Last week I was in Budapest with my family for a visit; schools in Israel are closed during Chanukah and it was a good time to go away together.
Hungarian Jewry was sophisticated worldly and integrated within the general life of the country both before and after the First World War. Much of the modernisation of the country was due to Jewish influence, and the Jews were proud of being Hungarian. Before the Second World War 25% of Budapest was Jewish.
When Germany invaded its ally Hungary on 19th of March 1944 Eichmann prepared to deal with a community that until then had hardly felt the Holocaust. In a period of just over six weeks in May and June 1944 more than 400,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz in 138 trains.
The Jews of Budapest began to be persecuted in October 1944 both by the Nazis and the Hungarian Arrow Cross. Jews were marched down to the Danube or onto the bridges over the river to be shot and their bodies thrown in the water. A ghetto in Budapest was established on 29 November 1944 but only lasted for six weeks until liberated by the Russians on 18th of January 1945. This was when Raul Wallenberg, Carl Lutz the Swiss diplomat and others risked their lives to save thousands of Jews.
Beautiful sophisticated and elegant though it be, I found Budapest very disturbing. As we walked along many of the Ghetto’s streets I could see in my mind’s eye Jews being marched along these same streets to their deaths. The Shoe Memorial on the bank of the Danube commemorating those who were shot and thrown into the river (after removing their shoes which were valuable) was particularly moving.
On Friday night we attended the service in the Heroes Temple, erected in the 1920s as a memorial to the Jews who fell in the First World War. On Shabbat morning I went to the Hungarian Ultra-Orthodox minyan, a piece of unreconstructed Jewish history whose 3½ hour service concluded with potato Kugel and Slivovitz instead of Scotch!
But the greatest memory was spending a week with my children and grandchildren, all of us citizens of the State of Israel, the future of the Jewish people.