Hungary has so far created three permanent exhibitions devoted to the genocide that affected also the Jews of Hungary: one in the territory of Auschwitz-Birkenau (2004), another one in Hódmezővásárhely (2004), and a third one in the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest (2006). A fourth exhibition entitled House of Fates, focusing on the children’s Holocaust, is in preparation.



The exhibition in Auschwitz was created by the Hungarian government in 2004. The Hungarian national exhibition presents the history of the Holocaust in Hungary over a floor space of 600 m² on the upper floor of a former barracks building. The title of the exhibition is “The Citizen Betrayed.” The exhibition is organized into nine structural blocks covering the labor service, the deprivation of rights and plunder of property, the German occupation, the ghettoes, deportation, Hungarian Jews in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Holocaust of the Roma, the rule of the Arrow Cross regime, humanitarian rescue efforts, and civil resistance.[1]

In Auschwitz, the Hungarian exhibition cannot and does not signify only itself, since Auschwitz is the symbolic and also the specific location of the Holocaust, the national context may only be a supplementary, rather than an all-dominant factor.

The exhibition represents a Hungarian perspective, but due to its context it has a universal meaning.

The number of visitors to the Hungarian exhibition is not known, but the number of visitors to Auschwitz-Birkenau is registered each year. According to 2012 data, the Memorial and Museum had 1,430,000 visitors, which is an almost fourfold increase since 1960.



The permanent Holocaust exhibition in Hódmezővásárhely presents the calvary of the Jews of Hódmezővásárhely, and thus of the entire Hungarian Jewry over a floor area of 165 m². The title of the exhibition is “A Hungarian tragedy, 1944.” The exhibition was created by the local government of the town.

Due to its moderate size, the exhibition is presented in an intimate and transparent way.[2] In the exhibition hall, texts creating perceptions and emotions related to the Holocaust are displayed. The presented content is related to the Holocaust as well as to the history of the Holocaust in Hungary.

The process leading to the Holocaust in Hungary is presented at the exhibition starting with the “Jewish Act” of 1938, tracking the events until the deportation and extermination of Jews in 1944. A separate section of the exhibition, entitled “Even Unto the Seventh Generation,” focuses on children. The fate of children is exemplified by different excerpts. The names of murdered children are recorded in a separate list.

The exhibition also includes a photomontage section devoted to humanitarian rescuers. Excerpts from literary works by Miklós Radnóti, Sándor Márai, Imre Kertész, and Magda Szabó are included for creating an emotional background. A list containing the names of humanitarian rescuers, received from the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, is also displayed. (Humanitarian rescuers from all over the countries involved have been awarded the title “Righteous Among the Nations” by the memorial museum.)

The fate of children has been emphasized in the exhibition partly because it is located in a former school building, but putting emphasis on the children’s Holocaust makes it easier for viewers to sense the terrors and absurdity of the Holocaust, and helps to develop an emotional sense of rejection.

The exhibition is located in the separate buildings of the former Jewish school and the synagogue that form a single compound. A memorial, erected before the school, calls attention to the victims of the Holocaust.[3] (Back in 1948, two marble memorial plaques and a symbolic grave were erected in the synagogue to commemorate the victims.)

The yearly number of visitors to the museum in Hódmezővásárhely was 7000 to 8000 between 2004 and 2006, 3000 between 2007 and 2010, now being in the range between 2000 and 2500.[4]

Hódmezővásárhely has a strong local context, but its significance goes beyond locality.



As a state-funded undertaking, a permanent exhibition presenting the history of the Holocaust in Hungary was inaugurated in Budapest in February, 2006. The title of the exhibition is “From Deprivation of Rights to Genocide”. The exhibition has a floor area of 1500 m², two-and-a-half times bigger than the Hungarian exhibition in Auschwitz, and nine times roomier than the museum in Hódmezővásárhely. Therefore, it may rightly be considered the primary locus of the Hungarian representation of the Holocaust.

The exhibition forms a part of the Memorial Center that is situated over a floor area of 4689 m². In that sense, the Holocaust in Hungary is commemorated not only by the exhibition but by the entire institution.

The content of the exhibition is summarized by its creators[5] as follows: “The theme of the permanent exhibition is the Holocaust in Hungary. Its aim is to present and describe the persecution, suffering and murdering of Hungarian citizens, Jews and Roma, doomed to be exterminated on the basis of a racist ideology. The leading idea of the exhibition is to shed light on the relation between the state and the citizen. As of 1938, the Hungarian state has gradually deprived a group of its citizens of some basic human rights: of their property, freedom, human dignity, and eventually, of their lives. This process has dramatically accelerated in 1944, after the German occupation of the country. In line of this concept, the exhibition doesn’t provide a chronological description of the events; rather it consists of thematic blocs revealing the distinct phases of persecution (deprivation of rights, despoilment, deprivation of freedom, of human dignity, of life).  These elements are framed by the contents of the opening and closing halls located next to one another. The former gives an introduction of the pre-war lives of the Jewry and Roma population in Hungary, the later opens the questions of the liberation and calling to responsibility. One of the central motifs of the thematic blocs is a series of real individual and family stories, displayed continuously on the wall encircling the whole exhibition. As we reach the last hall, the lines on the wall symbolizing lives run out, the personal items disappear; yet we hear faintly wedding music filtering through from the front room, reminding us of the period prior to destruction. From here, the path leads to the area of mourning and remembrance, the synagogue.  At this space, memories of destroyed synagogues and prayer rooms are evoked by photographs, of murdered people by portraits of randomly selected individuals on fragile glass benches. Part of the space is devoted to rescuers, courageous foreign diplomats and Hungarian citizens, whose stories illustrate that even in the darkest period of persecution; hundreds risked their own lives to help others. The exhibition tour is concluded in the “meditation area” enclosed by glass walls on the synagogue’s gallery. At each thematically defined unit of the exhibition, multimedia illustrations on touch-screens are available for the visitors, including archive photos, movies, contemporary documents and additional explanations of the particular theme. A computer-accessible data bank is set up on the gallery, where the entire exhibition material is made available for research.” The exhibition at the Holocaust Memorial Center makes use of the structure of the Auschwitz exhibition, which is partly due to the fact that both exhibitions were designed in part by the same persons.

