Holocaust Educational Trust Ambassador Blog

Monuments and Holocaust Distortion

The theme of year’s Ambassador Conference was #ProtectTheFacts against Holocaust distortion. One of my favourite sessions was a coffee morning with survivor, Tomi Komoly BEM. Tomi has lived in several countries both during (whilst in hiding) and after the Holocaust and what really struck me is that he shared the difficulties many countries have in admitting their involvement in the Holocaust.

Public monuments and memorials to commemorate the Holocaust are one of the strongest ways for a nation to educate the public, keep the memory of the victims alive and ensure the lessons of the Holocaust are learnt for future generations. Generally, it is Governments who are responsible for how a memorial will be created, managed and what purpose they will play within society in the future.

Photograph of a memorial gate topped with a large eagle statue, flanked by broken columns. A statue of Archangel Gabriel stands with arms and wings spread in front.Photograph of the Archangel Gabriel monument in Budapest, taken by Jack Nicholls

A well-known example is the Archangel monument in Budapest, Hungary which is officially titled the ‘Memorial for Victims of the German Occupation’. The memorial depicts Hungary as the Archangel Gabriel being attacked by an eagle meant to symbolise Germany. The inscription simply reads “In memory of the victims”. This fails to recognise that almost all Hungarian citizens murdered during the Holocaust were Jews. The monument also suggests that all Hungarians were innocent victims of the Nazi Occupation and fails to recognise that Hungarian citizens were complicit in the process of rounding up Jews and putting them into ghettos and onto trains to be transported to camps.

It is very easy for the Hungarian government to deflect any blame from their country onto the Germans as holding sole responsibility for the Holocaust. However, many different governments, (including the Hungarian government) played an active part in handing over Jews and in some cases paid them to take away their Jewish citizens.

Photograph of a long path along a riverbank. Sculptures of abandoned shoes are scattered along the path.Photograph of the ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’ monument in Budapest, taken by Jack Nicholls

The ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’ monument commemorates the winter of 1944-45 when the fascist Arrow Cross party murdered thousands of Jewish citizens. It is now a popular tourist site. Many Jews were shot into the Danube as a matter of convenience - murdered without mercy - and the shoes represent how the militiamen forced the Jewish victims to remove their shoes before murdering them as their shoes could be used as a commodity. Though the memorial works well to attract the public to the darker history of Budapest during the war, it also completely fails to address the victims as being Jewish. The commemorative plaque simply reads ‘To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-1945’.

Photograph of a flat stone memorial with yellow Belorussian writing.Image credit: Homoatrox, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons Translation - Memorial of victims of Maly Trostenets “Here, near the Trostenets village, German fascist invaders shot, tortured, burned 201,500 men of civilians, partisans and of prisoners of war of Soviet Army. 1941—1944”

The problem with taking accountability through monuments is not restricted to Hungary. Looking at an example in Belarus, Maly Trostenets was one of the biggest concentration camps in the east operating between 1941-1944. The memorial which marks the site of the camp exhibits many telling signs of Holocaust distortion. It reads ‘Here, near the Trostenets village, German fascist invaders shot, tortured, burned 201,500 men of civilians, partisans and of prisoners of war of Soviet Army. 1941—1944’. It does not reference either the Jews or the Nazis, and attempts to draw equivalence between the Jews and the Soviet citizens who were also persecuted in the camp. Due to the tendency of Communist regimes to blame Fascism for all involvement in the Holocaust, it was seen as imprudent to admit to any involvement in what were deemed to be solely Nazi crimes.

Rendering of the planned UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre, with Elizabeth Tower and the Buxton Memorial in the backgroundThe design for the new UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre

Monuments are incredibly important in bringing history to the public view and keeping the memory of victims alive. I am looking forward to seeing the development of the new UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre and how it deals with both how this country saved the lives of many, but how it also could have done more with the knowledge it had at the time.

By Nicole Wu