A Walk In Budapest

Medieval Jewish Prayer House – Középkori Zsidó Imaház

American historians say Hungary’s system is dangerous, but conservatives look to its Christian government for inspiration. I expected to find dark shadows in every Budapest storefront, a people yearning for freedom. Instead, I found old stones with Hebrew scratchings of familiar names, a display of Jewish memory on the hilly side of a fast-moving river.

 

The 14th century sanctuary is small, wooden chairs crowded like sentries, or civilians rounded up in the dead night. On a modern Shabbat, old men shuffle into the dank to pray timeworn words. Jewish stars form a lattice, like clasped hands, linking generations.

 

Ceilings rounded like Jerusalem architecture, the synagogue is down the street from Buda Castle. We’re not far, really, from the Holy Land. A four-hour flight, the time it takes from my Detroit hometown to the far west coast of my own country, the place my people fled to, seeking freedom. I flew further to visit my college son studying abroad in Eastern Europe. My ancestors left Poland and Russia, not Hungary, but it’s all the same: trying to live under gray skies and heavy soils, places where it’s too easy to shoot to kill.

 

I went to Budapest only for my son – not because I wanted to know the place. I tried to find the good, even though my ancestors fled with brass candlesticks in suitcases, hoping for a better life. Better being relative, and temporary.

 

In the medieval synagogue, Hebrew letters in red ink high on the plaster: the priestly blessing in David’s shield, Hannah’s prayer arched with an arrow. The bows of the mighty are broken; those who stumble are girded with strength. Red secco ceiling painting discovered during a 1964 restoration. Ancient words evoking an Ottoman siege of the castle. We have always defended our neighbors, desperate to blend.

 

Red everywhere – in a velvet mantle over the prayer podium, in a drape hiding ancient scrolls. The color of blood, sacrifice, danger, courage. Also, passion and anger, in equal measure. And over the red, an embroidered crown, two golden lions on hind legs. There are 150 biblical references to the lion – behold a people riseth up … stronger than lions … brave as a lion to perform the will of thy Father in heaven.

 

The synagogue is on a residential street with a typical door, blending into a stucco landscape of sunrise yellow and summer peach and mint green and ballet pink. Inside, arched doorways and echoing halls. A cobbled courtyard where congregants gather, too like the hidden courtyards I would see later in the day where Jews were shot. Here, no plaque commemorates the dead, but in a side room, tilting tombstones bear familiar names. I don’t know their stories, only that they lived. This place a working synagogue come Friday dusk and Saturday dawn, a museum all the other days, homage to dead Jews.

 

This was the first stop on our self-guided tour of Jewish Budapest, foreshadowing this story of my people in Hungary: an equal number of exquisite houses of worship and windy memorials to the dead. That’s what it is to be a Jew: a pendulum-swing existence, a constant living in extremes. A balance of horror and beauty, always. On other days in this city, I ate matzoh ball soup and goose-stuffed cabbage in fashionable restaurants with names like Mazel Tov and Rosenstein and clapped at a klezmer concert on a Friday-night stage in the most hopping district of a cosmopolitan city. I could almost believe we had made it into the popular culture.

 

One day, an old lady on the tram said she preferred Hungary to the United States because Hungarians believe in God, while Americans believe in money. At 19, she studied economics in Washington, D.C. Now 85, she’s happy to be home in an authoritarian country. This place brings her comfort, but I couldn’t wait to leave. My son appreciated the reliability of public transportation, and how cheap everything was. That’s what you get in a country in flux. Absolute adherence to rules, and short supply on everything.

 

I left Detroit for Budapest on Election Day in a midterm year, not wanting to watch the returns come in late at night, unable to sleep as fear of extremists erasing democracy knotted my stomach. But when I landed in Europe, headlines scrolled across my phone, and I was surprised to see extremism defeated by candidates preaching justice for all. I settled into my airplane seat and closed my eyes, easily asleep as I soared toward a foreign place.

