June 9, 2008, Budapest Hungary. Today I spent a good portion of the morning and a bit of the afternoon touring the Jewish section of Budapest. The Jewish section is defined by the existence of 3 or 4 synagogues located throughout the city. Our tour guide had an interesting story to tell of his own. His parents were born in 1948, after the Russian occupation. Under the Russians, religion was "illegal", so his parents did not admit to, nor did they practice, being Jewish. As a result, our guide was unaware of his Jewish roots. After the Russians left, he became aware of his ethnic roots and became involved in learning more of his heritage. He has now progressed to the point of conducting tours of the Jewish community and exploring more about this part of his history.
Our first stop was the Dohany Synagogue. Synagogues are named by the street on which they are located. It was a Jewish holiday, so we were able to gain entrance under somewhat restricted conditions. Yet, the interior of this beautiful building is majestic in itself. Budapest has more than 20 synagogues, some of them were "hidden". For example, we visited an apartment building in an old section of town. The center courtyard of the apartment had a synagogue built in the courtyard, inside a virtually closed structure. It was a way for the Jews of Budapest to build their houses of worship when it was illegal for them to own land.
At first, it wasn't very obvious that Jews live in Budapest. As our tour wound its way through Budapest, and "old Buda", one began seeing signs of Jewish commerce. Shops were here and there, but not in great numbers. Today, around 80,000 Jews live here, but in the 1930's, over 200,000 lived here. During World War II, Hungary was an ally with Germany and the Jews were somewhat ignored. But in 1944, the deportations began, and when the rail lines were severed by bombing, forced marches began to Vienna and then on to Auchwitz. All in all, well over 1/2 the population was deported and/or murdered.
As was the case in every part Europe I've visited, except for England, Jews were excluded from the greater population. They were forced to live in ghettos, and kept out of most forms of commerce. In all of these cases the ghettos were walled in. It is interesting how the Jews of Europe managed to survive and flourish. First secretly and then more publicly. It's a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, no question.
All in all, we visited 3 synagogues, 3 or 4 memorials and a couple of monuments. One of the monuments was in honor of Carl Lutz, a Swiss diplomat. During the later period of WWII, he was able to use his connections with the Germans as an official of the Swiss Government to save thousands of Jewish lives. The monument, to the left, is in honor of his efforts. A plaque on the wall quotes the Talmud and says: "He who saves but one man (life) is as he had saved the whole world".
Toward the end of the day, I was ready for a change, and found that Budapest has a nice aquarium a bit out of town. So, with instructions from the tourist office, I was able to take a tram (streetcar) and bus for a 45 minute ride to a shopping mall. There was a pretty complete aquarium there, and I enjoyed the exhibits or an hour or two.
Tomorrow I am off to Vienna. So, 'til then, "stay tuned"...