I have been acutely aware of the Holocaust since I was a young child in the mid-1950s and first saw on my parents’ bookshelf a copy of Life Magazine’s photo display of the liberated death camps.
When I became a young adult I read and studied everything I could get my hands on about the Shoah, and over the decades I have seen countless documentaries and feature films on that singular tragedy in Jewish history.
However, when my synagogue group recently visited Central Europe, I felt overwhelmed in a completely new way by the dark clouds of memory that hovered everywhere we visited. I have found myself rethinking what it means to be Jew even now after all these years. Our journey to those places where Jewish communities once thrived but are no more, standing on the streets and in the plazas where Nazis deported and murdered Jews, where Hitler screamed at the masses and brown shirts burned books, where magnificent synagogues are now empty or were destroyed, and stood in the room where the Nazis decided on the Final Solution changed me. It will take some time, I suspect, for me to understand fully how.
Of the three major cities we visited – Budapest, Prague and Berlin (we also spent time in Bratislava and the Terrezin Concentration Camp), I was most depressed by what we found in Hungary. Despite its rich Jewish history dating back 1800 years and its once large Jewish population in Budapest and the surrounding country-side, today only 80,000 Jews remain in the city, and most are highly assimilated and elderly.
The Jewish community estimates that there are today only 8000 members of Jewish communal organizations, and only 500 Jews are active and regularly attend synagogue. There are, however, 1000 Jewish students attending Jewish schools. It is those children who offer the only real hope of any kind of Hungarian Jewish revival – such that it is.
Modern Hungarian Jewish history is well-known. Once the Germans invaded Hungary on March 19, 1944, Adolph Eichmann quickly and efficiently coordinated the liquidation of all the Jews in the Hungarian countryside. Within a year the Nazis, in alliance with Hungarian anti-Semites, murdered 700,000 of Hungary’s 800,000 Jewish population. Indeed, between May and July, 1944, the Nazis sent 12,000 Jews daily to the gas chambers all but extinguishing what had been the largest Jewish community in Central Europe.
During this onslaught some Jews escaped the terror in the country-side by flooding into Budapest, thus swelling that population to between 250,000 and 280,000 Jews. Though a few famous statesmen tried to save Hungary’s Jews (e.g. Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden, Charles Lutz of Switzerland, and the Italian businessman Giorgio Perlasco – along with the Jewish attorney Rudolph Kastner), Hungarian Jews were essentially doomed.
The Hungarians were among the most vicious anti-Semites in Europe. In Budapest, the Nazis stepped aside and allowed the fascist Hungarian Arrow Cross militiamen to do much of their dirty work. The Arrow Cross shot ten to fifteen thousand Jews in the ghetto and marched hundreds to the Danube River where they ordered the Jews to remove their shoes and then shot them into the waters that turned blood-red.
The “Shoe Memorial” of 50 bronze shoes, conceived by film director Can Togay and the sculptor Gyula Pauer, marks the place at the river’s edge just three hundred meters from the ornate Hungarian Parliament building where the crime was done (for photos, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoes_on_the_Danube_Bank). It is noteworthy, as well, reflective of Hungary’s refusal to take responsibility for its role in the Holocaust, that the plaque at this site mentions only “victims,” not “Jewish victims” of the Arrow Cross militia.
At the end of the war only 100,000 Jews were left alive in Hungary and only because the Nazis took over Hungary so late and didn’t have time to finish what they set out to do before the allies won the war. The Soviet Communists promised an end to all forms of discrimination thus giving Jews a measure of hope, but the persistence of Hungarian anti-Semitism resulted in 20,000 Jews (one fifth of the city’s Jewish population) fleeing Hungary during the 1956 uprising.
Today, the Hungarian government is right-wing and authoritarian. Though it officially condemns anti-Semitism, it has done little to stop anti-Semitic skinhead activity and the publication of anti-Semitic books and periodicals. Hungary has not at all processed the past and takes no responsibility for the crimes it committed, as has Germany. Nonetheless, the writer Eli Valley (see below) notes that since the end of the Communist era in 1989 all religious groups, including Hungary’s Jews, have experienced a kind of revival.
There are two small Progressive Reform Jewish communities in Budapest (see http://www.reformjudaism.org/budapest-culture-community) and there is a Jewish Studies program at the Central European University in Budapest that has taken on an important role in revitalizing Jewish studies in the former Soviet bloc (http://web.ceu.hu/jewishstudies/).
For those who remain, there are only a few options to live a Jewish live in Budapest. However, most Hungarian Jews now wonder whether, indeed, they even belong in Hungary. Our Jewish guide told us that if conditions worsen she, her teen-age son and husband (a journalist who was fired when he reported candidly on the government’s right-wing authoritarian policies) will certainly, despite generations of their family having lived in Hungary, leave.
For a detailed description of the Hungarian Jewish community and its history, see the excellent work The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe: A Travel Guide and Resource Book to Prague, Warsaw, Cracow, and Budapest, by Eli Valley (publ. Aaronson, 2005). It is out of print, but can be purchased through Amazon.