What has the House of Fates to do with me?
When I was asked to contribute to devising the concept of the House of Fates almost 4 years ago, I was only too glad to say yes. I thought and still do that such an institution would prove to be very useful for a number of reasons. We started working on the project and reached a point where our ideas could be submitted to a narrow circle of people involved but then it was abruptly halted. Thus, although several studies had been completed, substantial written material had been prepared and a preliminary visual concept had been outlined, the preparatory effort remained unfinished.
It looked as a wasted effort, because the authorities set conditions that were impossible to fulfil, namely it expected full consensus which in practically doomed the whole initiative to failure. I know no issue in Hungary’s millennial history which would have been solved with full consensus. The official responsible for putting the government’s resolution into practice declined to allow the details of the partial and halted project to be made public and I understood his motives but did not agree with them. Whenever a communication vacuum is produced, it will be filled by people who either know nothing and/or will distort the contents of the project in accordance with their political interests and role games. This is what essentially happened.
In September 2018, the government relaunched the frozen project putting the United Hungarian Israelite Faith Community and the Public Foundation for the Research of Central and Eastern European History and Society in charge. I sincerely welcomed the news, for my commitment to the project has remained unchanged. On the other hand, this time I am not bound by any role in it, since unlike it happened four years ago, I have not been asked to participate and can thus freely express myself on the content of the project. Hereunder I will base myself mainly on the original frozen concept adding a few remarks that I have developed since. I have informed the leading personalities of the institutions involved about my views and they have voiced no objections.
The House of Fates thus has and hopefully will have a great deal to do with me. As long as I feel I can still support it. So far, I could, although I have only rarely met such an inconsistent attitude on the part of a government.
What does ’House of Fates’ mean?
That is a genitive construction. It means either the circumstances that befall someone or an inevitable an often adverse outcome. Some identify their fate with predetermined destiny; others see it as an expression of God’s will; others again believe in the omnipotence of free will and are convinced of shaping their own fate, while still others attribute what happens to them to a series of coincidences. Various interpretations of religious philosophy also come forth with varying definitions of fate. In our case, the word is used in its everyday meaning – our fate is what happens to us. Be it favourable or not. A high number of people, even if they go through similar events, may have diverse feats. This is why the plural form is used in our case. The word ‘house’, while expressing reality, is also symbolic. What is called ’House of Fates’ is a complex of several buildings, some of which are situated underground. It is therefore more than one house. The House of Fates has been a full linguistic success – although the project is still far from being in operation, this is how it is mentioned by everyone. Even by those who hat id, without actually knowing what it is about.
What is the House of Fates?
The house of Fates is four things in one – an exhibition, a Knowledge Centre, an educational institution and An event centre. The four can be operational both separately and as synergic partners.
What is the House of Fates about?
The house of Fates is about the Holocaust or more precisely, about an introduction to the Holocaust. The representation of the Holocaust obviously doesn’t equal the Holocaust itself. Two narratives are possible on this subject; one from a historical point of view and another searching the nature of Evil. The historical narrative means reporting what happened. This is what is commonly called authenticity. The approach investigating the substance of Evil on the other hand explains what we see today as offering us a lesson or carrying a message to us or again what helps us rebuild and rethink ourselves. I would define this approach for want of a better word as essentialist although I could also call it the viewpoint of remembrance validity.
Historically speaking, the House of Fates is not just about the mass killings of people of Jewish descent on an industrial scale, but also about the road that led to that as well as the options the survivors were facing.
The Holocaust was a universal historical event. In a historical sense, without forgetting about the international context of the events, the House of Fates focuses on Hungarian history. It interprets the universal historical tragedy as a Hungarian tragedy.
However, apart from being a series of events, the Holocaust is also an issue concerning the core substance of our culture and as such is an open-ended story. In a cultural sense, the substance of the Holocaust is the full-fledged appearance of Evil. In the history of the Holocaust, Evil appears both in its horror and its banality. The exhibition is thus in a figurative sense about Evil and in this respect, it certainly can only approach its target without ever reaching it, since no one has ever managed fully to grasp and describe the substance of Evil.
