Hungary’s capital Budapest is known for its rich Jewish heritage but also for its present vivid Jewish community. Those, liberated from Budapest ghetto by the Red Army laid the foundation for the renewal of Jewish life. Their descendants are heirs of a unique legacy. During a trip in early January I had the opportunity to experience some highlights of Jewish Budapest.
My friends Mary and Mike and I are old travel companions since many years. Whenever they are in Europe, we make use of the opportunity to explore another metropolis – this time it was Budapest.
Budapest was home of one of the biggest pre-war Jewish communities and its legacy is obvious. The Great Synagogue at Dohany Street is a touristic hotspot with visitors queueing at the gate to the synagogue, its court yard and the neighbouring Jewish museum. The inner space of the synagogue is crowded and permanent guided tours create “language islands” in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Hebrew. Shops offer Judaica and souvenirs. Visitors who missed the entrance to the synagogue walk irritated through the court yard – a mass grave site where some of those who died in the ghetto in 1944 from starvation and freezing cold were buried. Various Holocaust related memorials witness this dark time. The Jewish museum gives visitors an insight in Jewish holidays, traditions and history of Hungary’s Jews. What stroke me most was a postcard from a location called “Waldesse”. The explanation reads like this:
The largest cemetery of Hungarian deceased is at Auschwitz, where every third victim was a Hungarian citizen. Upon arrival, the deportees were forced to write a postcard that indicated “Waldsee” as the place of dispatch. In reality, this was a non-existent settlement used as a cover name for Auschwitz.
The purpose of these postcards was to dispel suspicion amongst those still in Hungary and prevent panic.
This was something I had never heard before.
Dohany Street Synagogue is the southern end of a triangle of synagogues in Budapest’s Jewish quarter. But the synagogues in Rumbach Street and Kazinczy Street are far less frequented by visitors. We found Rumbach Street Synagogue closed due to reconstruction works. Kazinczy Street Synagogue turned out to be a gem, beautifully decorated inside and outside in finest Art Nouveau style. A book I bought in a nearby shop lists a total of 22 still functioning synagogues in the city – and all look well maintained. A brochure by the Orthodox community gives an overview over the impressive diversity of institutions serving the community’s needs – a kindergarten, kosher shops and restaurants, a home for the elderly. This is even more surprising when one takes into account that Orthodox Jews are a minority in Budapest. The majority belongs to the Neolog community. In addition to the many institutions there are 6 Jewish cemeteries of different times and congregations. At least I managed to visit two of them.
Already on the first day of the trip – when Mary and Mike had not arrived yet – I walked to Kerepesi Jewish Cemetery at Salgótarjáni Street. The cemetery is known as a burial place for wealthy citizens and celebrities. Along the surrounding walls are huge mausoleums in all styles of the late 19th and early 20th century, giving evidence of progressing assimilation. The cemetery has been neglected for a long time. Many of the imposing buildings need to be supported by scaffolding. Now, in winter, most plots are accessible, but I wonder how this will change in spring when vegetation sprouts. Some of the mausoleums underwent renovation works, some works are in progress and it looks like more is planned. Close to the cemetery a Holocaust Museum has been established in an old train station. I found the gates locked; the “House of Fates” – telling the experience of individuals during the Holocaust – has not been opened yet. As media reports say, the content of the permanent exhibition remains controversial.
The term Necropolis describes the cemeteries at Kozma Street well. Like in Salgótarjáni Street Christian and Jewish cemetery are situated in in close neighborhood. The Christian cemetery alone has 300,000 tombs. My friend Adam had warned me not to get lost and when we walked through the place at a day with dense fog, I understood what he meant. One can walk for a long while until the end of the cemetery comes in sight. The parts close to the entrance gate are well kept – we saw an imposing mortuary, a monument for Jewish soldiers of World War I mausoleums for the wealthy – among them a beautiful Art Nouveau building in green and blue – and modest stones from the time when the cemetery was founded in the late 19th century. As deeper one gets into the vast territory of the cemetery, as denser the vegetation becomes; soon only the paths are accessible. At the end we found ourselves in a dense jungle, all sounds swallowed up by the fog. A silent world out of time.
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