 

Shoes on the Danube

 

Bronze boots and simple pumps and baby tie-ups bolted into concrete, a memorial of Jews ordered by Nazis and their eager Hungarian friends to step out of their valuable leather. Men, women, children, lovers, friends, families, shot, their limp bodies falling like dominoes into cold water, floating away in a red-stained river.

 

A bronze plaque, flush against the concrete path, reads: to the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross Militiamen in 1944-45, erected 16th April 2005. They were Jews, damnit, I want to scream into the open sky. Such a cleansed and deliberate message. No mention of the specific reason these precious people were extinguished. No explanation for senseless shooting, one after another after another falling limp against the cold and lonely earth.

 

This famous memorial abuts the soaring Hungarian Parliament building. Right under the noses of politicians, just out of sight. You have to know the site is there to find it, down steps to milky-gray waters. No signs lead to horror. They love us until they hate us, and we are always dancing between acceptance and expulsion.

 

In the rainy cold, a group of squirming local teenagers and barking teachers shuffles past the shoes. Are they oblivious because of their age or because they’ve had enough harsh memory braided into their family histories? Do they even know the truth? Who does their teacher say died on these riverbanks, and why?

 

I wait for their noise to dissipate before kneeling, hot tears on wind-cold cheeks. Some shoes hold flowers or candles. This is the story of my people. I’ve spent a lifetime wanting to fit in, knowing I never will.

 

It’s not hatred that kills good people. It’s the not-knowing what to do with difference. Jews have lived in these old hills for centuries. Through regime changes and a revolving door of leaders, they come for Friday night services, light two candles apiece, wave blessings toward their closed eyes.

 

I wondered what it would be like to visit an authoritarian country. For vacation, I would have gone anywhere else. But my son was studying math education in an old building with a Jewish star in its stone courtyard. So I slept in a nice hotel in the heart of a bustling city and tried to see past conflicting versions of history. Nothing screamed fascism. I never saw the face of Viktor Orban and found the Communist ruin bar sort of hilarious.

 

But in my Michigan backyard, quiet with a dusting of snow over clover and grasses, deer were napping in the shade of my brick garage, chewing on what grows wild in the developed world. I believe we can live in the same spaces and come away happy. Is my vision of a free and just world a cruel dream?

 

Monument to the victims of the German occupation by Péter Párkányi Raab, Szabadság Square

 

An eagle representing Nazi Germany beside archangel Gabriel, Hungary’s patron. I thought the eagle was a symbol of American independence. Of course, the eagle is a predator, soaring above all other life, eying prey with precision, swooping in unannounced.

 

The words, remembering the victims in Hungarian, English, German, Russian and Hebrew. But the real memorial is the flapping pictures, handwritten notes, melted-down candles and old suitcases in front of this concrete creation that never mentions how eager Hungarians were to round up half a million Jewish neighbors for slaughter.

 

Ever had a dream you couldn’t wake up from? You kick and flail in the muted night, claw toward the surface of awakening, but lay prone, heart thick with thumping, knowing there is an alternate reality, but you can’t get there. Is that this political landscape? Or all of history? It’s the Holocaust for me. I can never escape it, and I don’t think I want to. Because it’s become ok again to hate Jews. When I was young and single, I dreamt Cossacks banged at my door in the dark night. I always woke before they pushed inside, but still I kept a hammer under my bed, just to be safe.

 

Plastic sleeves protect photos dangling from barbed wire – a little girl in a tutu, a family of four leaving for Auschwitz, the Hungarian words for anyone who denies the crimes of the past is ready to repeat them anytime. There is an old, cracked suitcase and a mangled, black shoe. A sweet picture of an older brother and his doting little sister, cheek to cheek. Chiding comments by woke Hungarians, blaming their government for the slaughter of my people. A chilling photo of an old man with a cane, his shadow a family of four holding hands. A recent image of Volodymyr Zelensky, the Jewish president of Ukraine, fighting for his life and his country’s right to exist, fist raised, a slight smile on his young face, and the words He is standing up to a dictator. Because he is brave. Because he knows what happens if you don’t.

