- Jews in MuseumsNarratives of Nation and 'Jewishness' in Post-Communist Hungarian and Polish Public Memory
Since the 1989 collapse of communism in eastern Europe, newly democratic societies in the region have been struggling to come to terms with their twentieth-century past. These efforts, taking place in official politics, public spaces, historical scholarship, film, literature, and art, have become the subject of a vast scholarly literature, ranging from history to sociology and political theory to literary studies.1 In most east European countries, the Holocaust has emerged as one of the focal points of public memory debates. Taboo or remembered through ideologically motivated distortion under communist rule, the Holocaust became a central moral paradigm and symbol of mass murder in the West. As a result, post-communist east European societies eager to join the West must come to terms with the West's interpretation and figure out how it relates to their own experiences and memories of the Second World War and communism.
In Poland and Hungary, home to two of the largest Jewish communities in Europe both before and after the Second World War, the Holocaust has emerged as a central problem for their national identities in the post-communist decades.2 [End Page 481] The efforts of the two countries to come to terms with this past share many similarities: in both countries, the interwar years, the Second World War, the country's treatment of Jews, and its role in the Holocaust have been the source of controversy. Both countries have searched for a usable past but have found a shared memory elusive, and post-communist re-evaluations have, in both countries, failed to entirely supplant pre-war ideologies and communist histories. Despite these similarities, there are also significant differences in the way Poland and Hungary have dealt with their past. In Poland, the public debate about the past has focused on the war and the role of Polish society in the Holocaust. In Hungary, the most controversial period is the interwar years, and, although there is relatively little discussion about the role of the Hungarian state in the Holocaust, no significant public debate has taken place about society's role and responsibility. In terms of finding a place for the Jewish past in their national narratives, the two countries are struggling with somewhat different problems. This difference reflects the divergence in their histories before the Second World War, under communism, and the histories of their respective Jewish communities, especially with regards to assimilation. Although rarely spelled out explicitly, these differences have shaped current memory politics and are reflected in the narratives of the new history museums that deal with the Second World War and the Holocaust, both in Poland and in Hungary.
Museums have played a particularly important role in constructing post-communist national history. Museums are often the most prominent and most expensive representations of the nation's past and are also permanent. Unlike memorials, they offer an explicit narrative of the past and, given that public education is one of their mandates, do so in an authoritative way, in a condensed and easily accessible format. Aimed at a general audience (either domestic or international or both), they have the potential to reach many more people than most scholarly books.3 Although museums do not necessarily address all of the controversies surrounding the past directly, they contribute to public debate both through their exhibits and in the discussion they generate and the critiques they inspire. Both Poland and Hungary have witnessed a proliferation of new museums since the early 2000s. This chapter will discuss how museums in both countries have conceived of Jewish history within national history, particularly in the way they represent the interwar years, the Second World War, and the Holocaust.
Before turning to the museums, I will briefly situate them in the context of post-communist [End Page 482] history debates. After 1989 the two countries and their museums had similar communist narratives to redefine themselves against. This was driven less by actual similarities of experiences and more by the needs of communist regimes to consolidate and legitimize their power and a Marxist analysis of history as class...