New House of Terror raises fear for Hungarys Jews

However, rather than achieving its aim of memorializing the victims of totalitarian terror — of both Hungarian wartime fascism and postwar communism — critics say the lavish museum symbolizes the charged, right-wing atmosphere that has swept Hungary.

The museum's prominent location at 60 Andrassy Street was chosen not because it sits among the elegant, fin-de-siecle mansions of Andrassy — known to some as "the Champs-Elysees of Budapest" — but because it was headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis between 1944 and 1945, then was taken over by the Communist secret police once Soviet troops liberated, then occupied, Hungary.

The country suffered under both Nazism and communism, "but Hungarian society has never confronted the crimes of these terror systems, or had a memorial to its victims," said Maria Schmidt, the museum's director.

Hungary's Jews, though, are deeply troubled by the museum.

They have several concerns: By presenting all victims as equal and all victimizers as equal, the museum diminishes the uniqueness of the Holocaust, not to mention the communist era; by painting Hungary as one of Germany's victims rather than an accomplice, it continues a trend in which right-wing Hungarian historians are whitewashing Hungary's role in the death of some 550,000 Hungarian Jews; and by devoting only one of nearly two dozen rooms exclusively to the Holocaust, it implies that communism was far worse than the Holocaust.

Finally, though Jews are mentioned nowhere in the communist portion of the museum, the fact that the Hungarian right wing — especially its media — routinely highlights the Jewishness of some of Hungary's most notorious communists means that many visitors to the House of Terror receive an implicit message that Hungarian Jews are to blame for communism.

"For several years, it's been in the air: They hint that communism was Jewish revenge for the Holocaust," said Gyorgy Litvan, a renowned Hungarian historian who as a teenaged Holocaust survivor was himself drawn to the Communist Party. He later criticized party leadership for its brutal excesses, and was imprisoned for four years.

Following the war, of the couple hundred thousand Jews who survived and remained in Hungary — many others had emigrated to Palestine or to the West — a substantial number joined the Communist Party. Historians estimate that anywhere from one-fourth to one-half of the remaining Jews — especially young people — flocked to the movement.

Their reasons for joining were myriad: gratitude to the Soviet communists who had liberated them from ghettos, forced labor and concentration camps; idealism fueled by pervasive communist propaganda that promised a society with no distinction between rich and poor, Christian and Jew; revenge, as it was clear that some of the Hungarian perpetrators of genocide roamed freely afterward; and opportunism and survivalism, as the communist purge of fascists from power created many new job opportunities for Jews, who were viewed as reliably anti-fascist and, thus, trustworthy.

One detail Hungarian anti-Semites conveniently overlook, however, is the fact that at its peak in the early 1950s, the Communist Party numbered some 800,000 members, which underscores the fact that legions of workers and peasants also embraced the system. By the early 1960s, the party had purged virtually all Jews from prominent positions.

Some say the House of Terror also has contemporary political motives.

The right-wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban seemed to spare no expense in creating the museum, from the ubiquitous marble and high-tech multimedia exhibits, to the authentic Soviet tank parked in the atrium and the restored torture chambers in the cellar.

It opened in February, with two months left in a heated election campaign.

The main opposition party was the Socialists, the increasingly centrist heirs of the Communist Party. Together with the small, liberal Alliance of Free Democrats, they attracted the vast majority of Jewish voters.

Orban has earned a reputation for nationalist excess and chumminess with a flagrantly anti-Semitic party, the Hungarian Justice and Life Party.

As the elections approached and polls indicated it was too close to call, Orban began using with-us-or-against-us rhetoric to rally patriotic Hungarians, and warning, implausibly, that a vote for the Socialists meant a return to dictatorship.

The incitement frightened many of Hungary's roughly 100,000 Jews.

"That was the first time in my life that I thought maybe I have something to be afraid of," said Andras Daranyi, 33, the executive director of the Budapest Holocaust Museum, which will break ground this fall and open its doors in 2004.

"You can be freely Jewish here, but at that moment I felt there was something under the water's surface that could blow up."

Among the rhetorical weapons against the Socialists and liberals, say critics, was the House of Terror.

"That was why it got immense money and was completed in record time," said Tibor Vamos, a Holocaust survivor and former Communist who is the head of Hungary's Auschwitz Foundation.

The main message was that the Socialists "are a direct continuation of the Stalinist regime" and its leaders "are the same who introduced the Stalinist terror," Vamos said. "That is a really terrible, brazen lie."

Schmidt, the museum's director and a close adviser to Orban, denies the charge.

In the April 21 elections, the coalition of Socialists and liberals ousted Orban, but at age 38, most of his political career lies ahead of him.

As for the House of Terror, some Socialists had indicated prior to the elections that, if elected, they would convert it to a "House of Remembrance and Reconciliation."

With tensions still running high months after the elections, the new Socialist government has yet to speak out about the fate of the museum.