Monday, April 28, 2014

Onward to Budapest!

Waking up this morning I knew it was time to leave Poland. Even I couldn't eat another pirogi! Our driver George picked us up at 7:45 (I thought this was at least partly a vacation) and we began the drive south to Budapest. Evidently I fell asleep because when I opened my eyes we were in Slovakia. Like on the drive from Prague to Warsaw there were no border crossings or passport checks. If you don't see a road sign the only way you know you're in a different country is when you see a different language or, in the case of these countries which are not part of the Euro Zone, totally different prices on gas station signs. Driving between New Mexico and Colorado the border between states is more noticeable than between countries here.

What amazes me about this is the historic enmity between these countries. Over the past millennium plus they have occupied each other's territory, fought destructive wars that killed millions and bred deep seeded mistrust.
Contrast this with the border crossings from the United States into Canada and the building of walls along the border with Mexico, nations with whom we have been at peace for nearly two centuries and when there was conflict it was America that began it.

After arriving in Budapest, we found a nearby pub for dinner and settled in for the night.

Our first day of touring in Budapest was with a guide, Thomas. We began the day with a tour of all the Hungarian sites and spent the afternoon touring the Jewish sites.

In his running commentary, the guide kept telling us that people think he is Jewish on his father's side but because he grew up in the communist era he really has no idea. He referenced that except for some periods when anti-Semitism "went underground" Hungary has always been an iffy haven for Jews. Even today there is a party running for parliament that is racist and anti-Semitic being run by the grandson of the head of the Nazi party of Hungary during WW II (since we were in Budapest they won 20% of the vote.) Even he would slip and make the occasional comment about Jews and money.

Our tour of the Jewish sites included the Dohany Synagogue located of course on Dohany (tobacco) street (See below for the pictures. They claim it is the largest synagogue in Europe and I have no reason to dispute that claim. Moorish in design it is a truly magnificent building. Of course it was fully reconstructed after the Holocaust as Eichmann used it for his office and the Nazi's used the ground floor as a stable.

On the grounds of the synagogue are 24 mass graves of people who died when the Nazis forced the Jewish population into the Ghetto. In an amazing courtyard is a beautiful tree of life Holocaust memorial originally commissioned by Tony Curtis in memory of his Hungarian Jewish family that died in the Holocaust. People can "purchase" leaves to attach to the tree with the names of their family members who were killed during WW II.

In addition to the memorial there was a special plaque in memory of the great Jewish poet, Chana Szenes (Hannah Senesh.) Most America Jews know her from her poem Eli Eli which was set to music by David Zahavy. Szenes was one of a number of Israeli Jews who parachuted into Hungary to help save the Jews there. She was captured, tortured and killed by the Nazis.

But the most moving part of the memorial area for me was the section dedicated to the righteous people who helped Jews survive the Nazi's Final Solution. Included in the group are two of my personal heroes. Pope John XXIII who wrote thousands of Baptismal certificates for Jews and pressured Pope Pius to intercede with the Nazis on behalf of the Jews as well as pushing his fellow bishops to follow his example. When he became Pope John XXIII he called the 2nd Vatican Council together whose task in part was to push the Catholic Church to reach out to Jews and other faiths. While he was always a "saint" to the Jew people, the Catholic Church just formally canonized him as a Saint of the Church.

In the center of the memorial area is a marker dedicated to Raoul Wallenberg for his part in issuing visas to Hungarian Jews. On his memorial are also written the names of other diplomats who followed his example include some who issued more visas than Wallenberg. We never hear of these diplomats. Unlike Wallenberg who disappeared into the Soviet Union after the war, they returned to their lives in their home country. Their only acclaim coming from Yad Va'shem. We need to continue their memories in the coming decades and centuries and follow their courageous inspiration to save all the oppressed in our world.

A part of the expansion of the Dohany synagogue sits on the location of the house where Theodore Herzl was born. What an incredible contrast with the destruction that would come with the Shoah (Holocaust). Across the street, where the back yard of the house would have been is a park where people from all over the city can gather to relax and play. It is an appropriate tribute to the man who had the vision to transform deserts and swamps into a thriving country.

Pictures of the Dohany Synagogue

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