The two approaches, namely the historical and the essentialist ones imply diverging contents and methodologies. The former aims at substantiated historical authenticity, while what the latter tries to achieve is validity.
In the case of the Holocaust, it is indispensable to shed light on Good facing the fury of Evil as well as to enable us to interpret Holocaust, that is Evil itself. Therefore, the contemporary presence of the various factors effecting human emotions is indispensable in Holocaust representation. Representing the Holocaust is not just an issue of rational scientific knowledge, for it relates to the whole of our culture and to be understood and processed it requires our minds and hearts to cooperate.
The House of Fates is meant to combine the two approaches, the historical on the one hand and the essentialist, remembrance one on the other, even if those two directions are often difficult to reconcile. The historical approach reserves a relatively small role to the rescuers; while their presence is way more important in the remembrance approach. Authenticity has no value without validity; validity loses its sharpness if not backed up by authenticity.
Whom does the House of Fates target?
The House of Fates is primarily targeted to Hungarians, with particular emphasis on the 14 to 25-year-olds. Given the complex educational functions of the House of Fates, combining emotional and rational impacts is of paramount importance. That doesn’t exclude visits by members of older generations. It will also be useful if the highest possible number of foreigners got a glimpse into the Hungarian tragedy of the Holocaust.
How does the House of Fates narrate that tragedy?
In various ways, in conformity with its various functions, but pointing into the same direction.
- Exhibition and Knowledge Centre.
Visits of the exhibition are planned to last 45 minutes and are primarily meant to have an emotional impact. The exhibition is intended to show how subsequent pieces of anti-Jewish legislation, then the erection of ghettos progressively destroyed the normal frame of everyday life i.e. how the world turned upside down and how the victims lived through that ordeal. The same goes for deportations and life in the concentration camps as well as the incommensurable loss caused by the genocide. And of course, the story of the survivors will also be told with the irreparable loss and the new life paths of so many.
This is why the timeframe of the exhibition is from 1938 to 1948. The former being the year systematic state-sponsored anti-Semitism began with legislation that was never to be withdrawn, on the contrary, it was to be progressively hardened, while the latter was the date of the foundation of the State of Israel on the one hand and the starting point of Stalinist dictatorship in Hungary on the other.
The exhibition will impact visitors emotionally using visual elements. In addition, video recordings will be screened of witnesses who were children at the time, many of whom live in Israel and tell about their sufferings, the broken lives and the loss of their beloved using the vocabulary of their childhood. In addition, objects of everyday life representing increasingly minimal living conditions and finally the end of life will be exhibited. There will only be few captions on the walls and a lot of emotive impressions. Validity, that is emotional involvement is essential.
Beside the large exhibition hall there are for smaller ones. One will be devoted to Nobel Prize winning Hungarian writer Imre Kertész’s work on the Holocaust. His hero, Gyuri Köves is one of the protagonists of the effort emotionally to involve the young visitor. The basically emotional and thus essentialist character of the exhibition is enhanced by the artistic setup which is a vital element of the exhibition.
In another smaller hall, visitors will meet the figure and intellectual heritage of Theodor Herzl, the Budapest born founding father of political Zionism. Herzl did not foresee the Holocaust any more than the rest of his contemporaries, but he developed the idea of a Jewish nation-state because he felt and knew that liberal-inspired Jewish assimilation was highly volatile. Political Zionism thus meant a potential alternative to history as triggered by the Holocaust. This is one reason why he may have a place in the exhibition. Another reason is that one of the endpoints of the exhibition is the founding of Israel. That process saw the participation of many Hungarian Jews who did not wish to remain in Hungary after the Holocaust. We can only explain their choice if we show what they opted for. A third reason is that at this stage of the exhibition visitors will get acquainted with those who resisted Nazism and rescued potential victims while rooted in Zionism. All in all, the exhibition is centred around how a group of citizens – those of Jewish descent – could be stripped of their dignity, stigmatised, sent to death; and how the life of the survivors was irrevocably altered.
