Budapest: A stunning city with a tragic past
Bella Scharf Zelingher and her husband, Simon, along with their friends Barbara and Hal Crane, all of Morganville, recently went on a 12-day “Roots Tour” of Romania with the help of a private guide, followed by a week on their own in Budapest, Hungary. All are affiliated with Chabad of Western Monmouth County. The Zelinghers also attend services at Monmouth Torah Links in Marlboro.
Our elderly guide was with us for a mere three hours, yet his story of survival as a child in war-torn Budapest remained in our minds and hearts throughout our six-day stay in the Hungarian capital.
Budapest is a magnificent city. The layout of the downtown is especially wonderful for tourists, who can easily walk from many of the city’s hotels to the promenade on the Danube River waterfront. The harbor area, with its many outdoor cafes, has an elegant, yet casual, European atmosphere.
Budapest is made up of two parts, one on either side of the Danube, and connected by several bridges. The “Buda” side is hilly, with such major monuments as the Royal Palace and the Matthias Church on top providing beautiful vistas. We stayed in the flat “Pest” side, in a new hotel within the old Jewish Quarter. Across the way was the “Rumbach Street Synagogue,” built in the Moorish revival style in 1872. Now undergoing renovation, it will be used as a concert hall and exhibit center.
Just two blocks away is The Great Synagogue or Dohany Street Synagogue; completed in 1859, it is the largest in Europe — seating 3,000 — and one of the largest in the world. The site is also home to the Heroes’ Temple, the graveyard, the Holocaust Memorial, and the Jewish Museum, built on the site of Theodore Herzl’s birthplace.
Nearby is the Orthodox Kazinczy Street Synagogue, completed in 1913 in the Art Nouveau style and one of the prettiest synagogues we have ever seen — and the one we went to for Shabbat services.
On Kazinczy Street, several kosher restaurants, including Carmel and Hanna (both meat) and Tel Aviv (dairy), are signposts of the city’s vibrant, active Jewish community as well as its brisk Jewish tourist trade. There are about 80,000 Jews in Hungary today, primarily in Budapest.
Nandor Geray, the guide we hired to show us the Jewish places of interest outside the quarter, offered his personal story against the grim backdrop of the Holocaust in Hungary. When the country, under the leadership of Miklos Horthy, entered the war, nearly 20,000 Jews in Hungary who held Polish or Soviet citizenship were turned over to the Germans and murdered. However, the extermination phase of Hungary’s Jews began later, after the Nazi invasion in March 1944. Until then Horthy refused to succumb to Hitler’s pressure to hand over the Hungarian Jews.
At the time, more than 800,000 Jews were living in the country. In May 1944 the deportations began, with Adolf Eichmann in charge of the “Final Solution” in Hungary. In just eight weeks, some 424,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. After October 1944, when the Arrow Cross came to power, thousands of Jews were killed within Budapest. Nandor took us to see the powerful “Shoes on the Danube Bank” memorial to the Jews who were driven to the water’s edge, made to remove their shoes, then shot and dropped into the river. Of Hungary’s 800,000 Jews, 600,000 perished, mostly at Auschwitz.
When the deportations began in 1944, Nandor was 12 years old. His parents and he received papers from Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and found refuge in several “safe houses.” But Nandor’s father met with a tragic fate. When Nazis came to the safe house and forced all Jewish men to come out, his father handed over his Swedish “Schuttspass,” but a soldier ripped it up and ordered him for deportation. A Christian friend ran to the Swedish embassy to get replacement papers, but by the time he returned, the transport Nandor’s father was on had left Budapest for Buchenwald. He died two months later at the camp.
With Nandor we visited the memorial to Wallenberg, who at the age of 32 orchestrated a mission that saved almost 100,000 Jews. We also saw the plaque honoring Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian on business in Budapest, who fooled the Nazis by posing as a Spanish diplomat and saved thousands of Jews by providing refuge in Spanish safe houses. We visited the “Glass House,” a major safe house set up by Carl Lutz, the Swiss diplomat who issued thousands of protective letters to Jews. These three men — all “Righteous Gentiles” — coordinated their rescue work in Budapest and were instrumental in saving many lives.
More than 70 years have passed since these horrific events took place. Budapest’s Jewish Quarter, run down for many years, has been gentrified and is now a popular destination for young people, who enjoy its lively clubs and restaurants — a far cry from the terror and suffering within its walls when it was a closed ghetto in 1944-45.
The “safe houses” we visited — a list of addresses is posted on the Internet — are all nondescript buildings, mostly residences, and there are no signs designating them as sheltering places for Jews during the war. Though life goes on, it is important to remember what happened, to memorialize the victims, and to pay homage to the courage and generosity of those who helped the victims at such risk to their own lives.