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Hungary’s Holocaust Simulacrum

The memory of the Holocaust in Hungary and elsewhere is slowly becoming a simulacrum of historical reality, owing to a paradigm shift in the way the tragedy is memorialized. This change aims fundamentally to alter the Holocaust's universally recognized status as a moral landmark in European history, with major consequences for the continent's values and politics.

BUDAPEST – The exhibition at the House of Jewish Excellence in Balatonfüred, a small, picturesque town on the northern shore of Hungary’s Lake Balaton, features some 130 prominent Jews in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), many of them of Hungarian origin. The museum shop, however, has nothing specifically referring to Jews in the Hungarian context. At best, one can purchase a bottle of kosher wine or a mug with the iconic photo of Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue.

Perhaps this is not a problem. Maybe we should just celebrate the opening of another Jewish museum in Hungary, which has the second-largest Jewish community in Europe but very few Holocaust memorial sites. We might even overlook the fact that by identifying excellence only with STEM research, the museum renders invisible several other prominent Jewish scholars whose oeuvre is more closely related to progressive ideas and actions. That skewed view doubtless pleases the current Hungarian government, which is supporting the museum financially.

Yet it is impossible to ignore the exhibition’s painful lack of critical reflection as to why even the talented Jews it did decide to feature were persecuted, and how they survived. The only three-dimensional, material object in the museum is a plaque by the entrance that refers in general terms to “wickedness” and “a plan to kill.” This vagueness – or rather silence – about the Holocaust, and Hungarian collaboration in it, is part of a wider, disturbing trend in Hungary.

That trend relates to the French social theorist Jean Baudrillard’s category of “simulacra,” which was in turn inspired by a one-paragraph story by Jorge Luis Borges entitled “On Exactitude in Science.” In it, Borges describes an empire so attached to the map of its own territory that when the empire collapsed, nothing remained but the map, or the simulation of the land that once was a powerful empire. After the collapse, he writes, the land was “inhabited by animals and beggars.”

Similarly, the memory of the Holocaust in Hungary and elsewhere is slowly becoming a simulacrum, owing to a paradigm change in the way the event is memorialized, including in museums. This shift aims fundamentally to alter the current, universally recognized status of the Holocaust as a moral landmark in European history, with major consequences for the continent’s values and politics.

It took a long time for the history of the extermination of European Jewry to achieve its current status. In countries occupied by the Soviet Red Army after World War II, Jewish communities had a corner or a room in their underfinanced and dilapidated synagogues dedicated to documenting the Holocaust. Official war memorials, however, did not mention the Jewish victims.

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This Eastern European memory culture was fundamentally transformed after the collapse of communism by the “Americanization” of the Holocaust – meaning, as German cultural studies scholar Winfried Fluck puts it, a democratizing process of stripping away complexity in order to make complicated events accessible to a wider public. After 1989, the Americanized Holocaust narrative also reached Hungary. But not until the 2002 opening of a small memorial center in a former Budapest synagogue did any museum feature the international language of Holocaust exhibitions. At any rate, that language does not correspond with the national Hungarian memorial culture nor with the religious conceptualization of the Shoah.

The Americanization of Holocaust museums also technologized remembrance, resulting in exhibitions without historical objects. Instead, visitors use touchscreens to tailor their museum visit to their own interests – a dangerous educational strategy at a time when ignorance about the Holocaust is growing.

The over-technologized House of Jewish Excellence is an extreme example of this. On entering, visitors first come to a computer terminal on the ground floor. Here, they are expected to choose which scientist’s brief life story they want to read on an interactive board conspicuously placed on the floor above. The mismatch between international, religious, and national discourse about the Holocaust could not be greater.

Moreover, the House of Fates, the long-planned second Holocaust museum in Budapest that was originally scheduled to open in 2014, shares this misguided high-tech approach. Although the showy buildings have been finished for years, the exhibition is still not ready, and its script is like a yeti: officially, nobody has seen it, and experts have never discussed it publicly, but it is widely believed to exist.

No respected Hungarian academic is prepared to collaborate with this project, the financing of which is alarmingly non-transparent. The museum’s newly hired staff of retired Israeli and American male scholars – helped by media agencies – have been rewriting a script that was originally conceptualized along the same lines as the House of Jewish Excellence. Again, fluffy language and digital wizardry will be used to obscure the question of responsibility for the killing of 600,000 Hungarian Jews.

With a fresh start, the House of Fates project could yet help to establish a new language and self-definition of the Holocaust’s meaning and legacy in Hungary today. This should involve a dialogue between the different memory cultures, among experts, local communities, and the wider Hungarian public.

Otherwise, the memory of the Holocaust as a moral landmark will become a vanishing simulacrum: the more that museums put it on touchscreens, the emptier it will become. And soon we will all be living in lands “inhabited by animals and beggars,” selling kitschy mugs of Einstein sticking his tongue out at us.;

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