Visit Budapest, Hungary, and you will feel that you have stepped into 1938. While Prague and London have gone global, Budapest is still Eastern Europe, still Hungarian. World War II feels close here. You can easily feel like Nazi German soldiers or their fascist Hungarian cousins, the Arrow Cross, may be just around the corner.
Or perhaps you may feel like the repressions of communism still echo in the alleys, or that Soviet tanks will be rolling along the next avenue with protesters ready to clash, if that is the bent of your historical imagination. It’s all still here. You can feel history here. And you can walk it.
Free Walking Tours Are Great
A recent trend in international tourism is free walking tours. Tour guides are knowledgeable locals who love their city or tour subject, and they educate you as they shepherd you. At the end of the tour, you can donate/tip/pay what you feel the tour was worth. This is the tour guide’s only remuneration.
When we visited Budapest in Oct of 2016, we decided to try a free walking tour of the Jewish district (although there is a Communist era tour available as well.) Our tour guide Norbert was passionate about Hungarian Jewish history and led us through the city, pointing out important places, giving us historical background and tying it all together.
Before the Holocaust, Jews comprised 23% of the Budapest population, and were an established part of Hungarian cultural life. Their numbers increased in the early years of WWII as refugees from the Nazis fled nearby countries to Hungary. Though they were ghetto-ized in so-called “Yellow Star” buildings, they were relatively safe until 1944, when 400,000 Jews were deported to death camps by the Nazis with the help of the Arrow Cross.
We did not go into the synagogues while on the tour, the idea being that one would go back and enter each one at leisure and spend as much or as little time as one wanted there. I like this method, since it is often frustrating to have only a specified amount of time at a tourist sight — you are either rushed or bored by the rigid, pre-ordained schedule. [Click all images to enlarge]
The 3 synagogues of the historical Jewish district on the tour route had all been desecrated and virtually destroyed during the Nazi era, but the Dohány Street Synagogue was restored in the 1990s. It is a major historical and tourist site, as well as a working prayer house. Also known as the Great Synagogue or Tabakgasse Synagogue, it is the second largest synagogue in the world, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was built in the mid-19th century in the Moorish Revival style, and certainly harkens to Moorish Spain, Cordoba and the Alhambra.
There is a garden to one side of the synagogue, originally envisioned when the synagogue was designed as a place of contemplation & discourse. However, at liberation in 1945, at least 2,000 corpses were stacked there, people who had died of starvation and sickness in the Pest ghetto. And so, of necessity, it became a makeshift cemetery and memorial to them.
The last synagogue on the tour was the Kazinczy Street Orthodox Synagogue. The tour ended at the first Budapest “ruin bar”, an art gallery/bar/coffee/nightclub concept. We had lunch on Kazinczy street across from the synagogue at a restaurant which specializes in kosher duck sausage, before retracing our steps to visit each synagogue.
Shoes on the Danube Bank
Norbert mentioned another memorial which was not on the walking tour since it was by the river Danube too far in the opposite direction. Shoes on the Danube Bank is very close to the splendiferous Hungarian Parliament building. Iron shoes are cemented to the stone embankment, as a memorial to the thousands of people who were lined up by the Arrow Cross and, after having to remove their shoes, were shot such that they fell into the river. To save bullets, they tied 3 people together and just shot the one on the river side, and the other 2 people would drown.
This happened right in front of the Hungarian Parliament building, that magnificent edifice that is the iconic landmark of Budapest, and which you always see in commercials on PBS for Viking river tours. Here’s a different view for you:
How I Spent My Holiday
Throughout the walk, Norbert was respectful yet upbeat, serious but friendly, clearly doing a job he considers important. And so do I. It is difficult to write a travel post about a Holocaust tour and strike some kind of balance between “Ponder the evil and weep” and “How I spent my holiday”. (Later Bill and I went to the Nazi Forced Labour Documentation Centre in Berlin. And we’ve been to the Museum of the Japanese Prison Camp at Changi, in Singapore. We’re a barrel of laughs on a vacation, aren’t we?)
But it is important to face these events, to learn and remember, to look them as squarely in the eye as we can, so that they cannot happen again so easily, and simply to bear witness to the history. History is the compost for the present and the future.
Read Up Before You Go
One of the books I wish I had read before our trip to Budapest, is George Konrad’s A Guest in My Own Country. This evocative memoir tells of the author’s boyhood in Hungary during during World War II, of the life his family had outside of Budapest before the war and in Budapest during the war. A great read about loss, survival and culture.
I only read this some time after we returned from Europe. I was surprised to realize that many of the references to places in Pest were right in the neighborhood where we were staying, on the very streets we walked each day. The building we were staying in might well have been a “Yellow Star” building.
A block from our airbnb was this plaque. And I thought, “I wonder why this is right here? Maybe the Swedish Embassy was around here. I dunno.” Thus we were walking history every single day, but because I hadn’t read up enough, I was ignorant of it, as though I was wandering around without my glasses. Don’t be ignorant: read up before you go somewhere!
Another book about the Hungarian Jewish wartime experience is Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge. Now, this terrific novel I had read before we went to Budapest. It’s also about the Hungarian Jewish wartime experience, through the eyes of a young architectural student. So I wasn’t completely ignorant.