Reporter’s Notebook: Finding Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest

Visages of once vibrant life can be found across the Jewish quarter

A memorial to Raoul Wallenberg sits in a small suburban park in Budapest near the Danube River (photo credit: ILANIT CHERNICK)
A memorial to Raoul Wallenberg sits in a small suburban park in Budapest near the Danube River
(photo credit: ILANIT CHERNICK)
BUDAPEST – There is no denying that Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg is revered in Hungary – and specifically in Budapest.
For those unfamiliar with his story, Wallenberg saved thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. The number varies depending on which historians one asks.
As the clutches of the Holocaust reached Hungarian Jews in 1944, Wallenberg opened a Swedish embassy near the ghetto, handed out protective passports and set up safe houses for Jews.
According to History.com, it’s estimated that at least 20,000 Jews were given such passports in the first few months following the embassy’s opening in July.
“These passports allowed their bearers shelter under the domain of the Swedish crown, protecting them from deportation,” the website states.
After the Holocaust, he was arrested by Soviet officials. In 1957, the Soviets claimed that Wallenberg had died suddenly in his cell at a Moscow prison in 1947 from a heart-related illness. But the truth was never uncovered.
In Budapest, there are several statues, a memorial park, schools and even a street named after him across the city.
At several places connected to Budapest’s Jewish history, I found a plaque in memoriam to him.
Randomly walking in a small park on the Pest side of the city, I saw a large white pillar, with a sculpture atop of it in the middle of all the flowers and greenery.
On the front side of the statue was a metal imprint of his face and an explanation in Hungarian of his actions.
While taking a tour of the Dohány Street Synagogue, I saw a beautiful courtyard with several memorials – to Jewish soldiers who fell during World War I, the Tree of Life memorial with some 30,000 metal leaves and a memorial to Wallenberg.
As we ended the tour at Wallenberg’s memorial, emotion washed over me. Wallenberg was an important figure in my household while growing up, and I had gone through most of my preteen years hearing about his heroism from my parents. It became my mission to seek out each every memorial where his legacy stands today.
But it’s not just the prominence of Wallenberg that stood out as I walked through some of the cobbled streets – I realized Budapest is a perfect example of where history and modernity can meet and live in harmony.
In Budapest’s old Jewish Quarter, there are vestiges all over of the vibrant and large community that once walked the same footsteps as I did on Tuesday.
I kept stumbling across a little metal Star of David, sometimes accompanied by a plaque, which stated that a certain Jewish family lived there before the Holocaust. I found a large memorial wall to the Holocaust victims that stands old and battered near what I discovered to be a kosher supermarket. There are synagogues (or what were once synagogues) across the area – the architecture is easy to spot.
I even found a little snippet of what was once the Ghetto Wall. Most of it was destroyed in the subsequent years after the Holocaust, but in a private apartment block, the wall still stands in tact as a reminder.
The most fascinating plaques I came across sits unsuspectingly on the wall to the entrance of several apartment blocks.
“The basement of this house held one of the last few functioning taps in Budapest Ghetto, which made it possible for 70,000 Hungarian Jews to survive during the time of the Nazi terror,” the plaque read.
The gate of the building was open and I headed in. Parts of the outside walls were crumbling, and it was obvious that not much had changed here since before the war. It reminded me strongly of pictures I’d seen of the Warsaw Ghetto.
In my minds eye, I could see Jewish children playing in the courtyard where four buildings meet. I saw mothers lighting Shabbat candles by the windows and fathers walking along the corridors as they headed down the steps to pray at the synagogue.
Even hours later, I wondered if Jews still lived in the run-down apartments.
Today, only a few thousand members of the Budapest Jewish community are still practicing, which is estimated to number between 80,000 and 100,000 Jews. Prior to the Holocaust, there over half a million Jews, while other numbers suggest more than 800,000.
Despite much tragedy and pain that the community has endured, this beautiful and warm community is on an upward trajectory. They are once again beginning to thrive and so is the Jewish Quarter.
There are several kosher restaurants and stores, as well as numerous synagogues – with two being opened just this week. Most Jews in Budapest said they are not afraid in the slightest to walk around with their heads covered by kippot.
As Rabbi Simcha Weiss of Israel’s chief rabbinate said during the opening of the synagogues on Sunday: “From the ashes, this community is being revived.”



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