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.
While in the aftermath of the conference, there were apparently three arrests of neo-Nazis in Budapest from the incident in the park, it is a rather feeble “attempt” to show that this will not be tolerated. But what effect does the arrest of three hooligans have when the growing radical, nationalist and anti-Semitic party Jobbik has secured over 15 percent of the vote? And, there were certainly far more than three in the choir of gas chamber sounds. And again more than three in the street rally.
When I describe the beauty of Hungary, its incredible Jewish sites steeped in history and the thriving Jewish institutions it celebrates today, including The Lauder Javne Jewish Community School where over 600 Jewish students benefit from a state-of-the art facility and a first rate Jewish education, it would be more than unfair, it would be outright wrong for me to not also speak of the anti-Semitism the community here faces. And when faced with the automatic, knee-jerk response from most, “they should all just leave,” I would like to think that I have the benefit of a slightly better perspective than I had before having visited there. I am now perhaps a bit less judgmental.
“I would have left” or “I would just leave” or “they all should leave now” are very easy words to say when you are far away in terms of time and place. Having met their children, visited their school, talked to people from various Jewish institutions, worshiped among their congregants and shared a Shabbat meal, I now have a perhaps somewhat greater understanding of why they stay. I have seen the graves of their ancestors and walked on the soil where their grandfathers and grandmothers were shot. But I have also heard music, not mere echoes, fill the shul their ancestors built, and they rebuilt. I sat in the pews they filled with worshippers then and now.
It is the home to approximately 100,000 Jews, many whose roots run much deeper than I as a second generation American (and now expat) find it perhaps difficult to fully appreciate. Their roots are much more than just below the surface. They have regrown a community.
Hungarian Jewry has proven to be extremely resilient, having survived homegrown anti-Semitic murderers, the Nazis and then communism. Likewise, one must ask were they to heed to the insistence of these extremists to go, where would they go? Greece? France? How long before they are told they should leave there too? And as history has proven, it might begin with the Jews but it most certainly won’t end there.
Others say they need to all leave for Israel for we have Israel now and they are not without somewhere to go. This too is quite easy to say from the comforts of our own homes in countries that we choose to live in and where both our safety and rights are afforded protection. We come and go from our home to our homeland as we please. And should they go, where should the Roma, also a target of the vitriolic rants, seek shelter? Who will speak for them?
If the Holocaust has taught us anything, it is that as Jews we are not afforded the luxury of standing silent. In Hungary, it is not about mere remembrance. It is about rallying together today.
I applaud the World Jewish Congress for putting a spotlight on Hungary, and on the accomplishments of this beautiful community and the extraordinary challenges they continue to face. And while I would like to say my trip was all about beautiful pastries, an evening river cruise, quaint villages and grand iconic bridges, I unfortunately can’t do so.
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Hungary’s far-right Jobbik (The Movement for a Better Hungary) party is currently the country’s third largest party with more than 10 percent of the seats in Parliament. The party describes itself as “a principled, conservative and radically patriotic Christian party”, whose “fundamental purpose” was the protection of “Hungarian values and interests.” The party is openly anti-Jewish. Leader Gabor Vona claims Hungary is being “subjugated to Zionism.”
“We are special here in Europe, but not because we are the most anti-Semitic nation, but because that even if all of Europe is at their feet, even if all of Europe licks their feet, even then we will not,” said Vona.and
“The strengthening of Jobbik is only a symptom in these matters. The bigger problem is that around half a million people support the far-right and many people accept the negative attitude towards Jews,” said the Chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities Peter Feldmajer.
In response to their rhetoric, the World Jewish Congress held their plenary meeting in Budapest this year.
However, the meeting, held in early May was marred by a Jobbik rally which took place the evening before.
At the rally, Reuters reported, Vona told the crowd: “The Israeli conquerors, these investors, should look for another country in the world for themselves because Hungary is not for sale.”
* * * * *
Jews have lived in Hungary since at least the 1100s and form an integral part of its history, serving in its political systems, armies, and culture. During the Crusades, many Jews fled from Bohemia to Hungary, where many achieved high stations. Later, the Jews were expelled from Hungary in 1349, during the Black Death. They were expelled again (after being allowed to return) in 1360 after failed efforts to convert them to Christianity. The Jews suffered a mixture of good and bad fortunes in Hungary over the next 200 years, until the 1500s, when Hungary was conquered by the Ottomans. During the Ottoman rule, many of the Jews were dispersed throughout Turkey and other areas, and suffered from blood libels and persecution. They continued to suffer when the Hasburgs retook Hungary, and they were, over time, forbidden from owning property and farming, assessed special taxes, and expelled from cities. Under the rule of Joseph II, however, all of the negative decrees against the Jews were abolished. Joseph II also commanded that all Jewish children be taught the vernacular and learn in formal schools, though religious instruction was kept in the hands of the community. While there was some return of persecution following his death, the Jews soon received the protection of the De Judaeis in 1790, which established favorable conditions. In the mid-1800s, however, persecution of the Jews increased.
Jews fought for Hungary in World War I, where more than 10,000 of their number died. Despite their patriotism, anti-Semitic conditions continued, with pogroms like the White Terror. Though they were persecuted, Jews were well-represented in important professions such as banking, the law, science, and medicine. In the period between World War I and World War II, a series of anti-Jewish laws were enacted in Hungary. These laws banned Jews from certain professions and removed their right to vote. In World War II, the Jews of Hungary were deported, with many people confined to ghettos or sent to concentration camps. Following World War II, Hungary fell under Communist rule, which further curtailed Jewish practice in the country.
Today, the Jewish population in Hungary is approximately 120,000, mostly in Budapest. It is home to both the largest synagogue in Europe, and second-largest in the world, the Dohany Street Synagogue.
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