In the view of many, the missions of the Holocaust Memorial Center, as well as that of the ambitious exhibition have failed to become fulfilled. This view has been spelled out by one of the authors of one of the authoritative weeklies of Hungarian intellectual life as follows: “Independent of the parties in government, the Center has never been able to fulfill its mission; its visitor statistics are disappointing. Last year and the year before last (in 2011 and 2012 – AG) it had as few as twenty thousand visitors, the number coming to its lowest in 2008 when only 14,000 people visited the Center. On an average day the instructional rooms receive 20-40 young people.”[6]

Comparing the number of visitors to the Budapest center with the numbers in Hódmezővásárhely it becomes apparent that the Budapest numbers are very modest, to say the least. It may thus be said that in Hódmezővásárhely, a town of 50,000, the museum was visited by roughly 5% of the town’s population each year. Budapest has approximately 1.7 million inhabitants, so, on an average yearly basis, 1.2% of the city’s population visits the Holocaust Memorial Center. As far as the interest in the Holocaust is concerned, Hódmezővásárhely surpasses Budapest by 400%. (And, considering that tourism in Budapest is far more intensive than in Hódmezővásárhely, the numbers there are even stronger than they seem at first glance.) On the basis of visitor numbers in Hódmezővásárhely, the yearly number of visitors in Budapest should be between 80 and 90 thousand. Another kind of comparison may also be made. In 2012, the Jewish Museum in Budapest had 232,099 visitors, mostly foreign tourists.[7] It cannot be claimed therefore that there is no societal interest in the Jewish past, in Jewish history or tradition.

In all comparisons the Holocaust Memorial Center comes out last.


An opportunity for the future: the House of Fates

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust, in resolution 1396/2003 (2 July) the government of Hungary ordered the establishment of an institution named “Memorial to the Child Victims of the Holocaust – European Center of Education at the location of the Józsefváros Railroad Station in Budapest. A deadline of April 2014 was set for opening the memorial, The Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History and Society being entrusted with the creation of the new institution.[8]

Of all murders, child murder is the least justifiable act. In our culture children are the symbol of innocence: there is no reason that could justify the deeds of those who murdered them. One can always identify easier with children than with adults; children are often forgiven even those things for which grown people are held responsible. Children are the future – murdering children equals exterminating the future. There is no room for prejudice against children. Rejection of child murder is not dependent on political opinion or national affiliation: it is shared by all who embrace the fundamental values of our culture.

Mass murder of children is the symbolic and concrete expression of the wickedness and perversion of the Holocaust. No ideology could give moral acquittal to it.

Although the wording might seem strange, but it can be argued that, as far as the Holocaust is concerned, nothing is more powerful from the aspect of representation than the children’s Holocaust; it is understood even by those who feel more indifferent to the murder of adults.[9] If one is able to perceive the mass murder of children that is made up by the combination of the individual destinies – the European Holocaust had more than 1.5 million child victims, of whom as much as 190,000 were Hungarian –, then the sheer terror of the Holocaust becomes perceptible both mentally and emotionally. And thus, all human qualities required for rejecting it become stirred and awakened. Those who murder children represent the most despicable qualities of humanity – there is no way their sin and its ideological content could be justified. Child murder is one of the Absolute Sins in our culture.

The assignment includes that the public foundation has to prepare “a synopsis-like summary of the exhibition concept as well as of the planned educational activities, the preliminary PR plan for introducing the institution, the preliminary visual design, and a draft summary of the historiographical foundations of the topic horizon touched upon by the Memorial.” Further tasks of the public foundation are “to create a thematic and methodological scheme of the exhibit and educational program of the Memorial, the concept for the related scientific activities, a preliminary PR plan for introducing the foreseen institution, and the preliminary visual designs of the existing, available building compound, and thereby contribute to the preparation of the creation of the Memorial (the “Project”)” In the framework of devising the Concept, the Trustee is obliged to provide a preparatory study that:

(a)        defines the educational and visual concept of the exhibit and the Memorial

(b)       defines the function and the professional foundations of the memorial

(c)        provides a desirable plan for preparing the architectural design of the Memorial[10]

Fulfilling the objective laid down in the assignment, the Public Foundation gave the new institution a name: House of Fates.[11]

The principal target group of the institution includes the younger generations. According to the plans, it is these generations that the future exhibition will be targeted at, and the educational center will also be frequented mostly by them. Another consideration is that there is already a permanent Holocaust exhibition in Budapest, and thus it should not be repeated. Accordingly, the following preliminary concept was prepared: “Contemporary normalcy blocks the access of new generations growing up in the 21st century to the tragedy of the Shoah. The victims, the sins and their perpetrators fall into the category of the inconceivable, as much as the examples of civic bravery. In spite of the digital culture of violence of the mediatized 21st century – or precisely as a result of it – what happened in 1944 remains in many cases an abstraction for the pupils, and similarly, the huge proportion of children among the victims of the Holocaust loses its weight in our age under the “spell of statistics.” The Public Foundation therefore offers a concept for the exhibit and for the educational program that has the primary aim that the new institution, to be erected at the location of the former Józsefváros Railroad Station, can break through the perceptual barrier between the tragedy of seventy years ago and our present. To that end, such complex content, encompassing the exhibit and educational materials, has been designed that, in addition to presenting the historical context, confronts each and every pupil with those decision situations that were everyday reality for the full citizens of the age, as well as for those who had been deprived of their rights. By refusing to take the “omnipotent” and therefore detached viewpoint of posterity with respect to the traumatic events of the 20th century, the exhibition allows a perception process involving real emotional reactions, and provides that the intention of sensitization may be fulfilled with real and lasting effects.

In order to attain the above goals, according to the concept of the exhibition historical contents will be grouped around three thematic focal points that are of key significance from the aspect of reception and identification, namely the child victims, humanitarian rescuers, and some outstanding fates.

