Budapest’s Jewish District, like its counterparts throughout Eastern Europe, is a testament to the tragedy of the Holocaust. The fate of Hungary’s history is particularly poignant, both in its illustration of the evil and the good that mankind is capable of.
Hungary allied itself with Germany in both WWI and WWII. Because of Hungary’s alliance with Germany in WWII, Germany did not invade and occupy Hungary until very late in the war, in 1944.
But when the Nazis finally turned their attention to Hungary’s Jews, they implemented their plan with alarming speed and determination, sending several hundred thousand Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in a mere 56 days, from May, 1944, to July, 1944. Note that D-Day occurred right in the middle of this period, on June 6, 1944.
However, extraordinary acts of courage and humanity also occurred during this dark period. Two diplomats, the Swedish Consul, Raoul Wallenburg, and the Swiss Consul, Carl Lutz, each extended the protection of their neutral countries to tens of thousands of Hungary’s Jews, saving nearly 100,000 lives between the two of them. (Mr. Wallenberg was subsequently “disappeared” after the Soviet “liberation” of Budapest.)
Budapest’s Jewish District contains several monuments and memorials to the tragedy of the Holocaust. Its largest synagogue (named “Dohany Synagogue” after its location on Dohany Street) is a remarkable building. As our guide described it, it looks like a mosque from the outside, and a church on the inside. Note the organ on the second level behind the altar, and the pulpits near the aisles. The ceiling is painted with beautiful geometric designs. The synagogue has been restored to its original condition, and is absolutely beautiful.
Budapest pays tribute to the memories of its murdered Jews outside the Jewish District as well. One particularly moving memorial is a sculpture of perhaps 50 pairs of shoes, which line the Danube River in front of Budapest’s grand Parliament building. This monument is small and discreet, and is easy to miss. It commemorates the thousands of Jews who were murdered in the final days of the war, when transporting people to death camps was no longer possible because the Russians had already liberated the camps. So instead, the Nazis lined the people up and shot them into the river.
Hungary and the Czech Republic are enjoying a surge of capitalism and freedom that were suppressed for several decades. Prague and Budapest are lovely and lively cities. But the war and the Holocaust hang over Eastern Europe. Even though the war ended nearly 65 years ago, the horrors of that time still have a very powerful immediacy.