While antisemitism is once again on the rise in the United States, its origins are still being debated. Concurrently, the “Never Again” phrase echoes throughout the post-Holocaust generation, as if to remind the world to value and cherish humanity, and to realize that anything that could or would cause the annihilation of any specific religious or ethnic group as it did during the Holocaust should never again occur. Yet, at the center of the notion of “Never Again” remains the unanswered question of how negative perceptions of European Jews ultimately led to their violent murders and how and why the widespread destruction of European Jewry could have ever happened in the first place.
On short visits to Hungary and Poland last month I was mindful of this question and of current perceptions of Jews in these countries as I attempted to learn whether traces of anti-Jewish sentiments continue to exist on the very same terrain on which the Holocaust occurred some eighty years ago. I had several discussions with Hungarian historian and linguist Timea Tarjáni, and during our walks around Budapest I came to realize that perceptions on the ground in this city of Jewish life and history revealed insights that were new to me. Tarjáni claims that anti-Jewish sentiments in Budapest have increased over the past ten years and have even more recently escalated. She is concerned about current Hungarian governmental policies that are drifting toward antisemitism, while some of her friends “hide behind a [metaphorical] fence” in order to ignore news reports Hungarian Jews face today.
Tarjáni lives among six families within her apartment building, two of which are Jewish. She claims that being accepted as a Jewish resident in this building required an enormous effort on her part to “educate” her non-Jewish neighbors about being Jewish. She also asserts that she will not attach a mezuzah—the symbol of a Jewish household–on her doorpost for fear that public visibility to the outside world could endanger her. What I found the most troubling about her story was her reference to “Plan B,” which would entail her relocation to Israel if her environment were to become hostile for Jews. Her paperwork for this move is already completed and ready at hand.
I believe that Tarjáni values her life in Budapest and certainly embraces her Jewish Hungarian identity that dates back to earlier generations of her own family. She was born in the 1970s and is the granddaughter of Hungarian Jews who met for the first time at Auschwitz and subsequently built a successful shoe business and helped to develop the Budapest community both in the shadow of communism and after the Cold War. Perhaps now that she has four children of her own, she would like to continue the legacy handed down from her grandparents who survived the Holocaust in Hungary, where in less than two months in 1944 nearly half a million Jews were deported to Auschwitz or to the Austrian border to dig fortification trenches. By the end of July, 1944, the only Jewish community that remained in Hungary was in Budapest. Perhaps in the spirit of communal and familial survival despite numerous odds, Tarjáni frequently made references to the tulip, the official flower of Hungary, which she described as being symbolic of the Hungarian Jewish community, because when it blooms it represents “the mitzvah—the good deed—of educating children as early as possible.” As we strolled through the streets of Budapest, Tarjáni repeatedly reflected on being Jewish in Budapest, past and present, and on the ways in which her own familial roots connect to many of the local sites and settings. She also expressed concern that the notion of “Never Again” is loaded with uncertainty, given that negative perceptions of the Jews of Hungary have indeed led to widespread violence. Yet, she seems to value her ongoing presence in this land in which her ancestors lived and in which she is raising her children.
My visits to Warsaw and Krakow offered me fresh perceptions of the Jews of Poland, then and now. The nineteenth-century Great Synagogue of Warsaw that the Nazis destroyed in 1943 has been replaced by a large modern-glass building amid the busy modern-day city, as if time had erased all vestiges of its past. One can only imagine the sight of thousands of Jews who congregated within the walls of this Great Synagogue during a single service, and sense the strangeness of knowing that most of them were subsequently murdered during the Holocaust. Nożyk Synagogue is the only remaining pre-war synagogue of Warsaw among the four hundred or so that were destroyed during the Holocaust. Upon entering it, instead of seeing yet another empty space bereft of the Jews of Warsaw, I discovered a live service being conducted by Chasidic Jews from Israel who had stopped in Warsaw on a pilgrimage to Lizhensk, where they were to visit the graveside of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk (1717-1787). While I was observing this service, the thought of those to whom the Nożyk Synagogue belonged before their violent demise haunted me in a confluence of past and the present images of Jews in prayer.
The JCC Krakow was established fifteen years ago. This organization reaches far and wide to welcome new and old generations of Jews locally and from around the globe in order to revitalize the Jewish community of Krakow. Although this is clearly the case, it is unclear to me how Poland perceives the Jews who are currently present there. According to a recent study conducted by the Anti-Defamation League, one third of the Polish people hold “antisemitic beliefs”. Immediately prior to my visit to Poland I had participated in a seminar for scholars at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, DC, where we discussed a study on the fate of the possessions of Jews who were murdered at the Nazi death camp at Treblinka, Poland. The study suggests that some parties in the vicinity of Treblinka confiscated their wealth and used it to invest in properties near the camp. There is indeed evidence of a real estate boom in the vicinity following the Soviet era. On a leisurely stroll in Krakow near the hotel at which I stayed and the market square I saw a jewelry store window containing vintage jewelry and, in the very center of the display, a postcard that was issued to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of the first transport to Auschwitz.
It is unclear to me why this curious display was front and center; perhaps it was meant to imply a possible connection between a Polish extermination camp and antique jewelry. This display raised a question in my mind about how Jews are perceived in Poland today in relation to what belonged to them before they were murdered during the Holocaust, whether it be valuable jewelry or property.
My recent focus on perceptions of Jews in Poland and Hungary prompted me to imagine how once thriving, now-vanished Jewish communities appeared prior to their utter destruction during wartime. That the Holocaust could ever have happened remains shocking, not only for those who lived through it but for many of us who were born decades after it occurred. What is lost remains lost. Yet, my ongoing dialogue with a Hungarian Jew in Budapest and my visits to Jewish sites in Warsaw and Krakow enabled me to feel a little closer to the very point at which the past and present converge.
Ben Sales. “Over A Third of People from Hungary, Poland Have Extensive Antisemitic Beliefs – Poll.” The Times of Israel, 31 May, 2023.
 CHARNYSH, V., & FINKEL, E. (2017). The Death Camp Eldorado: Political and Economic Effects of Mass Violence. American Political Science Review, 111(4), 801-818.