We went to the Gellért Thermal Baths. Hungary may lack ocean access, but this landlocked nation is teeming with thermal water springs—more than 1,300, with 123 in Budapest alone. They have been here since before the Roman times … and we all know how much the Romans loved their baths.
Gellért was named after St. Gerard. He was assassinated by the pagans during the great pagan rebellion in 1046. He was put in a barrel and rolled down from the top of the hill.
We went to the Jewish quarter where we met our 22-year-old Jewish guide named Abel. He is a university student in Scotland. Abel gives summer tours and focuses on the third largest synagogue in the world called Dohány Street Synagogue. They even have their own police station. It is the third most protected area in Hungary behind the Parliament and the American Embassy.
Outside of the synagogue, there are yellow bricks on the ground that form a Menorah visible from high. This building was finished in 1859 in the Moorish style and took five years to build. It has towers, which is unusual for a synagogue.
Women must cover their shoulders and knees. A blue polyester disposable robe is given to the underdressed.
There are no stars of David on the outside. Dohány Synagogue was designed like the 2nd Temple. It is sometimes referred to as a Roman Catholic Synagogue. There are pulpits, pews, and even an organ. The bema holding the Torah is in the front. Normally it is in the middle.
An organ in the synagogue is not common. In fact, during the Sabbath, Jews cannot play music. However, they can hire someone to play who isn’t Jewish. They love loopholes. Franz Liszt was the first organist.
Prior to WWII there were 750,000 Jews living in Hungary. There are 45,000 today. The synagogue used to be packed. They even had to issue tickets. Today there are very few attendees due to an aging population and people fleeing or leaving the country. On a Sabbath, there will be 20 to 25 people now or 100 if tourists are here.
Theodor Hertzl, the Father of Zionism, was born near the spot where the synagogue stands. Hertzl was a Jew living in Paris in 1894. The Dreyfus Affair happened in France and was an antisemitic lawsuit involving a Jewish officer with sketchy evidence. Hertzl was not necessarily embracing his Jewish roots, but this was a turning point for him. He decided that Emancipation and Proclamation of the Jews doesn’t work. They need to own land. Originally, he proposed living in Uganda. However, how can a Jewish state NOT include Jerusalem? What is a Jewish nation without Jerusalem!
Miklós Horthy served as regent of Hungary from 1920 to 1945. He was single minded in retrieving territory lost as a result of WWI and to elevate the status of the white Catholic. If one were not of this group, they were not considered true Hungarians. (Sounds like Aryan. No wonder he was close to Hitler in ideology.)
In 1920, the first Jewish law in Europe was passed. It limited the number of Jewish students at the universities to 6% which was more representative of the country. At the time, the Jewish students were 48%. Those that could, migrated to other countries to study.
Hungarian laws were the most antisemitic in Europe. By 1938, Hungary was totally dependent on Germany.
Horthy could not make laws. Only the prime minister could and 16 of them served during his tenure. Horthy was an Admiral in hopes of regaining lands and was close to countries who had lost lands in WWI.
Horthy claimed that he first gave Hitler the idea of exterminating the Jews in 1933. Horthy cautioned Hitler and said that if it happened all at once, it would damage the economy.
Hitler offered only one thing to Horthy. He would give back all the land that Hungary lost in WWI. This is all Horthy needed to hear. However, it was an empty promise since Hitler told everyone that with no intention of following through.
In 1940 Hungary formed an alliance with the Axis Powers. At first this kept the majority of Hungary’s Jews safe from Nazi Germany. So unlike much of Europe, most of Hungary’s Jews remained alive in the spring of 1944. Hitler had left Hungary alone to find its own solution to the “Jewish Question” up until this point.
That spring Hitler demanded Hungary’s Jews. With the Soviet army advancing on Hungary’s border, and Hungary’s own army largely destroyed at Stalingrad, Nazi troops entered Hungary’s borders for the first time. They crossed without resistance. Horthy invited Hitler’s troops into the country, and then verbally agreed to send what was initially 100,000 Jews to Germany for “work” in a effort to remain in power. Compounding that number, Horthy decided instead to send the workers’ families as well.
In 56 days from May to July in 1944, 450,000 people were deported. Every third person killed in Auschwitz was Hungarian. The people involved with the removal of Jews were Hungarians.
Also a ghetto was created in 1944-1945. It was in place for only a year. The ghetto was a very small area in Budapest which housed 73,000 Jews. There were 14 people in each apartment.
1944-1945 was the roughest winter in the century with temperatures dipping down to -25 °C. (My dad knows that firsthand as a Battle of the Bulge survivor. He still has numb feet from frostbite.)
In October 1944 Hitler overthrew Horthy and replaced him with Ferenc Szalasi, whose ideology was close to Hitler’s. Szalasi formed the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, a fascist, anti-semitic organization that brutally and publicly terrorized the Jews in Budapest by beating and killing them. Nearly 80,000 Jews were sent out of Hungary on a death march to the Austrian border and approximately 20,000 Jews were brutally shot along the banks of the Danube River.
Every two weeks members of the Arrow Cross Party would gather Jews and line them up on the edge of the Danube, chain three together and shoot one and push them in with the others to follow and drown … saving bullets. Today there is a shoe memorial to the Jews who died here. The Arrow Cross militiamen made the Jews take off their shoes as they were valuable and resold. Bodies are still being found.
On the grounds of the synagogue is an artist’s rendering of a weeping willow. The leaves have the names of 60,000 loved ones killed in WWII who have no grave. Tony Curtis, a Hungarian Jew from the USA, funded a holocaust museum behind the synagogue.
Righteous among the Nations are non-Jewish people who risked their lives to help the Jews. Some took significant items from the synagogue for safe keeping. One Protestant buried a Torah in his basement. He didn’t tell others. It was discovered by a diary and renovations.
The Kinder Train is a documentary about a British man named Nicholas Winton who saved 669 Jewish children and transported them to safety and found them homes in England.
Raoul Wallenberg was a diplomat that was able to get Swedish protection passes. He helped thousands of Jews to escape from Hungary during WWII. He had also established a network of safe houses that were identified by flags.
In January, 1945, the Soviets arrived and the killing of Jews stopped. Communism soon followed from 1949 to 1989. It was not good but much better for the Jews.
The Jews worked a lot and had to be supportive and enthusiastic about the Communist government but couldn’t live a free life. Yet, during the 1956 uprisings, Jewish people were hung from poles. The police that deported them during WWII are the same police that one would have had to look to for help!
The Soviets love celebrations. During the Communist era, the Jews were only allowed to celebrate two holidays as the Communists viewed them more as national rather than religious: Hanukkah and Purim.
Jews do many things for the dead. They feel that this has a greater blessing because things you do for the dead cannot be repaid.
Surrounding the synagogue are ten mass graves holding 2,281 bodies. Only 1,176 actual identities have been determined. Whole families disappeared. Who knows what ideas, cures and improvements were lost due to senseless killing of great minds in science and research!
There is a well reviewed book by Christopher Clark called
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914.
Today there is a move toward historical revisionism. Nationalism is a close relative of antisemitism.
The Jewish Quarter now is a gentrified location with high priced apartments and Airbnb’s. There is a bustling nightlife and great restaurants here. We went to Mazel Tov for lunch.