Having never been to Budapest before, I thought it’s about time to visit the place where both my mother and grandmother were born, and from where they dramatically fled in 1957 with their family.
If I thought Budapest would be like any other large, cultured European city, say Paris or Milan, I was wrong. The first day I walked down Dohany Street, past the impressive synagogue that was built in 1859. This is the only synagogue I’ve seen that has not one, but two gallery floors. This huge Byzantine-Moorish structure seats 3000 and was officially affiliated with the Neolog (aka Conservative) movement. But what struck me as bizarre, even shocking, were all the gravestones in the garden of the synagogue. From 1944 until the end of the war, the Dohany Street Synagogue was the entrance to the Jewish ghetto. Under conditions of extreme hunger and cold, many Jews died in the ghetto. When the ghetto was liberated in 1945 by Russian forces, thousands of unburied bodies lay on the streets. The dead were hastily buried in 24 common graves in the synagogue courtyard. So the Dohany Street Synagogue garden became a mass graveyard to more than 2,281 Jewish martyrs. In Jewish tradition, synagogues and cemeteries do not mix. As well-kept and beautiful as the garden is, how disturbing that the largest synagogue in Europe is actually a mass graveyard for martyred Jews.
Next door to this macabre mix was the childhood home of Theodor Herzl, who was born and grew up in number 2 Dohany Street. Before this devastation started, the seeds of Zionism and the return to Israel were planted in this place.
My grandmother spoke very little English with a heavy Hungarian accent. Walking with us children, she would grab onto our hands strongly, almost out of fear, as we crossed the street. After learning of the horrors that occurred in Budapest on a daily basis between 1944-5, it’s incredible how my grandmother even survived. She had the sense not to wear a yellow star, and instead she and my nine-year-old aunt assumed the identities of non-Jews. Initially hidden in a convent under the protection of Raoul Wallenberg, my grandmother and aunt were then forced to leave when the Nazis guarding the building became suspicious. They stayed briefly in a women’s refuge, and again, when the women became suspicious, ended up being hidden by non-Jewish business partners of my grandfather.
While my grandmother and aunt sought shelter and food, gangs of armed Nyilas (Arrow Cross), mostly teenagers, roamed the city hunting for Jews in hiding. The Hungarian Arrow Cross was a fascist anti-Semitic party that assumed power in late 1944. Don’t think that the persecution of Hungarian Jews was only the domain of German Nazis. The Hungarian Arrow Cross was extremely efficient in enforcing anti-Jewish laws, confiscating Jewish property and businesses, rounding up Jews for deportation, and sending Jews to the ghetto. The Arrow Cross committed some of the cruellest and most barbaric acts during the entire war: they stormed Jewish hospitals and old age homes in Buda, killing everyone in sight. They searched out Jews in shelters, in homes outside the ghetto, and on the street. They first robbed Jews of their remaining possessions, and even used midwives to search Jewish women for hidden valuables. Then the Nyilas shot them on the spot, or marched Jews en-masse to the banks of the Danube, where they shot them into the river. Their bodies were carried away by the Danube.
It’s a miracle my grandmother and aunt survived in Budapest during this reign of terror.
Still today, the Hungarian Government chooses to see itself as a helpless victim of Nazi occupation, and not as a complicit partner in the crimes of the Holocaust. In 2014, the government erected a large monument in Budapest’s Liberty Square, called “Memorial to the victims of the German occupation.” Representing Nazi Germany, an eagle with sharp talons swoops down to attack the innocent angel Gabriel, symbolizing the Hungarian people. Historians of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, together with Hungarian Jewish leaders, have protested this falsification of history.
The statue suggests that Hungary bears no responsibility for the Jewish-Hungarian genocide. In 1944, over 440,000 Jews were deported mainly to Auschwitz, where most were gassed on arrival. The quick progress of the deportations – in 8 weeks – was enabled by close cooperation between the Hungarian and German authorities. In the words of survivor Roza Heisler: “We didn’t see any German soldiers until we reached Auschwitz. It was Hungarians who deported us.”
It was fascinating to see the living memorial that was set up as a protest in front of the government-sponsored statue. The barrier is lined with memorial pebbles, books, postcards and documents, as well as photographs of victims, such as Israeli parachuter Hannah Szenes who was executed by Hungarians for trying to rescue Hungarian Jews.
The civil groups organizing the protest action requested that the government remove the false monument, not monopolize social memory or rewrite history, and recognize Hungary’s war-time crimes.
Prime Minister Orbán, brushed off the criticism, saying it is “not a Holocaust memorial but a tribute to all the victims of the German occupation.” The monument, together with the protest installation, are both still standing in Liberty Square after almost a decade.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only instance we saw of whitewashing history. The House of Terror is a museum built in 2002 that tells the state-sanctioned story of Hungary under the back-to-back regimes of Nazism, followed by Communism. Hungary’s own Nazi party, the Arrow Cross, was in power between 1944-1945, until they were defeated by Russia, and Hungary yielded to Communist rule. In one display located between change rooms, an exhibit rotates two figures dressed in Arrow Cross and Soviet uniforms, suggesting how quickly the ruling Hungarian elements changed from Fascist to Communist ideologies.