These latter three thematic focal points are detailed as follows – again with regard to the younger generation:

”Children in the Holocaust”

The dimension of elemental evilness is most effectively demonstrated through the fate of children. The exhibition showcases the tragedy of children who fell victim to the Shoah, including the 190 thousand Hungarian child victims, on several floors with a view to sensitizing the youngest generations.

“Humans amidst inhumanity”

Based on pedagogical experience, teaching exclusively about the sins committed during the Holocaust quasi alienates students from the reception of the issue. Therefore, raising awareness for the humanitarian rescue activity not only presents a behavioral pattern which students should follow and which the youngest generations of civil democracies that are based on the principle of fundamental civil rights can genuinely identify with, but it also makes it possible to transmit a refined discursive viewpoint, unlike the surviving traditions of the dictatorship. You can choose between right and wrong even if choosing the right way carries risks.


As the fate of Anna Frank – owing to its concreteness and high level of documentation – has become one of the most moving life stories of the European Holocaust, the sufferings of Hungarian victims documented by works of literature and journals (Imre Kertész, Éva Zsolt, Lilla Ecséri, etc.) may reflect the faceless evil of those times of horror. Presenting the selected life paths, the objective culture and weekday life of those involved will enhance the process of sensitization, while the literary dimension will enable the issue of the Holocaust to become part of highbrow culture in a way that visitors will be able to grasp the story with empathy.[12]

As it is apparent from the preliminary concepts, it will be a new type of institution, which aims to exert – for the most part – an emotional impact on young people, while also conveying information content.  Based on the concept, it would take about 45-50 minutes to view the exhibition, so its duration is adapted to that of a school period. The educational center would form an integral part of the exhibition, as it would make the cognitive processing of the emotional experience possible.

According to the preliminary concepts, the building of the railway station would serve as an educational center, and a new building would be erected to house the exhibition.[13] The new building, which will have an underground part, will consist of two towers made of wagons with a passageway in between.

Based on the architectural design, it will be a distinctive group of buildings, one that will enable visitors to visualize this chapter of Hungarian history.   The planned exhibition will rely largely on the child-oriented approach of the one in Hódmezővásárhely, which is very effective from the viewpoint of reception, or may even exceed it owing to the different venue and volume of the collection.

Sure enough, this new permanent Holocaust exhibition will be incomparable with anything that has ever been created in Hungary.



All in all, it can be concluded that

  • All three existing Holocaust representations are linked to the 60th anniversary of the Holocaust, even if one of them was opened two years later.
  • It took sixty years for the institutions acting on behalf of the Hungarian society to accept and be willing to represent the Holocaust.
  • Two of the three exhibitions were established by the state and one by a local municipality, and the next also appears to be a government project. Local municipalities are not really helpful and supportive of the Holocaust representation.
  • The contexts of the three exhibitions are similar: they all process a tragedy, and what happened is represented as a national tragedy by all of them.
  • The contexts of the three exhibitions are different: Auschwitz presents the Hungarian dimension as part of a universal story, Hódmezővásárhely draws national and universal conclusions from a local story, and the Holocaust Memorial Center basically portrays the Hungarian story in a universal context.
  • Two of the three exhibitions begin the story of the Hungarian tragedy in 1920, and one in 1938.
  • One of the three exhibitions ends with liberation, one with impeachment, and one – on account of the child Holocaust – with an emphatic reference to the eternal absence.
  • Two of the three exhibitions admittedly aim to raise awareness, while one of them intends to have an emotional effect.
  • Two of the three exhibitions include the Roma Holocaust, whereas one – due to its primarily local nature – only mentions it.

In fact, one of the tree exhibitions can be regarded a failure, as its performance is well below its own expectations, and it attracts far fewer visitors than it should.


Intellectual dilemmas

Having reviewed Hungarian representations of the Holocaust, a number of such questions arise which are difficult to answer clearly, but which indicate that it is worthwhile to further contemplate them since the intellectual framework hitherto applied might not be adequate.

I, for my part, think that five such topic areas can be delineated that are detected in the representations but pose intellectual problems.

These five topic areas are the following:

  • The beginning and the end of the history of the Holocaust
  • The role of rationality and emotions
  • What it means to be Jewish
  • The relationship of Jewish and national interpretations
  • The problem of assessing the Holocaust of the Roma


The beginning and the end

The Holocaust, as a sequence of acts, was connected to Nazi Germany. It had been planned by the Nazis, and, for the most part, it was them who carried it out. In the context of Hungary, the story is presented by the exhibitions by showcasing the story of Hungarian state anti-Semitism from 1920 or from 1938 on, a process that resulted in the Hungarian state actively cooperating in giving over its own citizens (to the Germans), such that these Hungarian citizens could then be murdered. These activities had been sustained for more than two decades with varying intensity, aligning Hungary smoothly with the German-dominated event sequence of the Holocaust.

In case of Hungary the story of the Holocaust ends either with the liberation of an extermination camp, with the trial of Hungarian war criminals, or by emphasizing the persistent nature of absence. The question is therefore: when did the Holocaust end?

But there is also another question: when did it begin? As far as the Germans are concerned, the story – as it is told by the exhibition – begins with the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933, and in a Hungarian context, with the interwar existence of state-backed anti-Semitism.

These choices can be regarded as justifiable in case of both the beginning and the end. In case the Holocaust is conceived as event history – which can and should be done – it becomes possible to delineate borders of political history, even if references are made from time to time to the antecedents of certain processes of political history.

But what if the Holocaust is conceived as a sequence of events that has an underlying cultural substance, a significance going beyond itself?

The Holocaust and the road leading to it constitute a story, i.e., a chain of events.

            The Holocaust and the road leading to it are imbued with sacrality.

            The Holocaust and the road that leads to it are imbued with spirituality.

