A spontaneous public memorial to Hungarian victims of the Holocaust has risen in this city’s popular Liberty Square, a silent but eloquent rebuke to the government’s official line that Hungary was the innocent prey of Nazi Germany. The humble items — letters, prayer books, worn photographs — collected at the base of a new state-sponsored monument to World War II reveal a contentious dialogue with Hungarian authorities over the right to define the public memory of historic events.
Last yearthe rather garish stone and bronze monument was erected with great secrecy by the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the 1944 German occupation of Hungary. The statue depicts imperial Germany as a vicious bird swooping down on the archangel Gabriel, the symbol of Hungary. It seems to deny — or at least ignore — Hungary’s role in events before 1944, when it was allied with Germany, and when it passed dozens of laws harshly restricting the rights of the Jewish population, laying the groundwork for their eventual expulsion.
Soon after it appeared, survivors and families of Holocaust victims began laying small stones in front of the monument with the names of some of the nearly 500,000 Jews who were expelled to Auschwitz — with the compliance, they say, of Hungarian officials — in one of the most sweeping deportations of the war. Photographs of loved ones, flowers and candles, small personal items, such as eyeglasses and shoes, line the sidewalk, attracting curious tourists and protesters alike. A cracked mirror stands opposite the heroic statue of Gabriel, demanding that Hungary face itself. “Say no to the falsification of history,” reads one note placed at the site, written in English, “the national memory poisoning, the state-level Hungarian Holocaust denial.”
The two Budapest memorials are the latest flashpoint in the debate about how to commemorate historic events, especially those still in living memory. It is said that history belongs to the victors, but the story can shift. The handmade counter-memorial persuasively disputes efforts by the current government to literally set in stone its preferred interpretation. Orban has protested that the 1944 memorial is meant to be “a question of humanity and not politics or taking sides,” but historic monuments always resonate against contemporary politics, especially when they involve interpretations of war.
James E. Young, a professor of Judaic studies at UMass Amherst, served on the jury that chose the Sept. 11 memorial design in New York City. In “The Texture of Memory,” his book about Holocaust memorials, he writes that those in power are well positioned to shape public memory to serve their own interests. But “once created, memorials take on lives of their own, often stubbornly resistant to the state’s original intent.”
Indeed. Given all the attention it has brought to Hungary’s less than heroic activities during the war, Orban’s attempt to rewrite history now seems like a monumental error.
Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.