Budapest: The good and the bad

We arrived in Budapest early in the morning for a four-day intensive tour, part of 40 bleary-eyed members of a travel group.

By DIANE GREENBERG
June 8, 2013 23:14
2 minute read.
Danube river in central Budapest

Danube river in central Budapest 370. (photo credit: Laszlo Balogh / Reuters)

 
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We arrived in Budapest early in the morning for a four-day intensive tour, part of 40 bleary-eyed members of a travel group organized by the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel.

Once safely on our bus, we were soon wide awake, listening to our Israeli and Hungarian guides discuss the history of the Jews in Budapest as they pointed out the sights. We stopped in Heroes’ Square and saw the elegant Andrassy Avenue, as well as the Opera House and the House of Parliament. Despite spectacular development, Budapest has preserved its old charm and magic.

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One of the highlights of our second day was a visit to the Dohany Synagogue, the third-largest in the world, which in recent years has been renovated after tremendous damage during World War II.

Behind the synagogue stands a metallic weeping willow tree with names of Holocaust victims on each branch, and at the side lay mass graves of Jews killed by Hungarians at the end of the war. Our group stood together to recite the “Av Harahamim” prayer in memory of all of those killed. Later that afternoon, we enjoyed a leisurely cruise on the Danube River, accompanied by amusing and informative commentary and complimentary drinks.

The third day gave us a glimpse of times under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when we visited Godollo to tour the second-largest Baroque palace in the world. This majestic chateau, used as the summer residence of Elisabeth Sisi (empress) and Francis Joseph (emperor and Hungarian king, 1867 – 1916), offered a window into the private lives of the family, with detailed portraits, hidden doors and luxurious décor.

The afternoon was spent relaxing in the famous Gellert Thermal Baths, which refreshed our bodies and souls. The evening concluded with a lively performance by the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble, an energetic group whose authentic costumes and great cheer were highly entertaining.

Our final day included a bus excursion through the stunning countryside just outside Budapest, stopping at several villages along the Danube Bend.



Unfortunately, a very disturbing experience occurred in the village of Esztergom, once the home to 500 Jews who were deported and killed during World War II. As we approached the front of a building to read the plaque identifying it as a former synagogue (now used as a cultural center), we were confronted with the ugly face of modern anti- Semitism – in the form of graffiti reading “F--- the Jews,” and a swastika painted and etched into the front wall. During our week in Budapest we had heard about and seen signs of hatred towards Jews in the World War II era, yet this repulsive display of recent hatred was devastating.

Several members of our group marched angrily into the building and articulated our disgust and dismay to a staff member of the cultural center. She joined us outside and expressed anger and shame at this act by fellow Hungarians. As she apologized and hugged us, many of us were moved to tears.

We cannot end without a few words about the delicious food we enjoyed throughout the tour. From the private buffet breakfasts in the hotel, to the boxed lunches we received each day on the road (eaten in a beautiful park), to the glatt kosher, Hungarian-style fourcourse dinners, to a special treat of cappuccino and apple strudel, we were well-fed and satiated.

Future AACI tours include Russia in June and July, Italy in September, and China in October. For more information: www.aaci.org.il

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