As I walked with ghosts round the old Jewish Quarter in Budapest I was suddenly struck by the realisation that everyone loves the Jews — especially when they are gone, dead and buried.
This thought was indirectly put into my head by my wife as we toiled through the hot spring sun with a cap on head and a plastic water bottle in hand. Our walk was all the more poignant for the fact that while we walked and sipped water four Jews were being gunned down and killed in that most civilised of City’s Brussels. Known for its cream cakes, fine hand made chocolate, and the European Union, it is now also known as the place where the latest atrocity against Jews was committed for no more than being Jewish.
That it had been yet another bad day for Jews in Europe we did not find out until we arrived at the Budapest airport on our way home that evening.
But whether the Jews be alive or dead Jewish history and culture are good for business . Grants from indigenous Governments and foundations mark out the donors as cultured, civilised and urbane.The good and the great. Everywhere you look you see a procession of Americans, Israelis, and Brits tramping the streets with a tear in their eye searching for a world that is no more. They spend money shake their heads at what was and what is now gone for ever then move on to the next European capital or City and go through the self same debilitating ritual all over again.
They then proclaim how much better they feel for the experience.
In truth perhaps they are right. Without this preservation , a cross between Disney and the Chamber of Horrors, what society would struggle hard to remember the Jews who were once their neighbours without the economic incentive of tourism. Those self same people who toiled so hard to be rid of the Jews then with their economies in tatters complained when they were gone .
In the official leaflet of tourist walks available at all good tourist offices and hotel reception desks in Budapest no walk is given more prominence than that headed ” Old Jewish Quarter Walk.” The walk is is a little under two miles and for the fit should take no more than an hour. Imagine 18 hundred years of Jewish history all rolled up and encompassed into 60 minutes. All human life is there in two short miles.Today the area is swamped with bars and inns. How untypically Jewish. What a world we live in where the pace of modern life leaves little time to think and reflect on the lives, loves, hopes and ambitions of the hundreds of thousands of people who once lived in this area and called it home.
When I say hundreds of thousands in the case of Hungary this is no exaggeration. Before the outbreak of the second world war 760,000 Jews lived in the country. Today its barely 80,000 and despite walking the Jewish Quarter I hardly saw a Jew save a Hasidim walking the street in his black frock coat in the afternoon heat looking to all intents and purposes like a a visitor from another Planet or the white rabbit in Alice through the Looking Glass as he disappeared in a sea of people not to be seen again.
While the Jewish nemesis is and will for a long time be Germany many people come up with neighbour Poland as the archetypal anti Semitic state. For a brief second while writing this I thought of checking on the net who had been less careful with their Jews in percentage terms during the war the Poles or the Hungarians. I quickly recoiled from carrying out this macabre exercise. There is no honour in even coming second out of two in this exercise.
The day before we visited the Jewish Museum housed in the awe inspiring synagogue at the tip of one of the entrances to the Quarter in Dohany street. Built in Moorish style it demonstrated the wealth and confidence of the community. Even today it is still the largest synagogue in the world by area and has a handful of seats fewer , a little over three thousand in all, than Temple Emanuel in New York. For a typical Saturday service it attracts a congregation of between 50 and a 100 made up of the invisible locals and tourists. For the High Holydays they say you cannot get a ticket.
It was the first of the so called modern orthodox synagogues where the men and women sat on separate sides of the huge hall.No Ladies gallery here though galleries as an overflow there were. Today the synagogue sits from a religious stand point on the right of the Conservative movement. Its size and elegance prove the maxim that no matter how comfortable a Jew may feel in his current environment if he does not have a case packed , ever ready for emergencies, then he is a fool.
At the Jewish Museum we had two guides. One for the outside of the building, a young man who claimed that his great grand father had been Jewish. Inside a women in her mid twenties skinny and nervous with crinkly cut who peered at us over her glasses. She was Jewish and took a different view to our outside guide on recent history. He blamed the Nazis then the Communists for the fate of the Jews. She on the other hand made it clear that Hungary fought with the Germans during the war and as for their attitude to the Jews? She pointed to a wall which displayed pictures of Righteous Gentiles.They were few in number, no more than eight, and one picture was of the Swede Raoul Wallenberg another of the then Swiss consul.
Not many pictures on the wall , I said to her. Not many, she replied and gave me a weary smile. This huge building full of treasures dating back hundreds of years was protected by one solitary policeman with a very bored look on his face . He spent most of his time leaning up against a tree. I am still trying to make out whether this minimal presence was a credit to the country or a mark of indifference.
In recent European elections the fascist Jobik party picked up 20% of the votes. Its leader has previously called for a central register of all Jews as they owed their allegiance to a foreign nation. However there are few anti Semitic attacks with the wrath of the right being mainly directed against the sizeable Roma community which dwarfs the Jewish one.
But back to the walk. The part in retrospect I found most depressing was the area known as Gozsdu Courtyard between Kiraly street and Dob. street. This is a series of courtyards filled with fashionable restaurants and modern trendy apartments. It was here my wife asked me if this area was owned by Jews. Almost certainly it wasn’t and parsimonious amounts of compensation from the Government long after most of those who survived were dead and penniless goes to prove it. The only sign that Jews had ever lived there at all was a restaurant called “My Yiddishe Mama ” It didn’t boast of a menu of Lox and bagels, or corned beef sandwiches with pickles and Latkes. No at this restaurant in the heart of Hungary you were offered finest Italian cooking. With all due respect to my Italian Jewish friends pasta and spaghetti is a long way off most Jews’ idea of a Friday night meal.
For me its Prague next. You can’t move on until you have faced down all the ghouls and demons hurled at you. While inside me a little voice screams “Next year in Jerusalem.”