 

I never used to vote in midterm elections. In the 1990s, I wasn’t the only one. It was just something we didn’t do, complacent in our budding careers and big-city living. Too busy loving the freedom of being American, believing we had it all.

 

It wasn’t until I turned religious and married a conservative man that I came awake and started questioning. We took turns voting – one of us at home with the children while the other went to fill out the ballot. After, I said, You realize we just canceled each other out. I left him before another election came round, but in 2016, screens turned red with an American breed of fascism. This can’t be happening, I said as I sat up in bed. We might have to move to Canada, I texted my thirteen-year-old daughter, who was at her father’s house. My ex emailed at one in the morning, what the hell are you saying to the children?

 

I’ll do anything to protect my family, I replied. I’ll do what it takes to keep us alive. This is Germany in the 1930s. It’s happening now. They always come for us. Again and again and again.

 

Could I have prevented the fall of America in the 21st century by voting in the 20th? Did my adolescent indifference pave the way for fascism? How stupid I was to take freedom for granted, to give it all away.

 

Klauzal Ter., “You shall tell your son…” Exodus 13:8

 

The streets of Budapest are like spokes on a wheel. The whole time I was there, I never figured out which direction I was going. Courtyards and back alleys, tall old buildings and the memories of people running for their lives, waiting for a shoe to fall, a gun to go off. Or perhaps for the nightmare to end. I am projecting onto people I do not know.

 

In the middle of the bustling city, with twenty-one Michelin star restaurants, quiet fashion boutiques and soaring modern hotels, we ducked into a courtyard, walked through a tunnel, to a sliver of a space, where bricks and mortar crumble and people perch pebbles in memory on a plaque. “You shall tell your son…” Exodus 13:8 The building soars above the ground. I tilt my gaze to see how tall it is and grow dizzy. Late fall, the leaves have fallen off two scraggly trees, the ground is cold and lonely. Another place Jews were rounded up and killed. Third place today. I’m getting bored with repetition, like those teenagers on the banks of the Danube.

 

Tour groups crowd in. A guide in Italian explains the site. Then one in Hebrew. Lots of Israelis come to this city because it’s cheap and there are loud thumping bars and brightly-lit food trucks. Above the memorial site, red flowers on balconies are not yet winter-wilted. The patchy plasterwork of this building beside a smooth new hotel. Horror and beauty.

 

Ben Rhodes says we did this to ourselves. An advisor to President Obama, he blames the “exploding inequality” of capitalism for the clawing fingers of authoritarians. The war on terror was bad for democracy, he says. We fed right into the hands of selfish men who shape the world for their own enjoyment.

 

Viktor Orban rode financial turmoil into power. He’s ruled for twelve years with no intention to leave. Stacked the courts, claimed the media, insisted it’s “us or them,” real Christian Hungarians versus immigrants and Muslims and gays. The Jews are too small in number to matter. History saw to that.

 

What authoritarians do really well is make us afraid. But we are to blame for their rise. When they care more than we do, we get what we deserve.

 

But there’s a woman trying to reclaim Hungary: Katalin Cseh, a twentysomething leading the third biggest party. She says we don’t have to choose between identities. We can be everything all at once. Apparently the 21st century is about identity. So, who do we want to be?

 

Kazinczy Street Synagogue

 

Built in 1913, with pale blue walls and gold metallic stars of David as high as the flower-shaped stained-glass on an art nouveau ceiling. We have left the Holocaust sites for gorgeous synagogues. The women’s section is on the second floor, the men get the pews, everyone facing the Ark with the promise of its holy scrolls. But there are only 70 regular members in this vast and echoing house of worship, in a neighborhood where all the young cats go at night, to ruin bars and raving restaurants.

 

Beautiful, I tell my son, gazing at the glorious decorations. Yeah, but I came on Rosh Hashanah and there were only a dozen old men for services, he says.

