Hungarians and the Holocaust
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.