Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Minorities 2 - the Jews

On Sunday the sun shone out of a cloudless sky, and after a late-night at a couple of Budapest clubs we felt the need to get some fresh air. But not having much daylight time available we only made it as far as the old Jewish cemetery on Salgotarjani ut, in District VIII behind the Kerepesi Cemetery, which I visited last spring.

The Jewish cemetery has rather restricted opening hours, as it has been the target for serious vandalism over the years. Indeed, the gate is kept locked and guarded by two very large Alsatians, but after ringing the doorbell the friendly caretaker chained the dogs and allowed us through the entrance.

 Inside it is an astonishing place. Most of the tombs date from the early part of the 20th century, when Jewish people ran much of the city's industry and commerce. So many of the mausoleums are huge affairs, with magnificent stone work in a variety of artistic styles. The whole place is maintained at a very low level, so is quite overgrown and picking your way through bushes that wrap themselves around huge tombs gives quite an uncomfortable feeling.

I also had the sense, which I have never felt before in any of the cemeteries I have visited (and I have seen a few) of stepping back into a chapter in history that had definitively been closed. In most cemeteries you see people walking around, carrying flowers, stopping to look at headstones and generally paying their respects. But not in this one, and it is not because people have lost interest.

Here it is because there are no people around to pay respects as the population was almost wiped out in 1944. According to Bob Dent's fascinating "Budapest: A Cultural and Literary History" about half a million Jews died during that year as the Nazi and fascist grip on the country intensified. For reasons that I cannot comprehend the pace of extermination speeded up madly as the Russian army closed in on the city, with columns of people being marched from the ghetto to the riverbank where they were shot and their bodies pushed into the Danube. Today one of the most moving places in the city is the row of bronze shoes on the embankment just beside Parliament, making a very simple memorial for this awful period in the country's history.

As I often feel when walking around this city, stuff has happened here.

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