Avi Shamir

In Herzl’s Own Backyard

On a recent family holiday in Budapest we heard local interpretations of Hungary’s role in the Holocaust presented by tour guides on three separate walking tours. Our guides were young Hungarian women, presumably non-Jews. On the touchy subject of the holocaust, all three had something to say; two of them got it right.

Our first outing was a general tour of the twin cities of Buda and Pest which face each other on opposite banks of the Danube River, the former upscale and residential, the latter vibrant and electrifying. Our guide, whose manner was mostly entertaining, also made a point of stating this clear confession, which I am paraphrasing: “The Hungarian authorities cooperated fully with the Nazis, and were just as responsible for the catastrophe that befell the Jewish people in Hungary.”

Later we went on a walking tour of the Jewish Quarter. Our guide, who had an impressive knowledge of the locale’s history and could translate the Hebrew inscriptions on the walls of its synagogues, also didn’t mince words with regard to the holocaust: “The Jews of Budapest were victimized both by the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators,” she stated. The tour guide led us to the Great Synagogue which towers above Herzl’s birthplace next door. Right behind it lies what’s left of the Jewish ghetto in Budapest. The closeness between these sites aroused disturbing thoughts which would come back to me a day later, on our last walking tour.

Billed as an “Urban Art/ Street Art Tour,” this trek also took us through the old Jewish Quarter, which today is better known for its restaurants, “ruin bars” and rousing night life. Our guide, whose familiarity with the neighborhood, its optical art, wall murals and just plain graffiti fit her job description, should have kept her mouth shut on the holocaust.

Her insensitive observations about the Jewish people’s darkest hour must have sprung from ignorance, or perhaps an innate need to participate in a national cover-up. For starters, she stated that Hungarian Jewry was not affected by the holocaust until 1944, when Adolph Eichmann arrived in Budapest to organize the mass deportations of Jews to the death camps. I pointed out that the fascist Hungarian regime had been cooperating with the Nazis since the start of World War Two. Her response to that was somewhat apologetic and above all defensive. At one point she confessed “of course Hungarians were responsible too” but sugar-coated this acknowledgement with a small revision: “there were discriminatory laws against all minorities, not the Jews in particular.” Her most confounding remark went like this: “Many Jews died in the ghetto, but that had nothing to do with the holocaust.” Staggered, I told her that was like saying that the Warsaw ghetto had nothing to do with Auschwitz, and the train tracks that ran between them. Her answer to that was so clumsy it’s not worth repeating here.

More to the point, her badly mistaken take on the Jewish ghetto brought to mind that heartrending revelation from the previous walking tour. As aforementioned, the Jewish ghetto in Budapest happened to be situated right behind Herzl’s birthplace. All that’s left of it is a mass grave of Jews who died of sickness or starvation before Eichmann’s goons could get around to deporting them.

To round out the picture: On Dohány Street in Budapest one can visit the imposing Great Synagogue where young Herzl celebrated his Bar-Mitzvah, long before he was an assimilated Austrian Jew who became the founder of the Modern Zionist Movement. And though the building is no longer standing, right next door to the synagogue one can see a plaque commemorating the site where Herzl was born. One can easily connect the dots between Herzl’s birthplace and his Jewish roots. And it isn’t hard to imagine that if Herzl visited his childhood home in 1897, around the same time he had his Zionist epiphany on that fabled balcony in Basel, he may have gazed out the window of his room and seen that same right-on-target vision of Der Judenstaat, 50 years before the UN vote that led to the establishment of the State of Israel.

But if he looked out the rear window into his backyard, even the visionary Herzl couldn’t have pictured that horror show some 48 years away. The Zionist prophet who best understood the plight of European Jewry saw the danger signs. But he couldn’t have foreseen a Jewish mass grave in his own backyard.

Many thousands of tourists pass by these sites every year. I wonder how many of them associate the landmark birthplace with the doomed ghetto. I made the connection, as my old father, a lifelong admirer of Herzl who lives in Israel, is a holocaust survivor.

But the ashes of those awful times have scattered and the world moves on. The Jewish Quarter is now a chic part of town to eat out and party into the night. The Budapest Municipality, which does such a fine job conserving this charming city, commissions trendy painters to grace this historic neighborhood with optical art. The striking frescoes covering the walls of old buildings express Hungarian themes that only a Hungarian tour guide can explain. And to the eye of the beholder, nothing about those colorful urban art murals suggests that there ever was a Jewish ghetto in Budapest.

About the Author
Avi Shamir is a freelance writer, editor, translator and the author of "Saving the Game," a novel about baseball. A Brooklyn College graduate with a BA in English, Avi has contributed to the Jerusalem Post, The Nation, Israel Scene, In English and The World Zionist Press Service.