In the quaint and picturesque Hungarian town of Szentendre (Saint Andrew), just outside of Budapest, our group of five new friends who had gathered from throughout the Jewish world bask in the sunlight, seemingly frozen in time. We weave along the cobblestone streets browsing in and out of charming little shops offering handmade crafts, delicate latticework, whimsical wooden toys and intricately painted porcelain. We sit outside and feast on pastries that look more like art than edibles and ice coffee is reminiscent of ice cream floats.
The conversation, however, quickly turns from sweets and souvenirs to anti-Semitism – for even the perfection of this setting won’t allow for us to forget why we are here. It’s as if the beauty of this town is painted as a mere distraction.
“It is a shame,” I think, “that a place this beautiful has a past so terrible and a future that looks to be more of the same.” Every bit of beauty is tarnished by the reality of Hungary’s anti-Semitic past and present.
We spend a perfect Shabbat evening, albeit long, worshipping in both the Dohany Street Synagogue and then at the Kazinczy Street Orthodox Synagogue followed by dinner with the community. I take in the peacefulness of the spring air and glance back at the majestic beauty of the Dohany Synagogue’s iconic domes dressed in what locals refer to as “Oriental” splendor. It is a magnificent structure; one of the largest synagogues in the world and it also holds the distinction of lying on the land that was once the site of Theodor Herzl’s home. The Dohany Street Synagogue complex today also houses the Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park, the Jewish cemetery and the Jewish Museum.
We take a walk through a nearby park, en-route to our hotel, a park dotted with historic grand statues and a contemporary installation piece of street art; a walk that would have been the perfect end to the perfect evening had it not been for the sounds that greeted us. A wave of ‘Sshhhh…shhhh…shhhh….” was sounded by locals as we passed. “Shhhhhh” fills the night air. We are told it’s the sounds of gas chambers. Our security team rushes to move us along and form a barrier between us and them. We hurry though the park but the sound follows us through the night.
And as for the Jobbik rally that was to be staved off during our visit, it continued as planned. As Lauwrence Weinbaum, of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, remarked after having witnessed their display, “The words of Max Lieberman immediately come to mind who while watching the Nazis march through Brandenburg Gate stated, ‘I cannot eat as much, as I would like to puke’”.
A day later, I wander down the Danube with a few other World Jewish Congress delegates to have a look at The Shoes on the Danube Promenade, a beautiful and extremely moving tribute to the Jews murdered by Hungary’s Arrow Cross during the war. After the incident in the park and the Jobbik rally, I was admittedly surprised to find a respectful and calm atmosphere and the area filled with international tourists paying their respects. The jeering of the neo-Nazi masses, the hooligans shouting anti-Semitic slurs and the gas chamber jeers were notably absent. As we sat in quiet contemplation with only the sounds of camera’s clicking to break the solemnity of the memorial, we noticed stickers on the adjacent bollards that were unmistakably anti-Semitic.
We remove a sticker. While we know no Hungarian, the black and red bold print and picture of Peres crossed out are unmistakably filled with threats and hate, moreover it was a call to join a growing political party. We attempted to get people in the street to translate for us. They saw my friend’s kippah and our World Jewish Congress name badges and refused. We asked members of the massive security force, the force that shadowed us wherever we went, lined the perimeter of our hotel, controlled the two-station airport-quality security check required each time someone entered the hotel, had checked our rooms with bomb-sniffing dogs and guarded us when we travelled as a group outside our fortress. They too refused and demanded that we turn over the sticker. Police detectives soon too demanded the sticker. I wonder why given the physical intimidation of the rally and the hooligans in the park this sticker is deemed to be so dangerous. Eventually my friend relinquished possession of the sticker but we photographed it. While I have seen Nazi-propaganda similar to this in books and museums, I have never before held it in my hand. This is not a historical relic, but neither is it a product of a new reality to the people of Hungary.