Budapest, My Grandmother’s Homeland Fills Me with Mixed Emotions

My maternal grandmother Elizabeth was the oldest of seven children, five girls and two boys. She and her brother Nicky were born in Budapest (my father, her loving son-in-law, used to love to point out that she was actually born in Pest) and the others were born here in the United States. Since my grandmother was only two when she arrived at Castle Garden, it’s not surprising that neither she nor her siblings spoke with any kind of accent. In fact, my grandmother was a flapper. But my great-grandparents were very proud of being Hungarian, and that was the language spoken at home. In fact, all seven children remained fluent in Hungarian throughout their lives. It’s what they spoke instead of Yiddish, so that their children wouldn’t understand them. Of course this left out their spouses as well, since they all married non-Hungarians, but that’s how they were. My grandmother, as the eldest, felt a strong sense of responsibility, and stayed in close contact with all of the brothers and sisters, even though she lived in New England and all of the others were living here, in West Orange. When she was unhappy with their behavior (and we’re talking about people in their seventies, mind you), she would launch into streams of Hungarian over the telephone, at top volume.


So when my husband and I visited Budapest recently, I reveled in the sounds of Hungarian, not because I understood it, but because it sounded like my grandmother and my great-aunts and uncles. Budapest is a beautiful city and its residents were warm and welcoming. But there is an undercurrent of sadness about Budapest for me. As many of you know, most of the Hungarian Jewish population was killed in the Holocaust between 1944 and 1945 – over 400,000 men, women and children. Last year, Women’s Philanthropy heard from Kati Marton and her family’s tragic story of loss and hidden truths from those days. Some of you may not know, however, that tens of thousands of the Jews of Budapest were not sent to Auschwitz/Birkenau (where there were so many trains arriving in such a short span of time that special tracks had to be laid) but rather were lined up along the banks of the Danube, tied together by threes, and one person of the three shot, so that all would fall into the river and drown. And this wasn’t done by the Nazis, but rather by the Hungarian Arrow Cross, a feared and fearsome group of soldiers who wanted demonstrate their loyalty to the Nazi regime. It’s difficult to fully engage with a tourist destination simply as a tourist when you are also bearing witness to the attempt to exterminate your people. My great-grandparents left Budapest in the early 1900s; I have no idea what family they left behind, other than one set of cousins they helped redeem out of then-Czechoslovakia. But whether I lost family related by blood or by peoplehood, on the banks of the Danube or in the fires of the crematoria, it’s hard to look at the Danube without feeling that trauma. There is a compelling new monument to this tragedy, pairs of cast iron shoes on the side of the Danube River that are moving and yet chilling in their simplicity.


And it seems that some lessons are never learned, despite memorials and testimonies. There has been much written this spring about the surprising and disturbing election to the Hungarian Parliament of ultra-right wing candidates – over 17% of the newly elected legislature come from this element. The Hungarians we spoke with are very concerned about this development, Jews and non-Jews alike, because in addition to the ultra-right wing members, an overall shift to the right, in rejection of some of the tactics of the left-leaning government, has given the right a majority for the first time. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Hungary, despite the evidence of Jewish life and celebration we saw.


I’ll tell you more about current Jewish life in my next post, but what I want to tell you is that even though I was saddened by the history and concerned about the present, I am not worried about the future for Hungarian Jews. Here’s why – here’s what’s different than 1944 for the Jews of Hungary and for all of us. There is a State for the Jewish people, called Israel. Jews are free to live almost anywhere in the world because if they ever need to leave, there is a place for them to go. The State of Israel wasn’t created because of the Holocaust – it was created because we, as a people, have the right to be free of the fear of another one. We reach Jews and create vibrant Jewish life here in the United States and around the world through our annual gifts to the UJA Campaign, and our overseas partners -- the JDC, the Jewish Agency for Israel and World ORT – bring our dreams to life. But when we do need to rescue our brothers and sisters, there is a place to bring them, from the Republic of Georgia, from Yemen, from anywhere. So I walked the streets of my great-grandparents, secure in the knowledge that there is a standing infrastructure of revitalization, rescue and relief that we help create and thankful that there is a strong, secure State of Israel which enables all Jews to be free.


It was difficult to watch some of what went on last week as the United Nations General Assembly met, just across the river, where her enemies denied the Holocaust and argued against Israel’s very right to exist.  Israel is the only free, democratic state in the Middle East; she is not perfect, but she is ours. Be proud of Israel; be glad that we can help this tiny state be ready to be there for Jews all over the world.


Chag Sukkot Sameach,



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