Sunday, May 20, 2012

May 6 - Budapest Jewish Interest Tour

I will split today's post into two sections.

 We had not planned on taking the optional Jewish Interest Tour but signed up for it once we arrived in Budapest.
It is a Sunday morning tour before we board our ship the Sound of Music later in the afternoon. We need to have our bags out before we leave on the tour.

I must mention, before I start, that we had to go through security checks before entering the synagogue and the Holocaust museum.

The tour starts at Budapest Great Synagogue (Dohany utcai Zsinagoga). Our guide is very informative. Kate mentions that as a child growing up under communism she had no idea that she was Jewish, there was no history lessons in school about Nazis or World War II. She said she was 20 before she began reading about the atrocities and she learned about her religion when her children went to school.
Jews were banned from the city in the 18th century so they established a Jewish quarter just outside the old city boundary. Remains of the old Pest city walls run on the opposite side of the road.

The Jews built their main synagogue in a residential area. Theodore Herzl, founder of modern Zionism was born in one of the buildings. This stunning temple was constructed between 1844-59 according to Ludwig Förster's plans. The second largest synagogue (the largest stands in New York although some Hungarians would disagree) in the world can hold 3,000 people. Two onion-shaped domes sit on the twin towers at 43 m height. The towers symbolize the two columns of Solomon's Temple.

The spacious interior has equally rich decorations. A single-span cast iron supports the 12-m wide nave. The seats on the ground-floor are for men, while the upper gallery has seats for women. Surprisingly the synagogue has an organ, pulpits and kneeing benches though these features are normally found in Christian churches,not synagogues.
According to our guide, the elders couldn't agree on an architect so they hired a Christian hence some of the Christian elements. It was built between 1854 and 1859 by Ludwig Forster, a German-born Austrian architect. The original was bombed by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party in 1939, also mentioned in my past post..

The organ was played by Franz Liszt during the synagogue's inauguration.
The synagogue avoided serious damage during the war, likely because the Nazis protected it for their own uses: they put radio antennas on the two towers, stabled their horses in the nave, and according to some sources may have had a Gestapo base in the balcony.










During the Communist period, many windows were broken and the Jews boarded up the synagogue. An ambitious restoration was recently completed, funded in large part by famous Americans Tony Curtis and Estée Lauder, who are of Hungarian-Jewish descent. The building's original splendor is now fully apparent.

Its ark contains 25 torah scrolls taken from other synagogues destroyed during the Holocaust. The torahs were saved by Christian priests and ministers who entered the ghetto and rescued the torahs and buried them in Christian graveyards until they were returned after the war.

The second part of the tour, and the most heart wrenching is the memorial garden and the remembrance garden. 

Budapest's great synagogue witnessed many tragic events in WW II.

In March 1944, Adolf Eichmann arrived in Budapest with the occupying Nazi forces to supervise the establishment of the Jewish ghetto and the subsequent deportations. For a time, Eichman had an office behind the rose window in the women's balcony.

Up to 20,000 Jews took refuge inside the synagogue complex during the war, but 7,000 people perished during the bleak winter of 1944-45. These victims are buried in the courtyard, where you can also see a piece of the original brick ghetto wall.


Next to the main building is the Jewish Heroes' Mausoleum and Temple in memory of the thousands of Jews who died during the Second World War. The Memorial Garden contains monuments to Jews who died in the Holocaust and to non-Jews who protected their Jewish neighbors.
Like many of the Nazi occupied territories, the Jews were driven into a ghetto surrounding this synagogue. Sadly, many of these people froze and starved to death, and their bodies were left in piles within the synagogue walls. The Soviets, after liberating Budapest, devised a system of mass graves in which to place all 2,228 bodies that were in the ghetto, at the time. It looks like a peaceful place, but in 1945, this was a very different matter.

There is a huge metal weeping willow tree called The Tree of Life which contains leaves engraved with the names of  Jews who perished under the Nazis. You can also see a piece of brick from the original ghetto wall in the garden.
The inscription reads "is there a bigger pain than mine?". It resembles an upside down menorah.
At the end of each branch is a Roman numeral to assist families in locating their leaf.

This was erected in 1990 soon after the fall of communism made it possible to acknowledge the Holocaust.

 Our guide, Kate, showing us the leaf engraved with her grandmother's name.

The small stones are typical of Jewish cemeteries evoking the age-old tradition of placing pebbles over desert graves to cover the body and prevent animals from disturbing it.

