Friday, September 19, 2008

From Poland to Hungary

May 30, 2008
כ"ה אייר תשס"ח

Today is our fifteenth anniversary. As is often the case on our anniversary, Becca and I are not together. Sometimes we are at different weddings. In some years, Becca is at a Foundation for Jewish Camping program as a faculty member and I am already up at camp. This year, I was on an overnight train from Krakow to Budapest. Perhaps if we were together, riding the Orient Express, there would be some sense of the romance of train travel. Rest assured, however, that there is nothing even remotely romantic about a communist-era sleeper car, where you sleep three to a room on a triple bunk bed, and that takes ten hours, give or take, to get to Budapest. At least we were taking the train out of Poland, away from Auschwitz – Birkenau.

There is an old-world beauty to Budapest, even though much of that beauty has deteriorated. Gentrification is in the offing. We will not spend a lot of time visiting this city on the beautiful blue Danube. We rush off to see the two day schools in Budapest – the Schreiber Community Day School and the Lauder School. The Schreiber School looks like just about any other community day school I have visited anywhere. Smiling kids, nice art, and good feel. It is a nice place. Of the 400 students, it is unclear to me how many are actually Jewish. I am not talking about Halakhic status here. The Schreiber School is not only a community day school, it is a public school funded with public money, and a good one at that, so many non-Jewish families send their children here knowing that they will have to learn about Judaism – a sacrifice they are willing to make for a good, fine education. We visit a middle school Hebrew class. It looks and sounds like something I would see at most Jewish day schools: a few interested students, more uninterested, and a few disrupting. Nothing out of the ordinary except that we are in Budapest.

The kitchen at the school provides over 2,000 kosher meals every day to all of the Jewish institutions in town including the hospital. As a person with an eye for industrial-strength kitchens, I ask for a tour and am immediately reassured, over and over again, that everything is very kosher. I explain over and over again that I am sure that it is and that I used to deal with these kinds of kitchens and am just interested in seeing it. Spanning two stories, the kitchen is an enormous maze with separate areas for, well, everything, including a special room for eggs. I am surprised by the “egg room” and assume that it is some regional kashrut issue or that to prepare 2,000 meals a day requires so many eggs that have to be checked by hand for blood spots since there is no kosher pasteurized egg product here that they merit their own room. In fact, the Hungarian health department requires separate rooms for turkey, poultry, beef, dairy, vegetables, and eggs. It seems that the Hungarian health department is even stricter than we are. I am fascinated even though the tour is in Hungarian, a language I do not speak. Via random hand gestures and a few key kashrut terms, the mashgiah and I are able to somehow communicate.

We visit the Dohanyi Street Synagogue, about which I will write more later, and then visit our final Holocaust museum of the trip, the Holocaust Center of Budapest. Built around a restored synagogue, the center includes an educational wing, a museum, and a memorial wall. This museum gets it. The halls and galleries are dark, dim, and ominous. There is a balance between the telling of individual family stories and the broader context of the destruction of Hungarian Jewry. There is absolutely no whitewashing here; the photos are stark and grotesque, the videos deeply disturbing. A ten minute film on anti-Semitism puts Hungary in context. While the Shoah came relatively late to this country, anti-Jewish laws were put into effect in the 1930’s. The museum is divided into seven thematic halls that explain the increasing levels of persecution of the Jews and the Roma – also known as Gypsies – in Hungary. And the museum, funded by the Hungarian government, is honest and direct about the role Hungarians played in the Shoah.

And here are the stunning facts of the destruction of Hungarian Jewry: 600,000 Jews killed in about six months at the end of WW II. Many, if not most of the synagogues and communal buildings remained largely because the deportation and death came so rapidly and so late in the war. Even more disturbing is the fact that Hungary was never invaded by Germany. They basically worked together with Nazi Germany. In fact, we were told that only a few thousand Nazis actually came to Hungary. Most of the anti-Semitism was local, developed as a policy for over a decade, and accelerated and intensified by the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party. Thus, Hungary cannot even claim to be a bystander. By all reasonable measure, Hungary, and Hungarians, were perpetrators. They did it, carting off 600,000 Jews to die, some shot by their hand and cast into the Danube, most sent to Auschwitz – Birkenau to be gassed and cremated. The Center makes this horrifyingly clear.

