So we strolled down to the banks of the Duna river to see the iron shoe memorial.
In 1944, members of the Hungarian Arrow Cross political party (basically Hungarian Nazis) and militia rounded up 60 Jews, brought them here, ordered them to take off their shoes, and shot them. The river carried away their bodies.
In 1941 Hungary had a population of roughly 825,000 Jews, though 100,000 were Christian. Because Hungary saw Judaism as a race as well as a religion, those Christians were still umped in with the rest. A far-right wing government after WWI restricted the freedoms of many Jews, even Hungarian Jews (Jews with Hungarian citizenship), but resisted deporting them until the middle of the war. To keep Nazi Germany happy, Hungary joined the axis powers and restricted Jewish freedoms even more. They forced young Jewish men to work in horrible conditions for war-related construction work. Many died. The government deported over 20,000 Jews north, where Nazis killed them. The government picked off their Jewish population little by little, usually going for those without Hungarian citizenship. (A good case can be made that this was intentionally slow-footed by the government leader Hrothy, who defied Hitler several times by slowing the deportation trains to Auschwitz). They also killed over 28,000 Hungarian Romani, something that decimated the European Romani but often gets lost in the bigger numbers and broad brushstrokes of WWII.
In 1944, however, Nazi Germany invaded, with help from the fascist, far-right-wing Arrow Cross political party. Under Nazi supervision, the new Hungarian government deported around 440,000 Jews to death camps. By 1945, the only Jewish population left relatively untouched was the 150,000-200,000 in Budapest. Of course, they had suffered losses along the way, as the iron shoes memorialize. The Arrow Cross killed over 3,000 people in Budapest, 800 of those were Jews.
Inside the iron shoes today are candles, dried flowers, and pebbles. In Jewish tradition when someone dies, loved ones leave a pebble on the gravestone to mark their love. The pebbles in the shoes are the nearest these people got to funerals.
We backtracked across Pest, heading for the Dohany Street Synagogue.
The second largest synagogue in the world (after the synagogue in NYC), Dohany is nestled in the Jewish quarter of the city. I was a bit surprised to round the corner and see a massive Moorish design, shaped like a church.
We paid to enter and arrived just in time for the English tour. It was quite short, and we stayed sitting in the pews because it was far too cold to be wandering around the gardens listening to a guide. The worship center of the synagogue wasn’t heated, but at least it was still warmer than being outside in the wind.
Built in 1854-59, the architects had never designed a synagogue before. Because of that, the alcoves and balconies and even the lecterns on the side are designed for a catholic cathedral. Well, the Jews just took it in stride. Today they use the lecterns for camera crews if they’re doing a big event.
Of the 825,000 Jews in Hungary prior to WWII and the Holocaust, and by the end only a quarter remained, mostly in Budapest.
By 1945 Budapest had walled off the Jewish quarter, making it into a ghetto. Precious little got in or out, including food or dead bodies. The synagogue had a small courtyard built, and in the ’30s, they had talked about making it into a garden with a fountain and flowers and benches, but the Holocaust destroyed those plans.
Almost 3,000 bodies are buried in mass graves in the courtyard today. Those that could be identified were later given headstones.
Around the corner is the Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park. Raoul Wallenberg was a Swede who, with the help of the Red Cross and a few other volunteers (like Carl Lutz), saved over 35,000 Hungarian Jews, sometimes even pulling them off trains headed for the concentration camps. Giorgio Perlasca posed as a Spanish diplomat and saved over 5,000 in just 45 days. Gennaro Verolino, a catholic bishop, saved over 30,000 by issuing false Vatican passports. Angelo Rotta was outspoken against Nazism and anti-Semeticism from the beginning and saved many Jews in Bulgaria, also. He saved around 15,000 Budapest Jews by issuing false papers of baptism and Vatican passports as well as sheltered Jews in safe houses. According to a Holocaust scholar, “of the hundred and fifty thousand Jews who had been in Budapest when the Germans arrived in March 1944, almost 120,000 survived to liberation – 69,000 from the Big Ghetto, 25,000 in the International Ghetto and a further 25,000 hiding out in Christian homes and religious institutes across the city.”
Behind the metal tree are four red marble pillars with the names of the “Righteous Among Nations” inscribed on them. Further back are more memorials to Jews that died. All the pebbles moved me to tears.
And I thought, “if I had lived then, would I have hidden Jews in my home?” It’s a little game I play with myself, imagining my reactions to historical events.
Obviously, the correct answer is “yes, gladly.” But then I imagined hiding them in closets, lying to soldiers, living every day with a death sentence over my head, and fear shot through me.
So I leaned in. The best way to play this game, I’ve learned, is to set it in a modern context. I’ve faced a lot of my hidden prejudices and biases this way. And I thought, what group in the United States is hard working, relatively integrated, but blamed for economic problems and ostracized as “the other” despite having a similar religious outlook? And the answer, at least for the first part of the 21st century, is Muslims, and perhaps Latinx.
And I asked myself, in the case that the government (or an occupying force) systematically rounds up Muslims or Latinx from my city and promises they’re just being sent to labor camps to keep us safe until the trouble is over, would I open my closet, my basement, my money to them?