The best known Righteous Gentile honoured by Jews around the world is Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat and businessman who rescued around 60000 Hungarian Jews during World War 2. He was considered a rich playboy and got the job because no one else wanted it.
In July 1944 the Swedish Foreign Ministry, at the request of Jewish and refugee organizations in the USA, sent Wallenberg on a rescue mission to Budapest as an attache to the embassy there.
When Wallenberg reached the Swedish legation in Budapest in July 1944, the campaign against the Jews of Hungary had already been underway for several months. Between May and July 1944, Eichmann and his associates had successfully deported over 400,000 Jews by freight train. Of those deported all but 15,000 were sent directly to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in southern Poland. By the time of Wallenberg’s arrival there were only 230,000 Jews remaining in Hungary.
Wallenberg immediately began issuing Swedish ‘protective passports’ with the less well-known diplomats Carl-Ivan Danielsson (1880-1963) and Per Anger (1913-2002). He also set up a series of safe houses placing flags of neutral countries on houses where Jews could seek asylum. He even followed deportation trains, distributing food and clothing and actually pulling some people off the cars along the way.
When the Soviet army entered Budapest in January 1945, the authorities arrested Wallenberg for espionage and sent him to Moscow. In the early 1950s the Soviet Union announced that he had in fact died of a heart attack in 1947. Several reports later suggested that Wallenberg was still alive, but none was ever confirmed.
It is commonly believed that Wallenberg was executed by the Soviets, who suspected him of spying for the USA.
The memorial is also etched with the names of other Righteous Gentiles who helped save Jews. According to the Talmud "whoever saves one life, saves the world entire".

This stained glass represents the Holocaust as a wall of fire (removal of hope) and a snake (Fascism) to remind all of the terror that was felt by the Jewish people of Budapest and the rest of Europe.



These alcoves are labeled for victims and contain lights that come on when darkness falls.

And finally to make you smile after reading this gruesome post, there is always a souvenir shop!



The tour continued with a stop at the Holocaust Museum. Unfortunately, we did not have a lot of time and you could easily spend a whole day here. Some people, however, cannot handle it and often come back out immediately. 

The museum was created around a synagogue which is no longer in use as there are not enough Jews left in Budapest to support the number of synagogues they had before the Holocaust. 
The Holocaust Memorial Center pays tribute to the victims of the Hungarian Holocaust. The complex, inaugurated in 2004, houses a synagogue, a museum and an inner courtyard with a glass memorial wall dedicated to the over 500,000 victims with their names inscribed on the wall. The museum's permanent exhibition tells the history of the Holocaust through the stories of individuals in an interactive way. Original documents and personal belongings are on display. 
It was an eerie, disturbing place to visit. It also includes the gypsies, Romas as part of the displays as the Nazis included them in their persecutions as well.
When the Soviet Army captured Budapest on January 17-18, 1945, it was too late to save the lives of 564,500 Jews who had been sent to the various death-camps run by the Nazis. The Budapest SS headquarters, however, was over-run by the Soviets before the Nazis were able to destroy a huge number of papers which documented their efforts to annihilate the Hungarian Jews. These documents, together with many of the photographs that are part of this essay, were bundled up by the Soviets and stored in the basement of the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior where they remained unseen for over forty years. 

 As you walked around in partial darkness, you could hear footsteps following you.



 One of the priests who saved many Jews.

Glass chairs represent the victims in the unused synagogue.


Outside in the courtyard.


 We make one more stop at a very sad memorial that will send shivers up your spine. It is called Shoes on the Danube and is located in front of the parliament and between the two bridges along the Danube.

The Shoes on the Danube is a memorial to the Budapest Jews who were shot by Arrow Cross militiamen between 1944 and 1945. The victims were lined up and shot into the Danube River. They had to take their shoes off, since shoes were valuable belongings at the time.
The Nazis had installed the fascist Hungarian Red Arrow Party as the country’s national government. Herds of Red Arrow members, mostly teenage boys, would rampage the streets of Budapest firing at will at Jews. The most notorious massacres were when mobs of supporters would round up groups of Jews and march them to the banks of the Danube. Here, after being made to take off their shoes, they would be blasted into the icy waters. Around 10,000 to 15,000 were killed in this way.
The memorial was created by Gyula Pauer, Hungarian sculptor, and his friend Can Togay in 2005. It contains 60 pairs of iron shoes, forming a row along the Danube. Each pair of shoes was modeled after an original 1940's pair.

1 comment:

  1. Oh my God...so many of them.

    I'm glad you went on this tour and shared it with everyone.

    Not as tragic, but still tragic is the fact that the communists tried to rob the tour guide of her heritage and birthright. It reminds me of the end of Dr. Zhivago.

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