 

Intricate, colorful windows, gold stars between green palm fronds, a holy cup. A wedding song etched in metal: kol sasson v’kol simcha, the voice of joy and the voice of gladness. Jewish stars in glass and metal, wood and cloth. A tapestry of identity. Primary colors fanning out over doorways. Like constellations on the dome of a planetarium, decorations in every inch of space. I am in awe of the beauty of Jewish life. Sunlight filters through skylights, backlighting the glass like a rainbow of dreams. The benches are hard wood and probably not comfortable, but we don’t come here to rest on cushioned seats. We come to awaken to heritage and legacy.

 

Light fixtures are gold with incandescent light. There is light everywhere, bright and shining. Inspiring devotion, beckoning prayer. All the detail and thought that make a space holy.

 

After college, I lived in Washington, D.C., the air so thick with humidity that the paper covers of my favorite books peeled back when I left windows open. I tried to tame my frizzy hair with harsh chemicals that killed my curls clear down to the scalp.

 

It’s not easy to live in a swamp, even if it’s paved over with concrete and plaster. My feet trudged in the bright day, and I rushed underground to ride a dark train to work, reading vampire novels and looking for the main characters in the shadows of tunnels.

 

Every city has a story. Many stories, even. And different versions that vary between storytellers. Budapest is no different. Right now, I see a soaring synagogue and believe Judaism is protected, glorious, accepted by all. But tomorrow I may believe something else, or in five minutes, when I pass another plaque proclaiming how Jews died there, and isn’t it a shame. Except no plaque says the word Jew, not one expresses remorse or lament or even a temporary sadness. It happened, so they tell the story. We consume the words and keep walking.

 

Rumbach Street Synagogue

 

Minaret towers and Moorish Alhambra columns, this place once drew Jews looking to reform old ways. Today, it’s a concert venue and a museum.

 

A black stage fills the sanctuary, chairs all around. Circular windows high up with orange and turquoise flowers in the glass. A gold-etched, domed ceiling. Heavy lights hang low, to illuminate the performance. I can’t stop staring. Wrought-iron art deco. A Moorish eternal flame over a gaudy gold Ark. So many conflicting details. So many damn details. I don’t know where to look first, or last.

 

Built in 1872, Jews worshipped here until it became a Holocaust deportation point. Then the years of Soviet oppression. Jews returned to the crumbling façade in 2006, staking claim over decades of decay. Birds had flown in through holes in the roof and built nests in the old sanctuary. They’ve made it a space for Jew and Gentile, religious and secular. Come quick, and take your seat.

 

Nonprofits and charities fill upper-floor offices. An exhibit on the third floor details the history of Hungarian Jewry, through stories of the Pulitzer family. Jewish integration is everywhere. Art and worship, all expressions of living under one soaring dome.

 

Dohány Street Synagogue

 

Finally, our last stop in a long and emotional day. The largest European Jewish house of worship and the second largest synagogue in the world. Three tiers of seats, three floors for worshipers. Flags indicate all the languages of visitors, translations for an old story. It’s so big and vast and overwhelming that the rabbi climbs a swirling staircase to a podium suspended above the first floor, midway down the nave, the only way he can be seen and heard.

 

I don’t know if I could worship here. Too ornate, too big, too much a historical place of interest than a place for humans to hope and dream. I might feel lonely. And I want to belong.

 

On the street, authoritarianism doesn’t look different from democracy. The buildings are old and spackled, with frescos high up and metalwork that would be the envy of modern artists. There’s a selfie store where employees wear pink, and a Burger King at the intersection, and buses and trams come frequently to every stop with an app that tells you in real time how long you have to wait. People hustle up and down streets, and little cars drive fast. They won’t stop for pedestrians, so you must look before you walk. Down narrow lanes, tucked into significant buildings, are restaurants and cafes and ruin bars, new life in old spaces. Across the Danube, as the craggy Buda hills rise, people go to school and go to work and buy a kebab at a kiosk and pull their coats tighter as the winter wind sweeps down from tree-heavy hills. In subway stations, bakeries sell hot dough rolled in cinnamon and sugar and nuts. Sometimes, the sun shines, and the early mornings are cold, but the days warm and people shed layers and walk fast and smoke cigarettes in outdoor cafes with tiny cups of espresso.