The Holocaust is about violating all of the values and norms of the Jewish-Classical-Christian cultural sphere. That makes it equal to Sin and Evil, as well as to a symbol thereof. The existence of Evil and the struggle against it are unquestionable givens of our cultural sphere. This is one of the most powerful tenets of the Holocaust’s sacrality.

In our cultural sphere, the rejection of Evil is a moral obligation. The rejection of Evil is none other but attesting Good. Any variant of the name of Evil evokes the symbolic language of Sin. Auschwitz = Sin. Gas chambers = Sin. The individual components of the event history and the full history itself took up, or take up symbolic content, and become spiritualized. The concrete story has become a symbolic, sacral, and spiritual story, chiefly because Sin is a product of the same cultural sphere as the rejection of Sin.

It is not by accident that – after its event-historical end – the Holocaust has continued to be an issue for the cultural sphere up to the present day; it is used and incorporated in some way or another by and into countless works of literature and art, as well as political identities. The story is to some extent like the crucifixion of Christ. It happened, but the event is not a finished one, as it has concerned the thinkers and creative artists of the cultural sphere ever since. I thus have the impression that the Holocaust is an open-ended story. I am inclined to say – with all due respect to the importance of event history – that we can better perceive the Holocaust if it is regarded as an unfinished story.

I also have doubts as far as the beginning is concerned. In case the Holocaust is perceived as a story where the anti-Semitic variant of racial theory joined the technology of modernity as well as a systematic, bureaucratic state structure, then the roots are to be found, on the one hand, somewhere in the variants of racial theory originating in the “long 19th century”, and, on the other hand, in that modernity provided exceeding opportunities for the application of a logic of hate. This was supported by a logic held up by the social sciences that saw the world as consisting of a set of questions, considered by some as essentially existing, but by some – even then – as being merely constructs. The talk was about the question of the poor, the social question, the national question, the question of the working class, or, for that matter, the Jewish question. Out of overconfidence, social science believed that it could provide not only questions, but also solutions. But solutions are just one step away from the final solution. This does not diminish by a bit the responsibility of the perpetrators of the Holocaust, but broadens it, and connects it with a specific current of modernity that encompasses racial theory, applied for supporting colonization, as well as the intellectual language and worldview generated by the social sciences which was consumed and used by politics for its own purposes.

It seems that the presentation of the Holocaust cannot begin with events. Instead, it should begin with presenting those ideas from which the Holocaust originated as a practice. These ideas were born in the 19th century, only they were put into practice in the 20th century.

Based on that, in my approach the Holocaust can only be partly regarded as event history, and, in reality, it is the history of a cultural crisis that had terrible consequences. Therefore, it is spiritual and sacral, and it goes beyond itself. And, thereby, event history is only the surface appearance, rather than the essence, of this history of the crisis of a culture. Although event history is a relevant approach, it could also prove useful if the entire history is viewed in its spiritual and sacral aspects, in an interpretation going beyond itself.

Existing Hungarian representations – except a single one – delineate a picture wherein the Holocaust is arranged in chronological and thematic structures, where the process arises as a consequence of policy changes that gave room to hate, rather than of the logic of hate. Instead of presenting the different layers of the Holocaust, they only showcase actual events. What we can see is not Evil itself, but the signs of Evil.


Rationality and emotions

An exhibition presenting the Holocaust is not the Holocaust. The exhibition is a representation shown as a structurally ordered visual concept. The process of its creation is predominantly rational. Since its object is substantially different from it, it can only offer a presentation of it. The question is whether the result of a rational process – the exhibition – is capable of presenting something, the perception and conveying of which requires the evocation of emotions.

If we accept that the Holocaust is the Evil of modernity, then we also accept that it is both rational and irrational at the same time. It is rational since all industrial-like processes are rational also on grounds of their pre-planned nature and totalitarian intent. It is irrational since its ideological starting point was irrational. Sustaining a diabolized image of the enemy and intensifying racial hatred beyond all measure was only possible in an emotional way. This irrational world was rationalized by the Holocaust and the road leading to it, making the plundering of dehumanized people the object of efficiency calculations, and setting a goal of increasing the number of people to be exterminated in a given time to the highest possible in an economical way. Irrationality thus became rational, its result returning to its starting point, and thereby becoming irrational again.

We are thus confronted with a peculiar duality of the Holocaust, the Evil of modernity.

However, an event historical process is merely rational, at least in the sense that from one event there follows – can follow – another one. Yet, as far as the starting point and the result are concerned, there is a total and perfect irrationality; and it is that which posits the danger, the most diabolic side of modernity.

If it is held true that both the starting point and the outcome of the Holocaust is irrationality, then the means of rational reasoning are insufficient tools for understanding. Since hatred is itself an emotion, to reject the logic of hatred one should also apply emotionality. An absolute personal rejection of hatred can be achieved only if hatred is hated or despised, if one becomes shocked at its existence. This may be kind of a paradox, but so it is. To reject it, one has to become emotionally stirred by the experience, has to become strongly opposed to those who planned and committed the Sin.

Of course, another dilemma arises in this case. When one enters the world of emotions, one becomes distanced from the requirement regarded as “professional”, according to which objective talk is required, and objectivity is above all. On the other hand, in case the requirement of more or less exhaustive objectivity is fulfilled, our exhibition will fail to achieve its goal because it will not get through to the receiver, and will fail to appeal to him or her. If we choose the second option, our exhibition will become a – good or bad – visual textbook, rather than an exhibition. If, however, the historical process – conceived in a narrow sense – is handled more generously, it will be said that without objectivity all we do is idle talk, that instead of doing our job in a professional way we are dreaming up a new Disneyland.

