Monday, September 28, 2009

9/27: Budapest here we come

Stepped off the overnight train from Prague to Budapest at almost 9am and no worse for wear. We slept well and enjoyed the mostly quiet ride -- as opposed to the ride from Krakow to Prague that was a little too short and the station loudspeakers were a bit too loud to be able to sleep sound[less]ly.

Dropped off the bags at the hotel and started wandering aimlessly around Pest. It's easy to meander about and try to get lost / discover new areas in Budapest, unlike Prague where everything is small and jam-packed with souvenir shops and Coffee Heaven chain cafes. Passed by the Great Synagogue -- second largest in the world -- noticed that it would be opening in a half hour (10am), so we had breakfast at a cafe across the street. We were munching and watching several waves of crowds flock to the Synagogue, queue up, and then eventually disperse together, wait a minute, and then the cycle would repeat. After several cycles of this, I walked back to the Synagogue to see what's happening. Ran into a friendly congregation member who explained that the synagogue is closed to tours because of the upcoming Yom Kippur Holy Day, but that we should return tonight to partake in the evening services.

Continued walking around Pest a bit and then took the Metro subway to the Holocaust Memorial Center. Enjoyed the subway ride, they seem to be using Soviet-made subways from the 1960s - exactly the same at in St. Petersburg.

The memorial has an exhaustive database for looking up people from Hungary who perished in the Holocaust. It can search by deceased name, parents' names, birthdate, birth town, town deported from, etc. We ran a number of searches based on our family tree but didn't come up with any solid leads (email me if you would like to discuss this in more detail).

We ate lunch like kings of the Austro-Hungarian empire at the Magic Music bar/restaurant: cold strawberry cream soup (eaten as an appetizer, although it was super sweet and yummy), beef Gulyás (our first goulash this trip, although it was available in every country we have visited), saski salad (Hungarian salad similar to Greek), and two glasses of Hungarian wine: all for less than $20 USD inclusive. I could learn to live like this!

Took in a performance of the operett "Csárdáskirálynő" (Gypsy Princess). Enjoyed the music, dancing, and physical humor, but the wordplay was totally lost on me. Olga got a lot out of it by reading the German captions. Would like to see it again in any language I know (preferably English).

Checked into the hotel and changed into nicer clothes (first time this trip). Headed back to the synagogue for services. Rick Steves says "Budapest was built as the head of a much larger empire than it currently governs. [The] city today feels a bit too grandiose for the capital of a small country." Sadly, this is exactly how I would describe the Great Synagogue, built in the 19th century in the Moorish style, designed for a community of Jews much larger than survives today. On Yom Kippur, when the temple should be packed elbow-to-elbow and there should be standing room only, the grand room felt hollow. The "High Holiday Jews", the foreign tourists, and the regulars were all there, and still the place was almost half empty. The congregation had "converted" to Reform Judaism sometime back -- and as a result it seemed that the prayers were entirely in Hungarian. I only recognized what sounded like a maximum of 5 Hebrew words at the end of one of the prayers. It was a completely different experience than what I was imagining. Wandered unsupervised through the bowels of the old building, it is a magnificent structure. Paid homage at the metallic tree of life -- it seems to be in the shape of a weeping willow. Olga says it looks like a Palm (or Psalm) tree. Each of the leaves have the names of Hungarians who perished in the Holocaust. The tree itself is on hallowed ground as the yard behind the synagogue was once a mass grave created by the Nazis. This is a good way to start the Day of Atonement - hopefully tomorrow will be more upbeat.

We have met many friendly locals and fellow tourists on this trip. To meet some of them, please visit Olga's blog:


The other Olga said...

You also seemed surprised by how loud the local crowd was at the synagogue. Everyone seemed so delighted by each others' company that the service was accompanied by a constant din of conversation from all sides of the building. No shushing either. It seemed to be a perfectly acceptable way of attending services, to party in the back of the pews.

slbehr said...

I also tried, to no avail, to find family using the database. Even had their computer person help me. He suggested county records to at least find their existance, but of course, I don't speak the language. Maybe you will have a better chance in person and with Olga's help. We were told there are many other synagogues in Budapest. This is just the main one and the 2nd largest in the world (after NYC). There is reported to be at least 90,000 Jews there...many secular. Glad you had a chance to go. The following is what I believe happened. Let me know if you learned the same.......We learned that from Central Europe, Hungary's Jews were the last to be deported and killed in mass (they starting from where our family is from), I believe that is why Budapest has more Jewish people than any other city in that region. Many more survived there. They were protected until near the end of the war, so then there was a rush to eliminate the Hungarian Jews as fast as possible. The ones taken to Austwitz were killed immediately. Many others were shot into graves. I think that's why it is harder to find our family records, as their deaths may not have been recorded. I am pulling for you to find something!