 

Budapest looks like any place – flat faces with the wear of years and pleading eyes. The men wear the same tapered tight jeans that they wear in Scotland, have the same haircuts. On the bus, all the shoes are black, and the people might smile when you stand near them, gripping the pole for balance.

 

The Museum of the Dohány Street Synagogue

 

These words on the wall, as I climb to an exhibit of what it means to be Jewish: “Objects presented in museums are only to be seen – but culture is more than that: our perception and memories together shape our identity.”

 

The parent tells the child, do this because I said so. For no other reason but to be obedient and gain approval does the child comply. And if the child does not, they may be ridiculed, ostracized. Grounded. Punished. Smacked. Deprived. Follow the status quo, puppet the party line or be kicked out. And though we rebel by dying hair, ripping jeans, staying out late with cigarettes and booze, everyone wants love. The warm embrace of the only person who’s ever going to always love you (maybe). To belong somewhere. So we parrot the parent, even when they make us feel sick in our stomachs and lonely in the dark night.

 

At some point, we stop hoping for everlasting love. Money, maybe. Security and acceptance and power. Something we still believe another person can give us.

 

In a way, we are primed for authoritarianism. We know how to fall in line.

 

Bethlen Gábor tér 2, BSME Building

 

The building where my son is studying to become a high school math teacher used to house the National Institute for Jewish Deaf-Mute. Built in 1876, it was expanded to include a synagogue in 1931. And before all the Jews were rounded up and ushered out, it was home to an elementary school and various Jewish organizations.

 

But then, this place became a World War II field hospital. Throughout this trip, I have had to read between the words. Although my people were likely sick and wounded, I doubt they were welcomed here, where my son comes every day wearing a pink yarmulke. In the courtyard, a memorial features a leafless bronze tree between narrowing walls of rocks contained by wire. At the apex: a concrete star of David. All I can see is the wire keeping the rocks from tumbling down; they seem to want to push free.

 

There are no waves on the Danube. The water is milky gray and flat. Hungary is land-locked with a significant river bending through the countryside. There is no easy way out.

 

On my last night in Budapest, my son sat at a piano in the main rail station and started to play. The click-click of heels on marble beat a dull rhythm as his fingers flew over the ivory and a beautiful melody lifted to the high ceiling and out onto the tracks and through the open doors and over the wet pavement in the dark night. I was naïve to believe extremism lived abroad, to think hatred was an old story.

 

I have circled the globe, my body adjusting to time zones and elevations. I climbed the highest point in Budapest with my son. He had hiking poles and boots. I packed light, leaning into the mountain for support. Midway up, he scrambled up a sheer rock face, and I refused to look. Careful, I called. Please don’t lose your footing. Please stay safe. I knew I’d have to leave him soon, in a country with too many memories and shadows. Still, we reached the top and looked out at a vast view and sighed in relief. The sun was shining.

 

The definition of authoritarian is: favoring complete obedience or subjection to authority as opposed to individual freedom; exercising almost complete control over the will of another. I had no control over where my son studied and besides, I wouldn’t want to hold him back from experiencing the world. When he first arrived in Budapest, he called to say, I’ve never been in a place where the Holocaust actually happened. And if it weren’t for him, I likely never would have either.

 

But we go where we are called, confront the truths of lineage. It’s not a straight path, nor an easy one. There are turns and rocks where you least expect, and you can trip and fall or grab a thin branch for support or the solid wall of an old building. You can usually right yourself and keep on going.

 

After the hike, drenched in our own exertion, we sat in the café at the top of the mountain and ate hot dogs and hamburgers and salted fries. We took the chairlift down – I was tired from the hike and the enormity of it all. The view at the very pinnacle, with love locks along the railings, and an uninterrupted view of startling sunshine. When you flee the depths of a city and find your way up the mountain, it’s always clear at the top.

 


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