This dilemma will become especially sharp if we do not perceive the Holocaust as a cultural phenomenon, but as a historical one, more specifically, as an event historical phenomenon. If this is the case, there will be Holocaust experts. That is, people who reveal the events of the Holocaust and arrange them in a chronological order. In this sense, a philosopher, a writer, a poet, a painter, a composer or an essayist cannot be regarded as a Holocaust expert, because presumably they do not know exactly when and which wagon went to a certain camp. Nevertheless, they may be able to convey substantive messages about the Holocaust, but – obviously – at a symbolic, spiritual or sacral level, rather than from an event historical viewpoint. This kind of duality works excellently in our world as long as we are not required to cooperate. If taken individually, experts write studies and monographs, writers and poets write novels and poems; painters paint pictures, and composers compose music. There is a problem, however, when an exhibition is expected to simultaneously convey rationally comprehensible information content and emotional impulses to the taxpayers whose money is spent on the organization of the exhibition. Evidently, in such cases it would be essential to cooperate, but it hardly ever becomes reality, because the so-called professionals think they are ‘experts’ on the Holocaust. And those who are not engaged with it full-time can only be amateurs. Those who express ‘only’ human contents and emotions can be writers, poets, painters, composers or essayists, but not ‘experts’.

We can often use this formula of work division, but – as far as I am concerned – in the case of the Holocaust it would be quite useless. If it is true that the Holocaust is not merely event history, but an occurrence that affects the innermost being of our culture and is therefore an open-end story; if it is true that it is a battlefield between the Evil and the Good of our culture; if it is true that this story is irrational and rational at the same time, then it is also true that cooperation is required between rationality and emotions so as to perceive it and make it perceived. If it is true that cooperation between rationality and emotions is required, this utterly rules out any attempt to prove the impossibility or reasonably preclude the possibility of inducing emotions and emotional reactions under cover of the myth of professionalism, that is, to prevent us from feeling and experiencing what we know or what we are aware of.

It is a legitimate and important professional task to deal with the history of the Holocaust and thus, for the most part, to affect the reasonable mind. It is legitimate and important, but it is insufficient if we are to present and represent the theme in question. The presence of the Evil is far too strong for this – there are too many victims. (One of the typical topics of our culture is death, including the mysticism and mystery of murder.) For this particular reason I think it would be definitely rewarding and fortunate if factors that have an overall effect on people’s emotional world were better incorporated into representations of the Holocaust; emotions that make us hate hatred and indignantly reject mass murder or genocide. Applied art has already done a lot about it and there is still a lot to be done. It would be even more effective if the various branches of art were integrated into the exhibition representations of the Holocaust. In this context, professionals would provide the indispensable raw materials, while information and knowledge would be organized into a composition of creative works of art, taking our human qualities into account.

The Holocaust is not an issue for specialists, but an issue of our culture as a whole; and to understand and process it both our rationality and our emotions are needed. The Holocaust was a historical event, but its representation requires the multi-dimensional power of art. People visiting an exhibition do not want to read textbooks; they go there to have a cathartic experience.


What it means to be Jewish

All Holocaust exhibitions, therefore also the Hungarian representations, use the definition of the Jew in the name of which Nazis and their European (including Hungarian) collaborators stigmatized, persecuted and murdered Jews. This is a definition of the Jew developed on a racial basis. It is not possible to explain and represent the Holocaust without this definition, as racial theory formed an integral part of the ideology of National Socialism. Therefore this is an authentic approach from a historical point of view.

It is reasonable to use the definition of the Jew developed on racial grounds also in the case of Hungary. As it is known, the Hungarian state, independent of the Nazis, approached the Hungarian Jewish population applying a racial definition from 1938 on; the anti-Jewish acts and anti-Jewish measures were formulated in this spirit. The organizers of the exhibitions took this fully into account; of course it is disputable (albeit it is not worth disputing) whether this process started in 1920, with the numerus clausus, which was not a racially based, but nevertheless anti-Semitic act, or only in 1938, with the anti-Jewish act of that year. (As anti-Jewish sentiment was one of the substantial elements of the Horthy-system, it is reasonable to consider the not yet racially based, but clearly anti-Semitic numerus clausus as the starting point.) From our point of view, however, this is not a crucial issue. What matters is that the racial definition of the Jew got incorporated into the politics of the Hungarian state, this also had legal consequences, and this was the reason why in May-June 1944 the Hungarian state could smoothly and willingly join the Holocaust initiated and executed by the Nazis.

We thus can contend that historical evidence supports the use of the racial definition of the Jew both in relation to the Nazi and the Hungarian courses of events.

Nevertheless, people organizing exhibitions 60 to 70 years after the Holocaust, are not supporters of either the above racial definition or racial theory, and they do not want to raise the number of advocates thereof.

They are not supporters of these ideas not only because they are against their personal convictions, but also because the truth content of racial theory cannot be justified; yet it can be justified what this theory could lead to when it became a political practice.

Let us be a little bit more specific, and approach this question from the point of view of the Hungarian society. I do not wish to go too much into details, but it is obvious that by the interwar period the so-called “homogeneous Jewry” was not existent anymore in any – historically justifiable – sense in Hungary. The Jewish population of the country underwent a religious split already in the second half of the 19th century; and after that the two groups often hated each other more than they did anybody else. Reform or neolog Jews got laicized as a result of secularization, and a wide range of Jewish identities emerged. In the second half of the 19th century, a significant part of the Jewish population assimilated to the culture and language of the majority; and in the interwar period Hungarian-speaking Jews absolutely prevailed in Hungary.

I have already made this point in more details in other papers; therefore I will only repeat it here: before the 19th century the people of Jewish origin were held together by Judaism, and the practice of their religion made their ways of life and world views identical. Judaism was the essence of the Jewish population, that is, there existed a Jewish essentiality. Their environment, the Christian state, stigmatized the Jews because of its anti-Judaism, and limited their rights. The existence of these limitations, on the one hand, and the community of Judaism, on the other, could and did strengthen the feeling and perception of common destiny. It was right, therefore, to talk about “the” Jewry.

