In Budapest, Jewish history came looking for us

A motley collection of perhaps 100 Jews in search of Herzl's story.

April 21, 2010 07:40
4 minute read.
Theodor Herzl leaning over the balcony of the Hote

Theodor Herzl leaning 311. (photo credit: E.M. Lilien)


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BUDAPEST – We started getting the concerned SMS messages on Friday from family and friends wondering if we were “under the cloud.”

An immense plume of volcanic ash had spread in a thin film over Europe, grounding millions of travelers over fears that, as the television anchor explained, sulphur particles and heavy dust would damage jet engines and endanger airplanes and their passengers.

It was the end of our trip in the footsteps of Israel’s most famous founding father, Theodor Herzl. We were a motley collection of perhaps 100 Jews from around the world – including a colonel in the IDF, a geriatric social worker from New Jersey and a clothing wholesaler from Panama – all wanting to know more about the man born 150 years ago next month, who launched the political movement that would bring Jewish sovereignty back from the ashes of history.

Last week, in Paris and Vienna, we saw the respectable backdrop against which Herzl, the man of letters, well-read correspondent, commentator and literary editor, lived and worked. In Basel we sat in the concert hall in which, frustrated by the broken promise of European liberalism and modernity, Herzl founded the institutions of modern political Zionism.

But now we were in Budapest, where he was born, a shabby ghetto where today a handful of Jews soldier on in the empty, cathedral-like synagogues that remain.

The symbolism was hard to miss.

By Saturday night, it was obvious to the Israelis that they would not be flying home in time for Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s solemn Remembrance Day for the Fallen. Horrified at the prospect of spending the sacred day in an East European Jewish graveyard, we set to work organizing a traditional Yom Hazikaron ceremony for our group.

We soon discovered among us a talented pianist, along with singers and organizers who could find, even in the middle of a Budapest weekend, candles, Israeli flags, a piano, a PowerPoint projector and the traditional Hebrew songs and prayers of the day.

Many wept at the ceremony, and many Diaspora Jews said afterwards that they had witnessed – some for the first time – the intimacy of Israeli commemoration.

Jews hailing from Israel, the US, France, Panama, Costa Rica, Switzerland and elsewhere, gathered on the top floor of Budapest’s Israel Cultural Institute, surrounded by tea lights and flags, with an old, creaking piano offering up the sad melodies of remembrance and kippa-clad men chanting the Jewish prayers for the dead.

Over 30 names of those killed in battle or in terror attacks in Jerusalem were read out at the ceremony, all supplied by members of the group, by friends or family members, .

British-Australian David Cohen, 29, told of his great-uncle, who died flying for Israel’s fledgling air force in the 1950s, while former Golani company commander Aviya Ben-Elhanan offered the names of three young warriors killed under his command in Lebanon.

After the ceremony, a sandwich dinner and a surprisingly profound conversation about the price of Jewish freedom; after hearing the heart-wrenching tale of the death, and sweet life, of Uri Grossman, a promising young tank commander and son of Israeli author David Grossman, we were visited, as if out of a dream, by an elderly, black-robed hassidic rebbe who seemed to have walked right out of the abandoned ghetto walls that surrounded us; a ghost given limbs and flesh, like in the old Yiddish fantasies.

Rabbi Mayer Alter Horowitz, rebbe of the Jerusalem branch of the Bostoner hassidic sect, had visited the grave of an ancestor in the Czech Republic – after which, on his way to Israel, he, too, got stuck in Budapest.

“My father used to say that any Jew who gives his life to save other Jews is a kadosh,” [holy person] he told us with a smile. “We admire and appreciate the IDF, which is the best army in the world in my book, an army deserving of “God’s protection and miracles.”

Then, gently and indirectly, he asked us to live better, more Jewish lives:

“To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, that those who gave their lives for us shall not have died in vain, we have to live to our fullest potential,” he said.

There we were – Jews from every corner of the globe trapped under a cloud of ash in the ghetto where Theodor Herzl was born; eyes stinging from recalling our fallen youth, surrounded by a nation that last week gave 17 percent of its votes to anti-Semites – hearing a call to renewed devotion from a rabbi in a black coat and white beard.

We went to Europe looking for a small parcel of Jewish history. It felt as though Jewish history had come looking for us.

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