Ignorance is bliss, maybe – OJC’s March of the Living, Day 7

There is simply no denying Budapest’s beauty. Seeing her from the Danube at night, she glows majestically. Walking her streets under a sunny blue sky, I come across everything in a city I could want: gorgeous architecture, breathtaking vistas, a cosmopolitan feeling, art, music, sidewalk cafes, culture, history, and a rich Jewish presence. And a river that runs through it!

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The largest synagogue in Europe can be found here, the Dohany Synagogue, a symbol of 19th century Jewish assimilation and acceptance. Jewish museums and a rabbinical seminary are all part of a vibrant Jewish community that boasts of 80,000 members. Okay, so the synagogue only gets 50 people on average for Shabbat morning services, but 3,000 show up for the High Holy Days! We found a quiet corner away from the tour groups in the magnificent sanctuary, and sang psalms of Hallel in celebration of Rosh Chodesh.

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Oh, about that river. Well, that’s the piece of this place that gives me nightmares. It reminds me that, while I try to enjoy this magnificent city, there is a history here of its government and citizens choosing the wrong side of the battle between good and evil. Hungary enacted anti-Jewish legislation in 1920, well before Germany. The Hungarians chose the Nazis’ side in World War II. Subsequently they were occupied by Germany (which is why so many magnificent structures remained largely intact). And the Hungarian extreme nationalist party, known as the Arrow Cross, assisted in the decimation of Hungarian Jewry. Of an estimated 800,000 Jews alive at the beginning of 1944, fewer than 200,000 were alive after the war. 400,000 Hungarian Jews were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau over a 10 week period of time beginning in April 1944. The Arrow Cross killed thousands more in the weeks that followed, taking Budapest’s remaining Jews down to the river to kill them and to dispose of their bodies in the Danube waters that came to be known as the red river.

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Only those who care enough to walk along the river will notice the shoe memorial that recalls those horrible days. But I can’t get the image out of my head. Even the prominent tributes to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish banker and diplomat who is said to have saved 100,000 Jewish lives by issuing them diplomatic immunity papers and safe houses, cannot soften the brutal images of Hungarian complicity or the reality that the extreme right wing party constitutes twenty percent (and growing) of Hungary’s government today.

A docent at the Jewish Museum today commented that only a Jew can tell the story of the Jews’ suffering in Hungary with passion. And that’s what worries me. When will others own the story of the greatest sin against humanity with the same passion that we do? And what happens until that time?

All that said, this city certainly is beautiful. So long as you don’t think about what is beneath the surface.

Tomorrow morning Israel. Thank God.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

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