaust museum.
    That is very much not the case in Budapest. The Great Synagogue is still a hopping house of worship, there’s a vibrant and growing Reform congregation elsewhere in the city and a number of other Jewish community organizations around. I neglected to mention in the post, but I suppose I should have, that Hungary’s Jewish population, because of how disorganized the Arrow Cross was, is far less in shambles than it is in other former Nazi-occupied territories.

  3. I was there on Tuesday this past week (Budapest is fantastic by the way. I strongly recommend making a visit to Hanna’s, although it is not the friendliest restaurant I have ever been to). This was the first museum that I’ve ever been to where I had to exit early. I think that because it is so specific to the Hungarian Jewish community, it makes it that much more personal, where other museums start to desensitize or overstimulate the viewer through broad imagery with details that are too much to fully absorb in one sitting. At this particular museum, it was not the Zyklon B can in and of itself that is upsetting–rather, it is the text underneath, which (I paraphrase) says something to the effect of “This can of Zyklon B was used to kill 200,000 Hungarian Jews.” It was at this point that I had to leave, but it was somehow such a relief to walk into the synagogue at the end.
    Truly the best Holocaust museum I have ever visited, but so difficult to be in.

  4. According to the 2001 Hungarian census there were 12781 Jews in Hungary.
    But if you say it has a nice Holocaust museum, I’ll take your word for it. Good for tourism.
    The photo shows a nice synagogue. Nice and empty.
    A historical correction:
    The Nazis didn’t invade Hungary because of how it was treating its Jews. They invaded when they found out Horthy was negotiating with the Soviets.

  5. Dave, I’m new to Hungarian history, so if you say so, I’ll go with you on that.
    Pretty much all 12781+ Jews in Hungary live in Budapest and the community there believes that this number is inaccurate anyway.
    And yeah, it’s empty. There are others in town that aren’t. So what’s your problem?

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