This common history was broken by modernization, secularization, embourgeoisement and the state policies of legal equality. These processes did not bring about a sudden change, nevertheless things began to change. More or less gradually the common history characterizing the Jewry for centuries ceased to exist. It is exactly the disappearance of this common history and of the life in ghettoes that led to anti-Semitism, which raised its voice against the equal rights of Jews, building on the traditions of anti-Judaism. According to this idea, the more “invisible” Jews become, the more conspicuous their presence will be and the more dangerous enemy they will become, so they need to be made visible. In place of the disappeared Jewish religious essentiality advocates of this idea made up the essential Jew who they thought to be hateful. This person is Jewish because he is born Jewish, and he is Jewish in everything: in the way he thinks, eats, drinks, talks and acts; he is Jewish because of his origin rather than his identity. (This secularist Jewish essentiality, which greatly transcends religion, has Jewish advocates, too. Instead of being hostile to Jews, they have a very positive attitude: they detect Jews everywhere they find Jewish origin. In their opinion, too, people of Jewish origin are Jewish in everything, and they go as far as attributing Jewish people’s talents or Nobel prizes, for that matter, to their Jewish ancestry. They also consider origin rather than personal identity to be the decisive factor.) And the origin is given, it cannot be changed, therefore it does not matter at all what the identity of a person of Jewish origin happens to be, or what identity the environment attributes to this person, he or she cannot help being a Jew. In the European culture anti-Semitism created, instead of the actual ghettos, a theoretical ghetto, in which Jews were placed because of their origin, and which – as such – they could never leave. What matters, and only matters, is your origin, which is not up to you. What is up to you – i.e. what kind of person you are – does not matter.

The anti-Semitic variant of racial theory endorsed this logic, which, due to various political reasons, got into power in Germany in 1933. This logic, as already mentioned above, characterized the whole interwar period in Hungary with varying intensity, and became the enforced state policy in 1938.

Paradoxically, this policy wanted to create a common history again for the already heterogeneous Jewish population. One could say: a forced history.

The creation of this forced history led to multi-directional consequences. One of the consequences was the Holocaust, because those who believed that the Jewry constituted a compact and harmful racial unit, when gaining power, wanted to eliminate all people considered to be Jewish from a racial point of view from the territories that they ruled. In their opinion, this process could also put an end to the Jewish essentiality that they had created. Another consequence was that their use of language and concepts got incorporated into areas where the existence and notion of the “total racial Jew” is actually denied.

In the case of the Holocaust representations we face a real paradox here: on the one hand, we have to acknowledge that the definition of the Jew used in the Holocaust was developed in a racial logic (more precisely, it came about in this spirit); on the other hand, this racial definition is unacceptable, as it cannot be justified in any sense. Therefore it is strange, although understandable, that both Hungarian Holocaust representations are (also) related to synagogues. The racial definition of the Jew used by the Holocaust had very little to do with the Jewish religion.

It seems, then, that we have not found an appropriate way to dissolve this paradox. This is well reflected not only in the case of Hungarian representations, but also in those of internationally existing Holocaust representations. In my opinion, and here I would like to reflect on what I said above, a successful approach would be for Holocaust representations to identify the 19th-century genesis of racial theory as one of the sources of the beginning of this history. As long as we do not tell what the purpose of racial theory was, what it wanted to justify, and why it was a politically and socially usable construction, although its content was completely false, this paradox cannot be dissolved.

In all of the Holocaust representations we assume and picture that Jewry which was the intellectual and political product of the anti-Semites, while we would like to tell exactly how inadequate this construct is.


The relationship of Jewish and national interpretations

All Hungarian Holocaust representations interpret the Holocaust as a Hungarian tragedy, even if their titles indicate otherwise. In their view, the deprivation of rights, the legal limitations, and the exclusion were decisive moments in the fate of the Jewish population. They also perceive that it was a self-mutilation also for the Hungarian nation, and this turned, in effect, the tragedy of the Holocaust into a national tragedy. It may be said that after the 1920 Trianon peace treaty, which dismembered the nation politically, the independent Hungarian state carried out a self-mutilation, an “internal Trianon” of its own and free will, thereby joining the Nazi genocide.

In my opinion, it is appropriate and also historically justifiable to emphasize the idea of the national tragedy. What makes it appropriate is that, as I mentioned above, Hungarian residents practicing Judaism, not practicing Judaism, or without any religious belief but of Jewish origin had become culturally more and more homogeneous to their compatriots of non-Jewish origin belonging to their own social environment. The Jewish peasant became like the non-Jewish peasant, the worker of Jewish origin became like the worker of non-Jewish origin, and so on. Obviously, there were also some differences, but there were more common features. Nevertheless, the main connecting link was that the people of Jewish origin and religion got hungarianized; they became Hungarian also in their linguistic culture.

It would require a long detour to discuss why homogeneity and not integration belonged to Hungarian national identity. Suffice it to say here that Jewish Hungarians identified also with the homogenizing national cultural standards. When it was necessary, they wrote and sang Hungarian songs, or they wrote and recited patriotic poems. They acknowledged that there was only one way in the public world to be Hungarian, and the vast majority of them fulfilled these criteria.

Parallel to their becoming homogeneous to Hungarian culture – the formation of which they actively participated in – there was another process going on, which meant political exclusion in the interwar period. It could be argued in the name of the anti-Semitic logic becoming racial that they were excluded exactly because they were becoming too homogeneous. There were countless examples of well-known and less well-known mixed marriages and the formation of social symbioses and confidential bonds.

People considered Jewish on the basis of racial criteria became less and less distinguishable from a cultural point of view; therefore they had to be distinguished on racial grounds. This process had the unintended consequence that the continuously extending exclusion up until the extermination created a common experience in place of the already non-existent common history, which persists even today. After the Holocaust, the memory of the common forced history survived; nevertheless, there is still no common history.

However, we again need to face the problem that results from the unintended survival of the racial usage of the word “Jewish”. If we use the racially based definition of the Jew, we cannot help separating the Jews from the Hungarians.

Something happened (only) to the Jews that did not happen to the (non-Jewish) “Hungarians”. And yet we want Hungarians to think about this, subsequently, as part of their fate.

It is a tough job.

Many may and do think: the Holocaust is a Jewish issue, not a Hungarian one. And yet we want it to be a Hungarian issue.

