Every year on 27th January, International Holocaust Remembrance Day reminds us about the horrors inflicted by the Nazis on the Jewish race. On that day in 1945, of course, Auschwitz was finally liberated by Soviet troops. The Holocaust had taken hold in Hungary a year earlier. In March 1944 the Nazis occupied the country in order to accomplish what the Hungarian government under Miklos Horthy had signally failed to do: deport the country’s approximately 800,000-strong Jewish population. In two short months – from May to July – 437,402 Jews were transported to the death camp, with 90% killed on arrival. The sheer magnitude and speed of this massacre was astounding even by the standards of the Nazis’ murder industry, leading Winston Churchill to call it ‘probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world’. An estimated one-third of all those murdered at Auschwitz were Hungarian.
So the Holocaust is not taken lightly in Hungary. In 2014, the 70th anniversary of the deportations was marked by government-sponsored commemorative events, speeches and concerts, as well as the unveiling of a new memorial in central Budapest to the Swedish diplomat and Righteous Gentile, Raoul Wallenberg, heroic saviour of many thousands of the capital’s Jews. Perhaps when critics of the country’s present government accuse it of anti-Semitism, they should bear all this in mind.
As I have said before, there are far worse countries in Europe in which to be a Jew – try France, Germany, Sweden and Great Britain. There are about 50,000 Jews in Hungary today, mostly in Budapest, where there is a thriving Jewish community. Its centrepiece is the magnificent Great Synagogue, the second largest in the world (after Jerusalem’s Belz Synagogue), which sits at the edge of the city’s old Jewish quarter, a trendy neighbourhood still abuzz with Kosher bakeries, cafes and restaurants. And every summer there is a bustling Jewish street festival, the ‘Judafest’.
I have visited Budapest many times over the decades, but a few years ago I made my first ever pilgrimage to the Rakoskeresztur Jewish cemetery in the eastern outskirts of the city. It’s Hungary’s biggest Jewish cemetery, dating back to 1891, and still used as the main cemetery for the Jews of Budapest. My paternal grandparents are buried there and I went to look at their grave.
The cemetery features an impressive memorial to the 600,000 Hungarian Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and another to the Jewish forced labourers who perished during the war, mostly on the Eastern Front. There is a separate monument to the heroine Hannah Szenes, who joined the British Army and attempted to enter Hungary as member of the Special Operations Executive. Arrested as a spy and tortured, Hannah refused to give away details of her mission and was executed by firing squad.
To enter this vast cemetery is to journey back to a lost world, the proudly opulent world of the once-flourishing Jewry of Budapest – bankers and industrialists, business magnates, artists and scientists. There are fabulous Art Nouveau mausoleums built for prominent Jewish families in the late 19th and early 20th century, designed by famous architects of the era. The most eye-catching was created for the Schmidl family of store-owners in 1903 – a magnificent blue and gold work of art in majolica, marble and glass. Most of the family was murdered by the Nazis. But their mausoleum was restored a decade ago by a group of artists and architects.
The lavish tombs of other wealthy families – the Kornfelds and Goldbergers, the Blockners, Hays and many others, have long fallen into decay. All around are rusty doors falling off hinges and elegant stonework overgrown with ivy and weeds. Those families perished or joined the diaspora. Their crumbling shrines are a metaphor for the Holocaust.
There are 300,000 Jewish dead buried in the vast cemetery, which has paths radiating in all directions, some in a poor state of repair, others disappearing altogether into tangled undergrowth. My grandparents’ grave is in a remote and neglected corner and is anything but lavish. Antal Halasz and his wife Jolan, nee Gluck, were not wealthy or prominent. He was a businessman but not a very successful one. Their marriage was unhappy and they separated, to be reunited only in death. They didn’t perish in the Hungarian Holocaust: she died of cancer the year before, in 1943, while he was saved by his Christian business partner and lived until 1962.
I had to clear a lot of dirt and leaves off their grave in order to read the inscription. There are big cracks in the gravestone. Standing beside this humble, ruined resting place, I realised I’m the last generation to have any memory or knowledge of these two people. When I go, so do they, into the obscurity of the eternal void. That same place to which so many of their fellow Jews were consigned in 1944. It is the saddest spot I know.