In 2011, I spent a week in Budapest meeting my sister-in-law’s extended family. Hungarian Jews, descendants of people who suffered through the Holocaust, it was a splendid time of listening (to the Hungarian I don’t speak) and hearing stories. My sister-in-law was an able translator and my nieces an amusing teenage counterpoint.
But I wasn’t just visiting Budapest, I also was reading Julie Orringer‘s The Invisible Bridge, a novel about Hungarian Jews in Budapest during World War II. It underscored my trip with a melancholy parallel universe–as I visited many of the sites mentioned in the book and also weighed them against the stories I heard of the families we visited.
Because of this book and my family connections, I viewed this beautiful city on both sides of the blue Danube River through the lens of history. We saw the bullet holes still in the wall from the days of the Jewish Ghetto where the family lived. Enormous statutes on the top of Liberty Hill honored the “liberation” of the city from the Nazis. And all my former reading about the trials of surviving under Community rule touched at the occasional hammers and sickles, not to mention the golden stars. Dripping with history and irony.
On Friday, I took the metro on my own and visited the Holocaust Memorial and then up to the House of Terror–the building where first the Nazis and then the Hungarian version of the KGB interrogated and then tortured citizens to death.
I felt it was important to bear witness, yet again, to the atrocities visited on innocent people over the last 70 years in central Europe.
To finish the book, bid the relatives good bye, and then visit such horrific spots left me reeling.
Both museums were very well done (and recommended by Rick Steves), using multi-media to tells their sorry tales. The Holocaust Memorial is underwritten by Hungarian Jews/American actors Tony Curtis and Jamie Lee Curtis. I was one of a handful walking through the exhibit–familiar to me in a hundred ways, but also told from a slightly different slant. (Which is why we visit museums in foreign countries–to understand their points of view). The gypsies received a long-needed recognition for their suffering.
The exhibit began with the subtle changes in society toward the Jews and the gypsies, how their rights were gradually stripped away as they were made the scapegoats of societal pressures beginning as early as 1918– following the Trianon Treaty which gave away a large portion of Hungary to other nations following WWI.
I couldn’t help but see the parallels in our society–as certain groups are pushed aside and mocked. Fill in your own blank.
And of course it all led to the grotesque concentration camps. I felt slapped when I finally got out of the museum–frozen in the horror of what happened to so many people–10% of the concentration camp dead were Hungarian–and they did not deport people until 1944.
How CAN anyone ever forget?