From the exhibition, emotionally open and shaken visitors proceed to the Knowledge Centre which is nothing else than a computer room. Here they find facts and explanations about the issues their curiosity is aroused about by what they saw during the visit. They can get information about what compulsory labour service was, what concentration camps were, what the death camps were, who were the Arrow Cross people and who were the Nazis; what was race theory;;; how did the history of anti-Semitism evolve in Hungary; what the term ‘war crime’ means; what the extent of the Hungarian guilt was et cetera. As it is clear from the above, the exhibition will include a very limited amount of texts, while the Knowledge Centre will mainly focus on texts. Historical authenticity will play the main part here. The material of the Knowledge Centre can be researched on the Internet and can even appear in the form of a mobile app, to reach the largest audience possible. The physical presence of the visitors is necessary, because group visits may fit into preestablished educational programs, in which case it is indispensable for younger visitors to jointly use the computers of the Knowledge Centre.
Web access to the Knowledge Centre or the mobile app will mostly be helpful for individual visitors, but they too are free to use the Knowledge Centre. Visitors and the public in general must have access to the knowledge accumulated in the centre as most suitable for them, whether on the spot or through the Internet.
- Educational institution
the educational institution will host 45-minute lectures by trained lecturers on issues related to the Holocaust to high school or university students visiting the House of Fates. Their lectures may also face issues only indirectly related to the Holocaust, like the fate of other ethnic minorities in Hungary (swabs, gypsies et cetera) and also outside Hungary (thus for instance the fate of Hungarian ethnic minorities after the Trianon Peace Treaty). In the latter case, visitors will gain a broader picture, for it is not a Jewish ‘privilege‘ to see one’s human dignity trampled underfoot and being deprived of one’s basic rights. These programs may make visitors ponder that what happened to Jewish people has partly also happened or could have happened to others. In my view, the educational programme of the House of Fates will have a prolific effect if it manages to broaden the topic of the Holocaust, extract it from a memory ghetto and convert it to everybody’s heritage. It should make it clear that although the genocide of the Holocaust was exceptional, the suffering along the road that led to it befell to other groups as well.
The educational institution may also be a forum to discuss, over and above the historical issues, moral problems as well. Therefore, it will not only offer education sensu stricto, but also enhance consciousness of moral norms. This is pedagogically crucial and indicates that the Holocaust is not just a historical issue. The educational centre could also help teachers’ further training by offering specialised courses.
- Event Centre
The internal space of the former railway station was shaped to be perfectly suited to host cultural and scientific events. Those may equally include concerts, art shows, conferences or important lectures.
After having seen and read all this, how will we know who were the good guys versus the bad guys?
The standing exhibition and the Knowledge Centre will not be value-neutral. They will reflect a worldview shaped by the basic norms of European humanism, in other terms by the so-called core European values.
Those responsible for the suffering of the victims cannot remain faceless.
The primary responsibility lies with Nazi Germany the inventor of the idea and practice of the extermination of Jewish people on an industrial scale. Anti-Semitism had existed before them, but they alone converted it into the Holocaust. This is among others, but only among others, what makes the Holocaust unique.
In Hungary’s case, the group of the ‘bad guys’ includes those who without necessarily being Nazis personally, smoothly joined the Nazi practice and, by their own anti-Semitism, had prepared the soil for the acceptance and the implementation of Nazi style mass murder. Grave is the responsibility of the contemporary Hungarian state and its leaders (including the head of state), who were supported by a significant portion of the population. Thus, the exhibition and the Knowledge Centre (or the potential activities of the education centre) do not hold the Hungarian population collectively responsible, nor do they claim however that the Hungarian state and Hungarian society where innocent and suffering onlookers during this period. The message the institution is to carry severely rejects the principle of collective responsibility which was one of the pillars of anti-Semitism itself; but it rejects the thesis of collective innocence as well. From another point of view, all those responsible for the way the history of the Holocaust evolved were the instruments and expressions of Evil. What is important is not so much their names as the role they played in the process.
