Beyond the Keleti train station, past the ornate Kerepesi cemetery – final resting place of the Hungarian elite – down a weed covered tram track line and in the shadows of the somewhat threatening Budapest Josefvaros train station is the Jewish cemetery. As we made our way to where the map indicated the entrance would be, we nearly turned back. This is the fringe of one of seedier neighborhoods. A lone drifter paced near the wall. Every single window was smashed in the station. Not another sole was in sight. Pat held his camera tighter, and we pushed on even after the sidewalk vanished into a path of weeds. Then we heard the howling of the guard dogs and came upon the gate.
An old woman approached and I called out, “Jewish cemetery?” She nodded affirmatively. “Deutsch?” she asked. “Nein. Francais?”, I replied. With no linguistic overlap established, we switched to single words and mime. She continued in German, which is generally helpful. I can pick off a few more words than I can in Hungarian. I mimicked “opened?” versus “closed”, and she held up one finger. “Pat, I think she is going to let us in!” I never expected to see this cemetery. First, she had to chain the dogs, then she returned to unlock the gate.
Her son joined us. His limited English helped us understand we could come in and look around freely. He pointed out the path through the cemetery and sent us on our way. I have never seen anything like this – a movie set where all the old Tarzan movies were shot. A path cut through the center, diffuse rays of light poked through a dense leafy canopy. As we walked around, I swatted a relentless swarm of gnats buzzing in front of our faces.
In this first section we passed rows of old headstones, a reminder of everyday Jewish life and reminiscent of the old cemetery in Prague – crooked headstones with the inscriptions worn smooth. Mausoleums lined the periphery, many art deco masterpieces – testimony to the wealth of some Jewish families in the early decades of the last century. Yet most every mausoleum is now desecrated, the heavy stone tops wedged off to expose the burial hole, doors forced open. With few families remaining to care for the grave sites, trees have wrapped themselves around the buildings and embedded their roots into the stone walls.
In the farthest back reaches we found a memorial to those Jews who died in Hungary during the final frantic months of World War II when a losing Nazi regime pushed forward to complete their master plan despite obvious and eventual failure. The cemetery grounds are a diorama of the 20th century Jewish history in Europe – and most particularly in Central Europe.
Back at the entrance, we admired the walls which appear to be from a castle – the domed roof collapsed in 1970, well after the time the final person was laid to rest here. Above the door is a Hebrew inscription which translates; “You return man to dust; You decreed: Return you mortals! (Psalms 90.3)”. Pat took some pictures as the family scurried to remove their cleaning debris from the view. We stopped to talk and learned the younger man and his wife live in the gate house which wraps around and over the entry.
We signed the guest book and left a “tip” – admittance is free. I notice the Canadian Ambassador visited the day before. Perhaps more people will come here.
The family goes back to their chores – trimming trees, pulling weeds, sweeping out debris. Perhaps this is an attempt to recover the cemetery to its former state and keep it open to the public. I whispered to Pat, “Make sure you get good pictures. This is incredible. Let’s assume we will never be able to enter again.”
Our conversation wore down, exhausted on both sides by our insurmountable language barrier. “Goodbye… thank you… köszönöm… viszontlátásra”, I called out in an attempt to cover all the bases. “Shalom” he replied. Pat and I answered, “Shalom” “Peace” Ironic. Nothing in the last hour left me with any feeling of peace.
If you go: If you have any interest in cemeteries, minimally visit the nearby Kerepesi. It is an enormous cemetery which Pat and I rode through on our bikes. I will write a post about that shortly – so look for more details coming soon. To find the Jewish cemetery, leave Kerepesi and turn left and follow the cemetery wall – keeping it on your left. At the corner, you will turn onto Salgótarján Street and follow the tram tracks. The 37 tram stops very close to the gate. After the train station (which you can’t miss) and after the sidewalk appears to end, there is a gate – maybe a 100 meters from the corner. If anyone is home, they will let you in. We went on a Saturday morning. I believe the cemetery is reopening to more regular hours.
Categories: Insiders Budapest