Exploring Budapest: In the Steps of Raoul Wallenberg

Shoes on the Danube

Shoes on the Danube

Life has lapsed into a rhythm.  Moving to a new country (and in our case two new countries) is unsettling, so I welcome a bit of balance.  But balance morphing into complacency is a problem.   I am trying to shake the malaise of summer and re-dedicate myself to exploration.  Budapest is a historically rich city – fortunately, I need look no further than my own back yard.

Tucked on the bank of the Danube below the Hungarian Parliament building is a row of cast iron shoes – 60 pairs in various shapes and sizes randomly arranged.  The memorial, Shoes on the Danube, is a tribute to the Jews shot on these banks in the waning days of the World War 2.  Shoes are intimate objects.  Baby shoes, high heels, and work boots – they evoke a connection, a memory, a very personal representation of the victims.  These discarded shoes have the ability to break my heart.  Remembrances are left behind – stones, flickering candles, perhaps a flower.  The holocaust in Hungary, I have been told, was unique.  Last weekend I set out to explore exactly why.       

Tribute to Raoul Wallenberg

Tribute to Raoul Wallenberg

Saturday morning, I sat at my desk and searched the internet.  Initially, I jumped from site to site scribbling notes and adding questions in the margins.  There was so much to untangle.  Why were the Hungarian Jews protected in the early phases of the war?  What changed?  What role did Horthy play – and was he a good guy or a bad guy?  Who exactly was Raoul Wallenberg?  Questions begat questions.  I stumbled upon a Steven Spielberg Academy Award winning documentary specific to the final chapter of the war and the Hungarian Jews – The Last Days.   I watched it on youtube and didn’t leave my desk until late Saturday afternoon.  And I plotted a course for Sunday.

Miklos Horthy was appointed the regent of the Kingdom of Hungary in 1920.  Given their history, Hungarians wore the cloak of monarchy quite comfortably and thereby accepted Horthy’s near totalitarian control.  Unfortunately, Horthy was an anti-Semite who passed laws modeled after the Nuremberg Race Laws in Germany. These laws restricted the professions available to Jews, limited the number of Jews in public and government service, and prohibited Jews from marrying non Jews.  But Horthy avoided the deportation of Hungarian Jews, and especially those in Budapest.  Was he good or bad?  I never quite answered that question.

In early 1944, Hitler began to doubt Horthy’s commitment to the floundering war.  With defeat imminent, Hitler responded by invading Hungary, removing Horthy from power, and installing a military government.  Eichmann relocated to Budapest and personally oversaw this frantic and irrational final phase of Jewish extermination.  Focused on completing their mission to annihilate the Jewish people, at its maniacal peek, 12,000 Jews were deported daily from Hungary.  By the middle of 1944, 430,000 Hungarian Jews had been quickly deported and killed.

Tribute to Wallenberg in Szent Istvan Park

Tribute to Wallenberg in Szent Istvan Park

Aware of the deteriorating situation in Hungary, the allies recruited Raoul Wallenberg to relocate from his native Sweden to Budapest.  His sole mission was to save as many Jews as possible thru whatever means required.  A diabolical race, of sorts, commenced.  Wallenberg rented 32 buildings in Budapest which served as “safe houses” – denoted as extraterritorial Swedish property with the same protective rights extended to the Swedish embassy.  Wallenberg relocated Jews into these safe houses and provided the occupants with Swedish passports.  With these ploys, Wallenberg is credited with saving tens of thousands of Jewish lives.  Wallenberg was captured in Budapest late in the war and transported to Russia where he is believed to have been killed in 1947.  The reasons for his capture and the circumstances surrounding his death remain a mystery.

In the park in front of our apartment, Szent Istvan Park, is a statue dedicated to Wallenberg.  Around the corner is a street, Raoul Wallenberg Utca, named in recognition of those safe houses on and near that street.  At Szent Istvan Park, 25 – two blocks from my own flat – is a plaque commemorating holocaust survivor and US Congressman, Tom Lantos, who escaped execution in this Wallenberg safe house.  Lantos moved to the United States in 1947, was educated there, and served in Congress for 13 terms before his death in 2008.  While serving in Congress, he led the effort to successfully grant Wallenberg honorary US citizenship – the second person to receive this honor after Winston Churchill.

The weeping willow memorial

The weeping willow memorial

We spent the afternoon visiting sites in the 7th district around the Dohany Synagogue, the second largest synagogue in the world.  The area behind the synagogue is designated the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park.  A beautiful silver weeping willow dominates the courtyard; each leaf engraved with the name of one of Budapest’s holocaust victims.  The district surrounding the synagogue is gentrifying – an emerging neighborhood of ruin pubs and restaurants.  Communism stifled post war restoration for decades.  Just now, this part of the city is returning to some semblance of its pre war condition.

Rumbach Synagogue

Rumbach Synagogue

We ended the day at the Rumbach Synagogue – small and built of a Moorish architecture, it  stands in disrepair.  Ceramic tile slabs are neatly stacked against the walls awaiting restoration to cover the now bare concrete floor.  The vibrant blue and red patterned walls provide a glimpse of the splendor of this place.  Sadly, it is one of many synagogues of Central Europe destined to be renovated as a theater or studio.  With approximately two-thirds of all Jews killed during the war, the current Jewish population is inadequate to sustain the synagogues which existed previously.

The Rumbach Synagogue closed permanently in 1945.  Standing under a shaft of light beaming thru the still perfect stain glass window, the incredible and senseless reality of the loss struck me .  The abandoned synagogue will likely never again serve its original purpose.  It is another very personal reminder of human devastation.  Yet there is some small measure of redemption in the memory of a fearless young Swede who saved what he could and gave his life in so doing.

Categories: Insiders Budapest

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6 replies

  1. About my father Karoly Szabo, Wallenberg show trial 1953

    in english, german, russian, hungarian http://mek.oszk.hu/09600/09621/pdf/


    Spiegel, Süddeutsche Zeitung, https://db.tt/zUWX9bdE

    Tamas Szabo

  2. I just read your wonderful report. We were in Budapest in July (2014) and ended our river cruise In Budapest with 3 extended days. We had an excellent guide and saw the Great Synagogue but not the Rumbach. Is Tomas a common last name in Budapest as our guide’s name is Tomas Balint? May be related to Tamas Szabo. I have read many of your other reports and enjoyed them.

    • Thx Helene… For a while Rumbach was closed, but I think they may be planning to renovate it. I know several men named Tamas, but far fewer named Tomas.

      I am glad you enjoyed the post. The Jewish section of Budapest is fascinating.

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