However, the ‘good guys’ must be mentioned as well. Rather than their actual proportion, what counts is their role as a moral counterpoint; what is crucial is not so much their actual historical weight as their moral ‘otherness’. We shall never be able to make anyone believe that it is worthwhile to oppose an inhumane power if we don’t celebrate those who have done so despite the sweeping superiority of the enemy. A special role is to be therefore devoted to those who, whether Christians or led by secular humanism or in an effort of Zionist self-help or again on the basis of an international mandate came to the rescue of the persecuted. Their memory will be enshrined in the material to be exhibited in one of the small halls. Without their presence, there would be no counterpoint to World War II Evil.
How is the international context reflected?
The international context is very much present in the Knowledge Centre, for it is an integral part of the definition of any notion concerning the Holocaust. More importantly, the exhibition does by definition include international elements, as Hungarian Jews were sent to the gas chambers outside Hungary. Not to mention that one final destination of the survivors (Israel) also sets the process into an international framework. As I have already mentioned, there are further four rooms adjacent to the exhibition. In addition to the ones devoted to Kertész/ Gyuri Köves, Herzl and the rescuers, there is a fourth one where I believe it would be advisable to ask foreign institutions to introduce the Hungarian public to the Holocaust history of their own countries and to how that history has been processed over the past seven decades. Unfortunately, there are plenty of Holocaust tragedies and thankfully, there are plenty of institutions that could put up chamber exhibitions in Budapest on that subject.
Will the House of Fates make the Holocaust Documentation Centre and Memorial site meaningless?
By no means. Rather than being competitors, the two institutions complement each other. The scarcely visited Páva Street exhibition can only hope to profit from the House of Fates. Its exhibition is less modern and less attractive than what the House of Fades is planned to become, but it will probably attract more viewers from among those who will have paid visits to the House of Fates. These two exhibitions, being based on different methodologies and focusing on different factors may add up to one joint experience. The House of Fates and the Páva Street exhibition are by no means rivals, nor is there any hierarchy between the two – they are simply mutually complementary. The Páva Street knowledge base can be partly built into the material of the House of Fates Knowledge Centre.
What can the House of Fates be expected to provide?
First of all, it can be expected to attract many people, just as its educational programs and cultural or scientific events can be expected to be visited by a high number of Hungarians and foreigners.
All this is essential for achieving the main goal, that of making the Holocaust and organic part of the remembers culture of Hungarian society by informing young generations about what happened to hundreds of thousands of their fellow Hungarians. In a broader sense, it can be expected to contribute to shaping a new moral outlook that will help protect human dignity. The victims of the Holocaust were Jewish people, but its lessons concern the whole of European culture and what is particularly important for us, it concerns our Hungarian national community.
It is particularly important for us, because Hungary is our homeland.
In theory, what happened to the Jews could happen to anyone and the only guarantee against that is a society which becomes resistant to ideas advocating the practice of stripping people of their elementary rights. The House of Fates can be of incommensurable help in that effort. Especially if it manages to find the right proportion between authenticity and validity and if it will successfully stimulate a combination of emotional reactions that are so characteristic of our human quality and rational considerations.
Our life is not a theatre, we can therefore hardly soothe our shame (our shames) through cathartic scenes. Our only chance is to become just a bit better people and make sure not being compelled to be ashamed someday of what we will or will not have done.
The House of Fates is a chance for us to become just a bit better human beings and qualitatively better citizens. There is nothing more one could expect from an institution. But that chance makes it worth to create it.