Budapest has many stories, and many scars, the deepest of which runs along the Danube. It was here, towards the end of World War II, that the fascist Arrow Cross Party (Nyilaskeresztes Párt) lined up the city’s remaining Jewish population. Thousands of men, women and children stood on the ledge above the water, shoes discarded, waiting to be shot. They say the river ran red for days.

Castle District. Photographs by Neha Puntambekar

The Jewish history of Budapest is as rich as it is turbulent—Jews were the single largest visible minority in the country. And while they contributed significantly to the local culture through trade, science and art, they were perennial outsiders. Jewish life was marred by oppressive taxes and social discrimination, especially under Ottoman and Habsburg rule. Jews were also systematically pushed away from the administrative centre of Buda, where they had first settled. Then World War II broke out, and brought with it something much worse.

Capital view: Shoes on the Danube Promenade in Budapest.

The war was getting very complicated for the Axis armies by then. The Allied forces were catching up, air raids were becoming more forceful and the shortages were crippling. There was also that logistical problem of having to dispose of all their dead Jewish victims. It was around this time that the Arrow Cross started rounding up Jews “to have a swim". Once the deed was done, they stood over the edge, watching the bodies sink and their crimes wash away. The gun-wielding militiamen made sure to save the victims’ shoes though—shoes were a luxury item at this point in history. Shoes would keep you warm in the harsh winter; they could be bartered for other essentials. Shoes were important.

The march of the Arrow Cross

Ironically, it was Hungary’s support for Hitler’s Germany that kept Hungarian Jews away from the concentration camps, at least for a while. With Hungary on their side, the German forces didn’t have to micromanage. The local leadership implemented a number of severe anti-Semitic laws. But they didn’t condemn Hungarian Jews to the gas chambers. In fact, through the first years of the war, a number of Jewish refugees from central Europe made their way to Budapest, looking for a shadow of safety and sanity.

That changed in March 1944 with the German occupation of Hungary, led by Adolf Eichmann.

In what is now known as Operation Margarethe, the Germans replaced a wavering local regime with a new, more compliant force—the Arrow Cross Party. Overnight, the hostile anti-Jewish policies morphed into something much darker.

The Star of David.

The ghetto was isolated from the rest of the city. Nothing was allowed to come in, including food. And nothing was allowed out, including garbage. Within three months, filth, starvation, disease and marauding fascist mobs raged through the ghetto. Every passing day, more and more bodies piled up in courtyards, corridors and in the streets adjoining the most iconic of Jewish institutions in the city, the Great Synagogue.

The Great Synagogue

I am visiting the temple with an Israeli friend, Naomi. I have never visited a synagogue before, and I throw a barrage of questions her way; my curiosity amuses her. She explains that this synagogue is unique: Built in the 1850s, it was designed to fit in with the city’s cathedrals, which is why it is far more ornate, with two Moorish-styled dome towers and lattice-like patterns along the façade, and lavish basilica-like interiors. The white metal detectors and X-ray machines are, of course, a modern addition.

Our guide has red hair and a very strong accent. I have to concentrate as she shares facts, trivia and yarmulke (traditional caps) for the men in

Heart of the city: The Great Synagogue.

This is the largest synagogue in Europe, and has been at the forefront of Hungarian Jewish society since it was built. Our guide explains the significance of every element within the temple and the temple complex—the bright geometric frescoes, the woodwork, the organ (composer Franz Liszt played the original organ here), the ornate bimah (the central podium), the hall where the men pray, the gallery where the women and children congregate, as well as the adjoining Heroes’ Temple (honouring the Hungarian Jewish victims of World War I) and the Jewish Museum. In addition to exhibiting a number of historic and religious artefacts and documents, the museum was built on a plot of land where the father of the Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl, was born and grew up.

The amount of history wrapped around this temple complex is overwhelming.