There is an interesting conflict, intellectual and emotional and halakhic, about the question of the use of graphic photos and videos at Holocaust museums and in education. Some members of our group prefer the use of personal testimonies, where the speaker creates a mental picture for the listener, to the photos of starved, shriveled bodies. The images are too disturbing in their opinions. They have a valid, legitimate point. One colleague is bothered by the pervasive nudity of the images, nudes waiting to die and those already dead. He objects from a personal and halakhic point of view. In his opinion, the images are the antithesis of the ethics of tzniut – of modesty. After seeing a Nazi propaganda film used to convince the international community that Jews were being treated humanely, my colleague had enough. The film showed, separately, men and women entering the mikvah. That is the final image of many of these people and it is inhuman and it is wrong.

He is right: these are the final images of many if not all of these people. The images present dehumanization at its very worst: disturbing, horrifying, awful and unimaginable. All of which is precisely why they must be shone, why people must see these images. These awful photos and videos provide the only testimony that some of these people, starved, tortured and slaughtered, ever walked the face of this earth, that they ever lived. Moreover, they are the testimony to what evil, the amount of hatred, murder, and wrong, can be brought into the world by one person, and spread like an infection, an epidemic, from one person to another, one people to another, one village to another, one country to another. And it is these images that compel us, command us to fight against genocide and hatred throughout the world. These images give life to those who perished and voice and meaning to the Divine Command: You Shall Not Stand Idly by the Blood of Your Brother. I will have to study Jewish law on the subject but I have to believe that there will be those that prohibit and those that permit the use of these images.

Our visit to the museum ends in the reconstructed synagogue, perhaps the most powerful memorial of our visit. The old wooden pews, probably destroyed, were replaced with glass replicas. They give ghostliness to the white walls of the sanctuary. Most chilling of all, the top of each pew bears a photograph of a member of Hungarian Jewry, who could have once sat in this very spot, along with their story and their death. There they sit, in perpetuity, ghosts, sitting in ghostly pews, inhabiting a ghostly sanctuary in a land of Jewish ghosts.

After preparing for Shabbat, I visit two Friday night services. In so many ways, they could not be more different from one another and yet, they bore one very important similarity: they were virtually devoid of Hungarians. The Dohanyi Street Synagogue is spectacular in its beauty and lonely in its grandeur. Designed by a Christian architect who built grand cathedrals, the Dohanyi includes influences from both the Christians and the Moors. Friday night services take place here at 6:00 pm regardless of when Shabbat actually arrives, just like in Marietta, Georgia where services happen at 6:30 all year long. Sitting in this grand cathedral of Judaism, I am surrounded mostly by Israelis, along with a few tourists and the few Hungarians that sit on the bimah. There are, at most, sixty to eighty people in total in a shul that seats 3,000 on three levels. There is a grand chazzan, a choir made up of what I suspect are all non-Jews, and an organ player that we are told, explicitly, is a shabbes goy. The music is spectacular if you love choirs and organs and chazzanut. I once again have an uneasy feeling of familiarity. I am reminded of High Holiday services at Temple Menorah in West Rogers Park, Chicago. I felt oddly at home in my youth and unmoved in my middle age. They only real difference between the Dohanyi and Menorah is that the entire service here in Budapest is in Hebrew.

Following services, I walk back to the Jewish Quarter to the Kuczinski Street Shul. If the Dohanyi is like visiting Reform in Hebrew in 1975, Kuczinski is like visiting Szatmar in the seventeenth century. Here, the women sit behind an opaque mechitza, the Hebrew accents are hassidishe and none of those present, as far as I can tell, are actually from Hungary. The gentleman next to me is an Israeli engineer here on business. The rest of the room is filled with a group of very Orthodox looking guys from Melbourne, Australia. The entire experience is just totally odd. We emerge from 17th century Szatmar into the 21st century and walk back to the hotel. I toast my wife on the occasion of our 15th wedding anniversary, eat dinner, and call it a night.

I am exhausted from this trip, feeling suffocated and angry and overwhelmed. A quiet Shabbat will give me the respite I need and then, thank God, I will be back in Israel.

No comments: