5 moving memorials to visit in Budapest on Holocaust Remembrance Day
January 27th marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp by the Soviet Army, now Holocaust Remembrance Day. This is a time to honor the six million innocent lives lost in the Holocaust, as well as those who made heroic sacrifices to save others. From occupation to liberation, the victims can today be remembered at many moving memorials around Budapest. We take a look at the city’s harrowing Holocaust history and present personal stories by those whose lives are forever scarred. The following testimonials were shared by the Hungarian Facebook group The Holocaust and My Family, relatives or survivors whose stories were later made into a book. We present them here with permission from the group’s admin.
The Jewish Quarter and Király Street 15
Today Budapest’s Jewish Quarter is a party zone. But these walls guard many sorrowful memories. In June 1944, nearly 2,000 residential buildings around Budapest were marked with a yellow star, and Hungarian Jews were forced to relocate to these so-called yellow-star houses, leaving their homes and their belongings behind. Although such buildings were found across Budapest, many are here around Wesselényi, Akácfa and Klauzál Streets. Later in 1944, a ghetto was created, today delineated by the streets of Kertész, Dohány and Király, and Károly körút, where you find the two main synagogues of the city, in Dohány Street and Kazinczy Street.
Jews, even those previously relocated to yellow-star houses, were herded to this enclosed area. Surrounded by a high fence and a guarded stone wall, the ghetto was completely cut off from the outside world. No food was allowed in, waste was not collected, dead bodies lay piled up on the streets and buildings were appallingly overcrowded, leading to the spread of diseases such as typhoid. More than half of those forced to move here were then sent to concentration camps, while others were taken away to the Danube and shot. The Budapest Ghetto was liberated on January 17th, 1945. The last remaining section of the surrounding wall was demolished during construction works in 2006, but a memorial piece of it was later erected at Király Street 15, using original material though differing in detail. Even today around the Jewish Quarter, small bits of the wall stand as a constant reminder.
The following testimonial was shared by Éva Benay:
“My second husband, Iván, is eight years old in this picture below, with a yellow star on his chest. Back then, he did not yet have a characteristic stab wound on his left shoulder, right above his heart. He got it a few months later, when the members of the Arrow Cross Party escorted him and others to the Budapest Ghetto from a yellow-star house on Práter Street. They had to march the whole way with their arms raised up in the air. The eight year old couldn’t bear it and let his arms down somewhere on Rákóczi Street. Then, a 17- or 18-year-old boy in uniform jumped in front of him and tried to stab him in the heart with his bayonet. Lucky for Iván, the kid had not yet learned how to use the weapon properly and missed his heart by inches. Others marching behind helped his mother drag the severely wounded child to the ghetto. Inside, there was a doctor who had originally lived at this same location, and had managed to hide a few things in his house. He had antiseptic and sutured the wound with an ordinary needle and some thread. There wasn’t any bandage, so people tied shirts together to cover the wound. He survived, but carried the deep wound on his shoulder his whole life.”
Shoes on the Danube Bank
One of the most moving Holocaust memorials is found on the Danube bank around halfway between Parliament and the Chain Bridge. This simple but powerful memorial comprises 60 pairs of cast iron shoes created in the memory of the Jews who were killed by members of the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross Party. Victims were marched from the ghetto to the river, ordered to remove their shoes and stand on the very edge of the embankment, so when shot dead, their bodies would fall into the river and drift away. The memorial also includes children’s shoes.
The following story is the recollection of Ágnes Pap, who interviewed a survivor, a lady living in Israel:
“… When she told me about a visit to Budapest after 45 years, possibly for the last time, she started speaking in Hungarian. Everyone around her was surprised, they had never heard her speak Hungarian before and thought she had forgotten the language. She explained quite fervently that “stupid” relatives wouldn’t stop trying to persuade her to visit Budapest – until she finally did. She felt terrible throughout her stay. Having seen all the renovated and beautified attractions around the city, her relatives took her to the Danube waterfront. That was the last straw. She abandoned the relatives who had tried to improve her mood by pointing out the beautiful blue waters of the Danube. She called a taxi and took the first plane back to Israel. She hasn’t spoken to her relatives since and threw away all documents connected to them… When we met she fulminated and recounted her memories desperately, almost screaming: “Blue is it?! The Danube is red. How can they not see it?” After these words she could not say anything else, let alone in Hungarian. Afterwards, I found out that she was shot in the Danube with her husband. Her husband died but she somehow survived. Nobody took her in. In soaking wet clothes she wandered around in the freezing cold, anywhere away from Hungary. Nobody knows how she made it to Israel, nobody knows about the journey that was possibly a miracle. Apart from these few sentences she never spoke about the Holocaust and her escape. She never gave a Shoah interview either.”
Carl Lutz Memorial at Dob Street 12
A bronze memorial on Dob Street depicts an angel descending to help a fallen victim. The caption reads: “Whoever saves a life is considered to have saved an entire world”. Carl Lutz was a Swiss diplomat who saved an estimated 62,000 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. As vice-consul at the Swiss Embassy in Budapest, from 1942 he issued Swiss safe-conduct documents that enabled almost 10,000 Hungarian Jewish children to emigrate. He also set up some 70 safe houses around Budapest, claiming them to have diplomatic immunity, and making them off-limits to Hungarian forces or Nazi soldiers. Such a safe house is now the well-known Glass House at Vadász Street 29. Elsewhere, the Carl Lutz Embankment also honors the memory and brave deeds of Carl Lutz. On a gloomy day, when the fascist Arrow Cross Party were firing at Jews by the Danube, Carl Lutz jumped into the river to save a bleeding Jewish woman and saved one more life.
Comments by Charles Gati at George Washington University, March 4, 2014 on the occasion of the presentation of the President’s Medal to Agnes Hirschi, daughter of Carl Lutz, the honoree:
“70 years ago, in war-torn Hungary, Swiss Consul Carl Lutz saved my life. He saved my parents and he saved several members of my family. He rescued 62,000 Hungarian Jews. Carl Lutz couldn’t save everyone he wanted to save. Some 550,000 Hungarian Jews perished in the Holocaust, including almost half of my family. But make no mistake about it: Carl Lutz did the best he could – and more. First, Lutz was ingenious: he came up with the very idea of the international identity card, the letter of protection called the Schutzbriefe, that Jews then used to save themselves from those – Hungarians and Germans – who wanted to kill them. Secondly, he was persistent: he never wavered, for he was on a mission that he knew would make a great difference. Thirdly, he was courageous: his life mattered less to him than saving the lives of others. And fourthly, he had no illusions about the Hungarian régime led by Admiral Miklós Horthy which had introduced the first anti-Semitic law in Europe in 1920, followed by even more restrictive ones in the late 1930s, then had emptied the countryside of tens of thousands of Jews – all that before Germany occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944. When most Hungarians looked away, Carl Lutz removed the word “indifference” from his vocabulary. He even shared his idea, his plan, with Raoul Wallenberg and other diplomats from neutral countries assigned to Budapest. He was their leader; they followed his advice.”
Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park
Found in the rear patio of the Dohány Street Synagogue, a small enclosed space solemnly remembers the sorrows of the Holocaust. The garden is named after Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands of lives in the same way that Carl Lutz did. The Holocaust Memorial Park was built in memoriam of the Hungarian Jewish victims murdered by the Nazis. The centerpiece is a metal weeping willow – funded by American actor Tony Curtis whose father was a Hungarian Jew – with the name of each of 30,000 victims delicately inscribed on each metal leaf. Upside down, the tree resembles a menorah, while in front of it are Tablets of Stone, symbolically stripped of inscriptions. Behind the willow tree you find the symbolic tomb of Raoul Wallenberg, as well as the Serpent Slayer statue built in his honor.
The following story is the recollection of Sándor Radnóti:
“Death avoided my family during the Holocaust. We were a small family living in Budapest: my grandfathers were dead and my grandmothers survived. My dad was put on labor duty, but as a doctor he had some privileges. Once however, he was caught and taken to a railway station where he waited for – as he used to say – the fast train to Auschwitz with fellow victims. Raoul Wallenberg appeared and looked for those with a Schutzpass. It was dark and my dad did not have a pass, but he had a torch with which he helped Wallenberg see his way and told him that he did indeed have a Schutzpass, just not with him at that moment. It wasn’t true, of course. Wallenberg took him under his wing. My dad treasured that torch until the end of his life, and I still cherish it, too.”
Holocaust Memorial at the Faculty of Humanities of the Eötvös Loránd University
Located at Astoria, diagonally opposite the Astoria Hotel, former headquarters of the German army, the Eötvös Loránd University campus holds a subtle and solemn memorial for students and teachers of the university murdered during the Holocaust. The memorial is not the easiest to spot, but perhaps this is what makes it all the more special. Entering the garden of the Faculty of Humanities, you have to walk all the way to the back until you reach Building F. Once there, you can spot a narrow bronze strip, one centimeter wide and 280 meters long, hidden amid the red brickwork, bearing the names of the victims.
The following testimonial was shared by Beáta Regős:
“My grandfather outside his drugstore. A Nazi SS officer used to frequent his store as his wife had cancer and my grandfather used to mix them up medicine. Once the officer told my grandfather, “Gyurika – my father – shouldn’t go to university tomorrow as Jews will be beaten up”. Gyurika did not go to uni the next day and in the end didn’t even finish his law degree. The next day, they they really did beat a few students to death at the university, but my father was not there. I am here, I can be here today thanks to this. Things like this also happened as certain Nazis needed a Jew. But I still don’t like Nazis.”
The Hungarian Facebook group The Holocaust and My Family was formed a few years ago for survivors and relatives to share their personal stories. The group soon expanded, new friendships were formed and several heartbreaking stories were shared, waiting to be heard. The administrators of the group, Zsuzsa Hetényi and Mátyás Eörsi, have been working as editors since the beginning, and a selection of the stories shared in the group were published in a book by Park Publishing Company. The book titled A Holokauszt és a családom is available in Hungarian at Budapest bookstores.