Although most of the museum space is about Communist rule, one room depicts the cruelty of the Arrow Cross regime during World War II. There is no mention, or image of half a million deported and murdered Hungarian Jews. The Hungarian Arrow Cross orchestrated the biggest and fastest mass deportation in the history of the Holocaust, and yet the Museum of Terror is strangely mute on the subject. It turns out the director of the museum, Maria Schmidt, is also a known Holocaust revisionist.
The two apartment buildings where my mother and grandparents lived are still standing. When I asked my aunt, Agi Hollo, why the family moved to another apartment in 1949, she explained that the local council had the power to introduce another family into their 3-room apartment. So they could either agree to this arrangement, or downsize and move to a 2-room apartment. This was just one of many examples of life under Communist rule, including the day when the local authorities walked into my grandfather’s uniform shop and asked him to hand over the keys. No wonder that my grandparents made the decision to leave when they still could in 1957, together with 200,000 other Hungarians.
In terms of street population, we noted the high number of beggars on the streets, together with the conspicuous absence of children. The Hungarian economy is not faring so well, and the government continues to award accolades and prizes to right-wing anti-Semitic activists, such as journalist Zsolt Bayer, who received the Knight’s Cross of the Hungarian Order of Merit in 2016, and Erno Raffay, who was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Hungarian Order of Merit in 2020. Both are known for their publicly expressed racist and anti-Semitic views.
Notwithstanding the pervasive anti-semitism, Budapest is experiencing a Jewish renaissance. Many shuls now have active minyanim during the week and on shabbat, and there’s no lack of kosher restaurants, or lessons for locals wanting to learn more about their Judaism. The Keren-Or Chabad synagogue is thriving, and we experienced shabbat dinner in a packed hall with 200 Israeli tourists and locals. The local rabbi, Shmuel Raskin, pointed to the garden of the Dohany Street synagogue across the road, as we sang together “hinei mah tov u’mah nayim, shevet achim gam yachad” how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity (Psalms 133:1).
On shabbat morning my husband and I entered a time tunnel when we ventured to the Teleki Tér shtiebel (=a small informal synagogue). Firstly, it was no easy feat to find this small shul without a map, considering it was a 30-minute walk and we could barely pronounce the Hungarian street names. We discovered an enchanting shtiebel on the ground floor of an apartment building. Once known as the Chortkover Kloyz, this shul is the last remaining Hungarian shtiebel that follows the Hassidic prayer liturgy. It was founded by the Chortkov chassidim from Galicia after World War I, and has remained intact, including the original ark, bimah (podium) and wallpaper motif with blue magen-david design. Prior to the Holocaust, many Jews lived around Teleki Square, and there were dozens of prayer houses, where men gathered to study Torah and Talmud. Some of these were still active in the 1970s and 1980s, but the Teleki Tér shtiebel is the last of its kind. A truly heimisch (homely) shul, the regular congregants include 5th generation Hungarian Jews from the Steiner family, whose granddaughter is now studying in Israel, as part of the Naaleh program for students from abroad.
Despite the rise of anti-semitism in Hungary, bilateral cooperation between Israel and Hungary is quite solid, especially in the fields of economic, military and hi-tech development. Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen was recently invited to Budapest by Péter Szijjártó, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Hungary has vetoed many resolutions targeting the Jewish state in both the UN and EU, and Netanyahu has had a cordial relationship with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Ordan since 2017.
The Hungary that my mother and grandmother didn’t speak of much also had redeeming figures. One such person was János Frankó, my grandfather’s shop worker, who agreed to hide my grandfather for a few months until the end of the war. With the help of a local genealogist, we tried to locate the descendants of his sons, Nándor and József Frankó, but to no avail. The Frankó family risked their own lives to protect my grandfather, and this is indeed remarkable and heroic. My grandparents survived the war, and my mother was born shortly afterwards.
I regret not being able to visit Budapest with my mother, Anne (Szego) Wiseman, when she was still alive. She would have enjoyed seeing the changed city and chatting in Hungarian. But at least I now have a better sense of her roots, what she left behind, and why she wasn’t keen to talk about it. What’s more, I admire her for her bravery and boldness in starting life as a young immigrant in Australia, not knowing the language or culture, yet doing everything she could to adapt and succeed. In her later years, she made aliyah to Israel, and began the process of learning yet another language and adapting to a new culture.
Sometimes it’s good to confront the past to appreciate what we have in the present. Glad to be back in Israel on the occasion of my mother’s 4th yahrzeit, may her memory be for a blessing and an inspiration. 19 Av 5783