At least on the level of representation, we should probably approach this a little bit differently from the way it has been approached so far. In the representation of the Hungarian Holocaust, we should talk about the deprivation of rights only after it has already been demonstrated that the target group of the deprivations and the later extermination are like us, “Hungarians”, because they were Hungarians. They lived and talked in the same way, and lived their lives along the same behavioral standards as we, the rest of the society did, who were not squeezed into the anti-Semitic notion of the Jew. If there were differences, these were attributable to their different religion – in case they were religious –, as their different religion prescribed different rules. They only became them, and not us, because some people, with our support, decided that they were not us.

In my opinion, only the description of the social symbiosis present in the given social groups could make this story not only declaratively, but actually Hungarian. Because we need to remind ourselves again that what happened to that part of the population that the Hungarian state designated as Jewish did not happen to non-Jewish Hungarians. The demonstration of the socio-cultural community is the only possible connecting link between the fate of Hungarians, and that of the “Jewish population”, classified as such by the state on racial grounds.

Thus, if we, subsequently, wish to place Jewish Hungarians, once pushed into national exclusion and identified on racial grounds by the Hungarian state, back into the Hungarian national community, then we need to demonstrate that they were like us – even if at some points they differed just as much as one person or one family differs from another.

In the history that split in the interwar period, another common aspect may be the foregrounding of racial theory, which has been mentioned several times above. In this case, it could be shown what role Hungarians were given in this construction. Obviously, they were not meant to be exterminated; instead, they would “only” have been turned into an enslaved people of the “herrenvolk”.

In the interwar period the history of people classified as Jewish on racial grounds by the Hungarian state was drawn apart, in the main aspects, up until the questions of life and death, from the history of people not considered to be Jewish. This rip may not and (what is more) cannot be stitched subsequently. One thing can be done: place this history in such a Hungarian identity frame that transcends the one-time dichotomy of “them” and “us”. The only possible resolution of the split history is a national identity that incontestably integrates the idea of legal equality.

These two histories will never make one. Yet, we can still have a common identity. The Holocaust may become part of Hungarian history only if a specific Hungarian identity is established.


The problem of assessing the Holocaust of the Roma


In the last decades the notion of the Holocaust of the Roma has been integrated into the narrative of the Holocaust. And with a reason.

The racial ideology of the Nazis considered the Roma to be inferior just as the Jews, and the effect of the 1935 racial protection laws was thus extended to the Roma. Any sexual relationship between Aryans and the Roma induced prison sentence, and such marriages were prohibited. The Roma were also deported, and many of them ended up in Auschwitz.

However, the systematic persecution of the Roma did not even approach the level of what could be experienced in the case of Jews. Quoting the text of the catalogue of the Páva Street Hungarian Holocaust exhibition, “The Nazis, in general, did not care about the Roma in the majority of the occupied countries, but a couple of hundreds of Roma were taken to Auschwitz from France and Belgium, for example.”

In 1944 the Sztójay government aimed to establish 50 to 60 Roma military labor companies, with approximately 10 to 12 thousand people. Finally, six labor companies could be established – in the meantime masses of Jews were involved in labor service.

There were also differences in the everyday humiliations of Jews and the Roma. As the above-mentioned catalogue says: “The Roma were also often humiliated. Apart from the forced haircuts and baths ordered by the authorities, and the brutality of the Gendarme, their dignity was hurt by the opinion permanently put forward by some members of public life: the Roma are ‘criminals’, whose reproduction should be prevented.”

This part of the catalogue also lists specific legislations that concerned the Jewish population, such as Act XV of 1941, which prohibited marriage and sexual relationship between Jews and non-Jews, interfering in the most intimate sphere of hundreds of thousands of citizens. The catalogue obviously also mentions everyday practices which were not regulated by laws. For example, in Pest-Pilis-Solt-Kiskun County a Jewish person was not allowed to donate blood, because the vice lord-lieutenant of the county considered Jewish blood to be pestiferous and tainted.

While there was no difference in the Nazis’ intention to exterminate both the Jews and the Roma, but there was a difference in the way this intention was enforced. There are significant differences in the consistency, rhythm, and extent of the execution. Thus there is no doubt that the Roma have a place in the history of the Holocaust, but the representations so far have made this place rather inorganic.

The laws resulting in the deprivation of rights were not anti-Roma acts, but anti-Jewish acts. The deprivation of property and possessions was not aimed at the Roma, but at the Jewish population, because nothing could be taken away from the Roma. The primary target group of the exterminating intention of the state was the Jewish population, not the Roma. The plunder of property, forcing the population into ghettoes, the deportation and extermination of the Jewish population proved to form an organized and consistent system. In the case of the Roma population, measures were sporadic and unsystematic. Therefore any principle underlying an exhibition that combines elements mentioned above will fail to integrate the Roma Holocaust into the Jewish Holocaust. To be more precise: the Roma elements will be added incidentally, but without any organic integrity.

In my view, this again exemplifies a characteristic trap that follows from the event history-centric approach. If we cannot present anti-Roma acts, if we cannot document that the wandering Roma, moving around more or less uncontrollably by the state, were deported, then it will be impossible to represent the same inhumanity with the intent of genocide that was in operation against the Jewish population.

Here, again, we should break away from the exclusively interpreted and thematically organized event history, and we could discuss again the issue of the metamorphoses of the Evil.

We know that the Holocaust of the Roma is a historical fact. But we do not know how to tell this story and present it so that organic links can be established with the main historical course of events of the Holocaust.

Paradoxically, the inorganic nature of the representation of the Holocaust of the Roma sheds light best on how limited the representation practice is that is conceived in professionalism regarding the Holocaust. It seems that the approach that treats the Holocaust as event history restricts the horizon of interpretability and reception, while the approach that interprets the Holocaust as a cultural trauma broadens this horizon.

It is possible that we should re-consider the following question in many ways: what do we primarily want to show, tell, or represent? The signs of the Sin, which are sometimes hard to fit together, or the Sin itself?



