Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Jews of Budapest

We were not able to see every important site during our short Budapest stay Oct. 15-16. The Dohany Street Synagogue (Dohány utcai zsinagóga/nagy zsinagóga) is one of those we missed touring, but we did see it from the outside. It's the world's second largest synagogue and was built 1859. It suffered plenty of damage during WW2, and once communism was erased the building and grounds were beautifully restored. There is a museum on the grounds, and a cemetery with several thousand burials of those who died in the ghetto during WW2. There is also a monument to the Hungarian Jews who died in the Holocaust.

At the onset of WW2 Budapest was 25% Jewish. In fact, before the World Wars the cities of the Hungarian Empire in general were notably Jewish, some major cities having as much as 45% Hebrew-speakers. Jews tended to cluster in the cities--they were not agriculturalists. The reasons for this include that they were restricted in owning land, and were relegated to certain occupations, mostly those of the business world and also professions such as engineer and doctor.

Though the Jewish population in Budapest was drastically reduced due to the Holocaust, there are remarkable accounts of large numbers of Jews being saved by Christian people. The best known of these is Raoul Wallenburg, a diplomat who issued Swedish passports to over 10,000 Jews. Others also found ways to thwart the German drive to exterminate them. At least one Catholic priest gave baptismal certificates to Jews, thereby saving many thousands from deportation and certain death. In the cheerless summer months of 1944 over half a million Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Today there is a Jewish community in Budapest that includes over 50,000, about 20% of the pre-WW2 number.


One more thing--in the waning days of WW2 the Germans couldn't seem to get rid of the Jews fast enough. At one point instead of  taking the trouble to deport them, they herded groups of  Jews down to the Danube, lined them up on the bank wall, and shot them, so their bodies would fall into the water. Then, to save ammunition, they began tying up groups together and shooting only one; the others drowned in the river. The photo below shows the memorial to those who perished this dreadful way--the pairs of shoes remind one of individuals lost here.


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