‘Remember’

Judaism doesn’t customarily allow for burials at a place of worship. It also asks that the dead be buried within 24 hours. As the death toll in the ghetto spiked in those last few months, the temple garden had to become a burial ground nevertheless; there are still 2,000 people buried here. Slim, grey headstones, engraved with the Star of David, lean up against the flower beds, green foliage drapes around their base, cradling them. The guide points out well-known names carved on the headstones. The one I recognize is Garfunkel—singer Art Garfunkel’s grandfather is buried here. Despite being tainted with so much horror and pain, this cemetery manages to retain a sense of peace and calm.

As conditions in the ghetto deteriorated, tens of thousands of Jews managed to escape the ghastly fate that awaited them there, thanks to the efforts of humanitarian diplomats like Swede Raoul Wallenberg and Swiss Carl Lutz. Despite the growing dangers, these men issued protective passports and bought buildings and designated them as neutral diplomatic property, creating safe havens within a war zone. They used all their influence, and their protected status, to save as many lives as they could. In the cobbled courtyard behind the synagogue, in the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park, the actions of these men live on, as do the memories of victims of the Holocaust.

The weeping willow Tree of Life.

Next to the willow stands another monument that commemorates non-Jewish Hungarians and foreigners who fought against the fascists to save Jewish lives: The most prominent name here is that of Wallenberg.

Among the silent prayers, the stories, the histories, stands an original brick from the Budapest Ghetto. It bears a simple, powerful inscription: Remember.

Fading stains and repairs

Stepping out of the synagogue, on to the pavement surrounding the once ghetto, I take in the street, the buildings, the windows. This is the Jewish Quarter. It runs from Andrássy Avenue to Rákóczi Street. Once a thriving Jewish neighbourhood, it now looks disjointed, like a poorly assembled jigsaw puzzle with the wrong pieces forced in.

Unfortunately, this is a fate shared by many iconic Jewish institutions in the city, including the Rumbach Sebestyen utca Synagogue. Located 5 minutes from the Great Synagogue, this beautiful 1872 structure was converted into an army barrack during the war. It suffered great damage and is still undergoing restoration.

Walking through the quarter, there are several standing war memorials. Some were instituted to honour victims and heroes—like the Carl Lutz Memorial—and others document the history. The House of Terror, the former Secret Service headquarters, is now a museum chronicling the actions taken there through the war. On a similar note, but with a stronger focus on personal stories, is the Holocaust Memorial Centre, full of photo exhibits and first-person accounts documenting the lives of the persecuted Jewish and Roma communities through that war.

The ruined pubs and slow revival

Before the war, there were around 200,000 Hungarian Jews living here. Almost half died in the years between. After the war, returning Jews found their family and friends gone, and their homes occupied by local encroachers. A heavy sting of hostility sat in the air.

The area still looks a bit off. Unlike the glossy centre of Budapest, with its Austro-Hungarian grandeur, the Jewish Quarter is more of a patchwork doll. Walking under awnings and newly renovated archways, I uncover shadows of a world that once existed here: fading Stars of David and Hebrew signs—some are just stains, blending into old walls.

Things are changing though. Over the last few years, many Hungarian Jews have returned home, some as tourists, others in search of their roots. Both sets are changing the economic dynamic of the area. Once again, there are a number of synagogues, a number of Jewish schools, new Jewish businesses, new families (though really, they are old ones), booked out heritage tours and a number of Jewish summer festivals in Budapest.

Previously abandoned spaces are re-emerging as lively centres, fuelling a new energy into the area, which is now known for its art studios, bistros and kitsch pubs (known locally as ruined pubs, szimpla). During the daytime, it’s the falafel and kebab kiosks that add sizzle and spice to the air, but as night descends, it’s the ridiculously young beats pouring out from the ruined pubs that define the city.

Exhausted from all the day’s history, I step into a cozy bistro not too far from the Great Synagogue. A sign on the window tells me they are kosher. The menu is in Hungarian, Hebrew and English, and has a strong West Asian tilt. There’s a bowl of hummus on every table. This is where I will (happily) end my tour, with a plate of falafel salad and a shot of pear Pálinka, the local spirit. An odd combination anywhere else, but a perfect one here—one part Jewish and one part Hungarian.

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Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint

Period Pieceis a monthly series of long-form travel writing that connects the past and present.

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