The Holocaust is more than itself, because it is a basic problem of the Western civilization, and therefore also of our culture. And a basic cultural problem – the viability of the Evil of modernity – cannot and should not exclusively be treated as an issue for specialists, because the story is symbolic, sacral and spiritual at the same time. Therefore it cannot be seen and shown, perceived and represented in a purely rational way.

And if we want the “Jewish” and “Hungarian” stories, once separated in the 20th century by the anti-Semitism of the Hungarian state, to become a livable Hungarian history, then we have no other choice but to commit ourselves to a notion of Hungarianness and a Hungarian identity that inseparably incorporate the idea of legal equality. All other Hungarian identities created by our history will always imply that “the history of the Jews” is not to be treated as Hungarian history, thereby providing a new possibility for separation. If Hungarians do not incorporate legal equality into their identity, then they will always be ready for self-mutilation, an “internal Trianon”; for the exclusion of this or that group from the Hungarian nation.

For Hungarians, in their national capacity, to be in favor of legal equality – this is a hard, but not impossible intellectual and emotional task. The Hungarian poet Sándor Petőfi, who became a national classic after his death, already and still knew this in the middle of the 19th century when he wrote: “Our fatherland is where our rights are also secured.”

[1] The concept of the exhibition was prepared by Gábor Kádár, László Rajk, Zoltán Vági, and László Varga. The design of the exhibition was created by László Rajk. The exhibition was created under the auspices of the Hungarian National Museum, sponsored by the Ministry of National Cultural Heritage and the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Hungary. Since it is laid down in the statute of the Auschwitz State Museum that the national exhibitions should be in line with the concept of the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial center, the exhibition was realized in cooperation with the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. The Hungarian representation in Auschwitz is examined using the printed exhibition guide. The Citizen Betrayed: In memory of the victims of the Hungarian Holocaust. Hungarian National Museum, Budapest, 2006 (henceforth: Auschwitz guide), the publication is trilingual: it is in Hungarian, Polish, and English. In the exhibition guide the names of people who contributed in various ways to the creation of the exhibition are also recorded; among them my name is also listed, and thus a personal remark should be made: the title of the exhibition was suggested by me. Back in the ‘90s, a temporary exhibition with a similar title was held in New York, focusing on the labor service.

[2] The description of the exhibition has been made using the publication entitled “Holokauszt Múzeum, Hódmezővásárhely” (Holocaust Museum, Hódmezővásárhely). The exhibition guide was created by the Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History and Society, compiled by Mária Schmidt and edited by Zsuzsanna Körmendy. It was published by the Local Government of the City with County Rights Hódmezővásárhely. According to the exhibition guide, the museum was built based on a historian’s concept by Mária Schmidt, designed by Attila F. Kovács supported by Mayor János Lázár. On behalf of the House of Terror Museum, the following people contributed to the creation of the exhibition: Beatrix Azary, Beáta Gömöry, Kund Halmy, Gábor Kiszely, Géza Lubi, Tamás Madácsy, Péter Magyar, Áron Máté, Attila Mezei, Levente Nagy, Anna Schlett, Tamás Stark, György Szattenberger, Gábor Tallai, and Bence Weinwurm. In addition to covering the exhibition itself, the material of the inaugural conference is also included in the guide: among others, talks by  Mária Schmidt, András Gerő, Zsuzsanna Körmendy, György Haraszti, and Tamás Stark.

[3] The memorial is designed by Attila F. Kovács, and was erected in 2004, the same year the museum opened.

[4] The figures were received from the Tornyai János Museum.

[5] For the description of the exhibition the following source was used: From Deprivation of Rights to Genocide: In memory of the victims of the Hungarian Holocaust Hungarian National Museum, Budapest, 2006 (Henceforth: From Deprivation of Rights to Genocide, 2006.) Based on this, the list of participants in the creation of the exhibition is the following: lead writers of exhibition text László Karsai, Gábor Kádár, Zoltán Vági; historian/museologist experts Katalin Jalsovszky, László Karsai, Gábor Kádár, Zsuzsanna Toronyi, János Varga, Zoltán Vági; exhibition coordinator Judit Molnár; exhibition designers Sarolta Bihary, Mariann Derencsér, Csaba Orbán, Zsolt Vásáros; readers/reviewers István Deák, Mónika Kovács, Ilona Radnóti, Sándor Radnóti, Krisztián Ungváry; editor of the exhibition guide Judit Molnár. Gábor Kádár and Zoltán Vági had a decisive role in creating the Hungarian exhibition in Auschwitz, and it is perhaps due to this that the exhibition in Páva Street has many similarities to the one in Auschwitz.

[6] Péter Hamvay, “Terror Háza 2.0” (“House of Terror 2.0”), Élet és Irodalom, October 11, 2013, p. 4. The share of Hungarian and foreign citizens among the few visitors is not known.

[7] My thanks are due to Szilvia Peremiczky, Director of the Jewish Museum, for making these data available to me. The ticket to the Jewish Museum allows admission to the Dohány Street Synagogue, the Wallenberg Memorial Garden and the Museum itself. These objects constitute a single territorial unit.

[8] The project is lead by Mária Schmidt. As it may be remembered, she was one of the creators of the exhibition in Hódmezővásárhely.

[9] Of course, all human lives have equal value, and each murder is sin. This holds also for Holocaust victims. However, the death of children is always much more touching, perhaps precisely because what has been put forward above in the main text. From the aspect of representation and reception, the mass murder of children has the greatest effect.

[10] Working document for creating the exhibition concept for The Memorial of the Child Victims of the Holocaust – European Center of Education (the “Memorial”), Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History and Society, October 2013. Unpublished manuscript, 3. (Referred to below as Concept, 2013.) The working document contains the preliminary concept of the exhibition, the preliminary visual design, the methodological draft of the educational material, the preliminary PR plan, a discussion on naming the memorial site, and an extended bibliography. The manuscript is 200 pages long.

[11] For a reasoning see Concept, 2013, pp. 20-24.

[12] Concept, 2013, pp. 4-5.

[13] Visual design of the new building was created by Attila F. Kovács.