Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Dark Side of Budapest

Along the Danube on the Pest side of the river, is a memorial to the Jews of Budapest, who were killed by the Arrow Cross Militia, the police arm of the local fascist party that ruled Hungary under the Nazis. Before the Nazi era, the Jews of Budapest had been spared from being sent to camps, but that changed once the Germans were in control.  The Arrow Cross killed some 38,000 Hungarians in less than three months and helped Eichmann deport Jews to the death camps. 

Sixty iron shoes, from large boots to tiny slippers, stand on the riverbank in testament to the more than 200 people, including men, women, and children, who were marched to the river and forced to remove their footwear before being shot. Their bodies then fell into the river and floated away.

I don't think I have to tell you how heartbreaking this memorial is. Many visitors leave flowers, or put small rocks in the shoes, similar to the Jewish custom of leaving stones on grave markers.

Sadly, I'm not sure we learn lessons from history. Just a few weeks before we arrived--and at the same station we departed from--hundreds, maybe thousands, of Syrian refugees were detained at the railway station. The authorities would not let them leave, even after they purchased tickets. Many boarded trains when they were told they were departing for Germany. But instead, the refugees were shipped to nearby camps.  Later, Hungary closed its borders, and the refugees had to find new routes to the places they are seeking asylum.

I don't want this to sound like this approach is something confined to Hungary. It is a poor country that is struggling while other parts of Europe are doing relatively well, and Hungary did not destabilize the Middle East. But it does hurt that in many ways, the echoes of the past are not so distant.  Yes, there are concerns about radical Islamists infiltrating the refugees, but the humanitarian needs of the majority, who are ordinary people fleeing the very radicals the West fears most, are paying such a heavy price.  

Near the Parliament is another touching memorial. It marks the 1956 rebellion from Soviet rule that is often called "The Hungarian Uprising," a failed 12-day revolution. From October 23 on, there were demonstrations and armed revolts. The government collapsed, and a moderate, Imre Nagy, was appointed prime minister, because the Soviets thought he might be able to control the people. At his request, the Soviet tanks withdrew. But then Nagy announced Hungary was withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact, and that was more than the Soviets could abide.

 On November 4, the Soviets moved in again with tanks and firepower.  Rumors were that Nagy was going to speak, so the square in front of the Parliament was packed. It's still uncertain what happened, but shots rang out, and people began to fall.
Officially only 72 people were killed, but the photographs in the memorial show piles of bodies. It is estimated that 2,500 Hungarians were killed in the uprising across the country, and abut 200,000 fled as refugees. As we learned later, even today people are sometimes afraid to speak out, so the memorial has a sign asking that anyone with information on the event share their story.

Visiting the memorial, we entered a long, sloping passage that leads underground to the exhibit, across from a building where bullet holes from the massacre of November 10 are still preserved.

We appreciated the displays, which were linked by a symbolic pathway of blood.

On a walking tour we took with a guide who lived through the Soviet era, we were saddened to hear her say that although Hungary has now been a democracy for 25 years, she is not certain it will last another 25 years. "The older generation has selective memory," she said. "They say, 'but at least everyone had a job then,' and they forget that mostly the jobs weren't very good, and how everyone viewed each other with suspicion." 

One of the more chilling photos the guide displayed was of an old woman, a restroom attendant whose chest was adorned with medals. "She was a hero in Soviet times," the guide informed us. "And do you know how she, a restroom attendant, got those awards? She was an informer."

We can only hope that the young people, who seem filled with optimism and spirit will prevail and that Hungary's democracy will thrive.

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