What if I told you time-machines exist? In July, I had the incredible opportunity to time-travel to Budapest. Although, the year was 2017 there were many lessons, attractions, and new friendships that inspired a meaningful journey. The glamorous architecture throughout Budapest can inspire any visitor to see how important this city must have been as the joint capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Flowers bloomed throughout the country and the weather was perfect enough for biking. But, just as roses have thorns, this beautiful country has a thorny history as well.
Just down the street from my hotel, is the Dohany Street Synagogue, built in 1856. Theodore Herzl, the man behind the movement for Jews to return to their ancestral homeland, also known as Zionism, was born in that very location in 1860. It was both surreal and wonderful to stand at the site of his birthplace. The interior of the synagogue, which seats three thousand worshipers and is the second largest synagogue in the world, was one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever been in.
Before WW2 there were 830,000 Jews living in Hungary. 437,000 were murdered in just seven weeks in 1944 after the Nazi invasion of Hungary! During the war, some synagogues were used as concentration centers for the Hungarian Jews on the way to their deaths at Auschwitz. How tragically ironic that using a house of worship for mass murder or to assist in murder is what ultimately saved the Dohany Street synagogue! Now there are almost 100,000 Jews living in Hungary. I am sad to share that while the floors and walls may sparkle to its former glory, there is still a part of the renovation that has not been completed. Where are the people?
Touring the Jewish museum located adjacent to the Dohany Street Synagogue, I went to sign my name in the guest book. I was shocked to see written in it, “The Holocaust is a lie. Europa Erwache!” (This translates to “Europe awaken” in German.) How could I be reading such a message in 2017?
The Szeged synagogue was another stunning place of worship in Hungary. Similar to the Dohaney street synagogue it was vast. Pre WWII, it accommodated 1,500 worshipers (a quarter of the population of the city.) Today, 30 Jews reside in the city. Initially, I was disappointed. I had traveled three hours from Budapest, to discover the synagogue was closed to the public. I was impressed to learn the Hungarian government was financing the refurbishment of the exterior.
Fortunately, I was able to get inside The Szeged Synagogue and met Christina, a guide for the property. The interior was falling apart from lack of financial support. Despite the dusty and faded insides, it was still breathtakingly beautiful. I was in awe of how large the stained glass windows were throughout the synagogue. It was an incredible experience to listen to Christina translate the Hungarian inscription on the ceiling, as my Israeli friend translated it into Hebrew. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” was the focal point of the synagogue.
What an incredible manifestation of this religious tolerance and understanding as Christina, who is Christian explained to my Jewish friend and me that mostly non-Jewish groups visit the synagogue. She not only had the original key to the gates of the synagogue, but her life experiences of studying Jewish religion and history as a non-Jew have given me cause to not judge other Europeans based on the hate inscribed in the guest book the day before. People like her are the keys to a better future.
I was privileged to see many beautiful synagogues, memorials, and graves in Hungary. Raoul Wallenberg was a Righteous Gentile who I felt particularly attached to on this trip. During WW2, as a non-Jewish neutral Swedish diplomat, he forged papers alongside other diplomats to save tens of thousands of Jews from death. He distributed Swedish paperwork, even as some Jews were on the train about to leave the station for death camps! Unfortunately, he was later imprisoned and probably killed by the Soviet authorities.
Who knew after following his very footsteps, that I would end up dancing in a Budapest nightclub with a granddaughter of someone he saved? This is what I mean when I say traveling is just like boarding a time-machine.
I visited the “shoe memorial” on the Danube river bank a day before the state visit of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Assorted bronzed shoes are arranged where thousands of Jews in the closing weeks of WW2, were forced to take off their shoes by the Hungarian Fascist Iron Cross, before being shot into the river. Some of the Jews were tied together, and only one person was shot to conserve bullets as all the victims drowned.
As I observed Jews, Muslims, and Christians from all over the world exploring the site, I was instilled with hope, in spite of hate incidents against all of our communities being higher in the United States and throughout the globe than they have ever been. I was especially moved to see where someone had attached an Israeli flag to one of the shoes. Though the beautiful view of the riverbank and the Hungarian Parliament building remain the same, the flag symbolizes shoes that could have belonged to me 72 years ago. “There but for the grace of God go I.” As long as we have a strong Jewish state, Jews will never again be so helpless.
This is Part 1 of 2 articles describing my experiences in Budapest during July 2017.
Rayna Rose Exelbierd is the StandWithUs Southeast High School Coordinator. SWU is a 16-year-old international Israel education organization with offices throughout the US, in Israel, Canada and the UK.