Chain Bridge, Budapest

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Yom Ha'Shoa

Monday was Yom Ha'Shoa, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Israeli Student Organization in Hungary (ISOH) sent me a Facebook invite to their ceremony held in the original Pava utca synagogue next door to me. After my long day at school, I met Rebecca Garber from BSM at the synagogue to attend it together. The fold-away seats set in the restored synagogue were nearly full of people, young and old. Everyone wore white, which is what the event's organizers had encouraged people to do. The room was about two-thirds full of college aged students with the remaining third made up of families and even some Holocaust survivors. Unfortunately the hour long program was entirely in Hungarian and Hebrew, so neither Rebecca nor I understood anything. After the ceremony ended I looked around for any of the Jewish Hungarians I had met earlier at the community Friday night services, but I didn't see anyone.

I went home quickly to change back into street clothes to go to the Balint Haz. The ISOH had also sent a mass Facebook invitation to watch the movie Europa Europa, the true story of Solomon Perel, a German-Jew who survived the Holocaust by fleeing to Poland, becoming a Russian Komsomol youth officer, was captured by the Germans but hid his Judaism by convincing the soldiers that he was an ethnic German living outside the fatherland. He served as a German-Russian translator on the front and helped capture Josef Stalin's son. Later he was enrolled in the Hitler Youth back in Berlin and fell in love with a teenage girl who was a fervent Nazi. His story is too crazy to be true, and the movie is carried by the nearly fantastical series of events that eventually led to his liberation. A large part of the movie deals with Solomon hiding his circumcision from his friends, which would have immediately given him away. I couldn't help but remember the endless discussions on Philip Roth's The Counterlife that my Jewish literature class had last semester. I would highly recommend The Counterlife for anyone not looking for a simple, straightforward, easy, and certainly not introspective read. 

I had never been to the Balint Haz before. Its only one block off of Andrassy, the famous boulevard for Hungarian aristocrats under the Empire. The Balint Haz is a sort of small Israeli/Jewish community center. Rebecca didn't come to the movie with me, but she was at the Balint Haz anyway participating in her weekly Israeli dance group. Once I found were the movie would be shown, I introduced myself to the few people from ISOH who were setting up snacks. They were all Israeli and spoke English very well and made me feel at home. I had arrived ten minutes early and soon twenty other Israelis had come upstairs to fraternize and watch the movie. Everyone chatted away in Hebrew, and I didn't want to be that guy that made everyone speak English, so I waited for the movie to start. Afterwards 15 people hung around to have a discussion about the movie. They encouraged me to stay, saying that there was a Hungarian man who didn't speak Hebrew so the discussion would be in English for our sakes. 

One of the girls in charge asked people to share stories about the war from their own family's history. This is where I felt really out of place. Almost everyone had a story about how their family traveled around Europe or went to Israel to escape the Nazis and later the communists. Luckily, my grandparents and great-grandparents left Europe in the 1920's, before the rise of Nazism. The discussion then turned to Jewish identity under communism and in today's Hungary. The topic was particularly on people's minds since the day before was the national election in which the extreme right wing party won a 16% share of Parliament. The question of Jewish identity (what is it? how do you define it? can someone be "more" Jewish than another?) never has a clear answer. The conversation among the Israelis and Hungarians became a little heated and comments were flying across the room so fast it was hard to keep track. I wanted to throw in my two cents, but I struggled to find a significant American perspective that I thought they would like to hear. Let's face it, American Jews have it pretty well off compared to other Jews around the world, including Israel. As Americans we thoroughly exercise our First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and speech nearly everyday. Its very rare that I hear stories of true anti-Semitism in America and many of my Jewish friends aren't afraid of displaying their religious observance openly in society. Its taken a while, but today religious discrimination in America is regarded as taboo, something that's archaic. 

In Hungary, however, I have heard a few Hungarian Jews tell me about their fear of openly displaying their Judaism, or telling new friends that they are Jewish. This issue dominated the discussion for a while and several people volunteered to share their own stories and observations. I hadn't realized just how widespread this phenomenon is. Everyone agreed that the situation for Hungarian Jews was improving in spite of the rise of European anti-Semitism. Much of the community's increased strength in the face of intolerance is due to many young and old adults suddenly discovering their Jewish heritage from an aging grandparent's revelation of Jewish blood in the family. A representative of the Jewish Agency who took part in the discussion said that for the past few years, the majority of Taglit Birthright participants from Hungary have been young people who just discovered their Judaism in their 20's. These fundamental differences separate the community that I'm used to in America with that of Hungary and the rest of Eastern Europe. Our backgrounds are totally different. I learn so much from each new person I meet here. Its a little overwhelming.

Now its late again and I have to go to bed. I hope that my blog doesn't reek of "Jewishness." I've tried to post on a variety of subjects about my life in Hungary, but I keep getting drawn back into talking about Judaism. It was already such a big part of my life that its hard to ignore it. Plus, its turning out to be hard to ignore it in Budapest. As one Israeli who I met at the movie screening told me, "everywhere you look in Budapest has some sort of Jewish element to it." He is completely right. As if by natural instinct, nearly all of the bars, dance clubs, music clubs, and restaurants that the BSM students go to are populated by Budapest Jews or are located in the Jewish district. The Israeli said that Budapest has been the most Jewish city he has ever lived in.  Pretty remarkable, eh?

As a throwback to my DJ'ing days at the student radio station KVRX, I'm now taking requests for blog topics. My English teachers would call this a very uncreative move. I call it giving the power to the people.

God Bless America.     

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