In My Own Write: Getting away from it all, sort of

Over there we didn’t feel the need to glance over our shoulders to see who was coming up behind, as we presently tend to do in Jerusalem.

Dohány Street Synagogue, Budapest (photo credit: LENNART TANGE/FLICKR)
Dohány Street Synagogue, Budapest
(photo credit: LENNART TANGE/FLICKR)
As we left for a four-day trip to Budapest last week – my first-ever visit to the country where my mother was born and grew up – an Israeli friend messaged me with a mixture of humor and cynicism: “Always good in this climate of hatred and violence to be reminded that we’re hated elsewhere as well...
“All kidding aside,” she went on, “it’s a marvelous city... enjoy!” And it is marvelous, this city often called “the Paris of the East.” The view across the River Danube is magical, the buildings are an architecture buff’s dream, and the interiors of the national institutions built in the glory days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire made my jaw drop with their opulence.
We did enjoy our trip, which included visits with two first cousins whom I had never met and who were as delighted with this bonding experience as I was.
No one in the streets of Budapest marked us as Jews or Israelis, not even in the kosher restaurants in the Jewish Quarter where we stopped for a lunchtime snack of chicken soup with matzo balls, and where non-Jewish patrons seemed to predominate. We felt unthreatened, just two more visitors strolling through the city.
Yet near and distant hatreds reached out to touch us, at times with cobweb-fine tendrils, at other times like an almost physical blow.
As we followed with shock and outrage the terrorist barbarities being perpetrated daily in Jerusalem and elsewhere, their awfulness seemed magnified by our distance from home.
“How ironic,” my husband exclaimed, “to feel physically safer in Hungary than I would in Israel.”
Safer just now, maybe, I ventured; but not “righter.”
Over there we didn’t feel the need to glance over our shoulders to see who was coming up behind, as we presently tend to do in Jerusalem. But Israel is our home and the rightful home of the Jewish people, and that certainty imparts a security which goes beyond the physical.
AS WE wandered through the narrow, picturesque streets of the Jewish Quarter, which was a walled ghetto during World War II and is now a trendy neighborhood of bars and bistros, my husband admitted to a palpable sense of sorrow over the vibrant Jewish life that once existed there and was snuffed out by hatred.
As for me, I had my own feelings to contend with.
My mother, then 18, and grandmother were rounded up in 1944 from the village where they lived and brought to the Budapest ghetto, from where they were deported to Auschwitz. On the family’s other side, my grandmother and two aunts survived the war in one of Raoul Wallenberg’s safe houses. Indeed, they were among the last people to see him alive before he left for his own country, a journey he never completed.
Between the two World Wars, my father had been assistant cantor at the magnificent Neolog (somewhere between Conservative and Reform) Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe, built in the mid-19th century and renovated and reopened to the public in the 1990s, and I tried to picture him as a young man leading services among all this splendor.
That was before the synagogue’s interior courtyard became a makeshift cemetery for more than 2,000 Jews who were murdered or died of hunger and cold in the ghetto during the Holocaust. Tombstones record some of the names; other victims, nameless, are buried in mass graves. A weeping willow memorial with thousands of slender, silvery leaves inscribed with Shoah victims’ names seems bent over with grief at the unspeakable history it presides over.
Walking past the beauty of the ritual objects displayed in the Jewish museum, which is part of the Dohány compound, we came to a small inner room with its brick walls painted black. Here, displayed in all its virulence, in graphic photographs of Jews being hanged and in shocking anti-Semitic posters, is the eternal hatred which transcends all rational explanation.
“I cannot go in there any more,” said our friend and guide, with tears in her eyes, waiting outside until we had completed our somber tour. Only 15 years ago did she discover that she was Jewish.
Around the corner, in the Orthodox Rumbach Synagogue, I again came up against a piece of my family’s history. Here, too, my father had been cantor, but unlike the Dohány today, this is no functioning house of prayer but a decaying structure whose former exquisite beauty can be glimpsed here and there. There is no ark, no pews – just a circle of cheap plastic chairs on a dusty tarpaulin where a group of German tourists sat and listened attentively as their German guide explained the history of the place. I watched them with a mixture of feelings.
IF ONLY hatred of Jews, in Hungary and elsewhere, remained in the past; but it’s a naïve wish. We already knew our Hungarian Jewish friend and guide’s story, but it still shocks us.
Up until a couple of years ago she, an archeologist and historian, was director of a well-known museum in her native city, some 200 kilometers from Budapest.
Wishing to mount an exhibition on the history and contribution of the Jews to Hungary over the past 200 years, she informed the board of the museum, which is affiliated with the far-right opposition Jobbik Party, the third-largest in Hungary’s National Assembly.
“I received a letter,” she told us, “saying: ‘Who do you think you are, to try and elevate the interests of your race above the Hungarian national culture?’ I had a government grant to set up this exhibition, and it actually ran for two months. But two weeks after receiving that letter, I was fired from my job.” Her plan is eventually to make aliya.
ANOTHER EVENT during our time in Budapest made us appreciate how far we were from home. In the Metro, our friend bought a block of 10 tickets, showing two of them, for us, at the start of our journey, plus a ticket for herself remaining from a block purchased earlier. All were allowed through. At the other end, however, a female Metro guard stopped her and told her that her ticket was invalid (we never understood why) and she would therefore have to pay a fine – 8,000 forints, which is around 110 shekels and one-tenth of a Hungarian’s monthly salary.
Protest though we all did, vigorously, that this was an innocent oversight, that she was anything but a criminal and ready to buy a new ticket, she was threatened with the police if she didn’t pay up. In the end, the three of us were escorted to a moneychanger’s booth, where we changed some money and paid the fine.
What would have happened had you been alone? I asked her. “A policeman would have accompanied me home, and the fine would have been doubled.” And if you still didn’t have the money? “I would have been put in jail.” All for a Metro ticket, and there seemed to be no appeal.
NONE OF this is meant to suggest that Budapest is not a desirable destination for a vacation. Our hotel was up to standard, the service staff were friendly and helpful, and our time in Hungary was filled with interest and beauty. We would gladly have stayed several days more.
It’s just that there are too many places in Europe which bring out the sadness ever-present in the Jewish soul. And when you consider our history on the continent, it’s only natural.