March of the living

‘Communism was very good for us because no one cared if you were Jewish because we were all equal.’ I did a double-take when I read this in the Jerusalem Post yesterday. The words of Elizabeth Semesh, an octogenarian survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau still living in Hungary, struck a chord. ‘When I walk down the street they yell at me to go to Israel’, said Semesh. She was speaking in the run-up to Sunday’s March of the Living when thousands took to the streets in what was viewed by many as a strong showing against anti-Semitism and was in essence a way to memorialise the deaths of 600 000 Hungarian Jews 70 years ago.

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Kids and grandparents, baseball hats and yarmulkes, men, women and children of all ages, flew the flags. It’s been on my list of things to do for many years; this year I was in town, so I walked, too. The crowds marched from Marcius 15 tér to Keleti Station, where 1000  Hungarians took the Train of the Living to Kraków in Poland to join thousands  of others on a march from Auschwitz to Birkenau to mark Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.   One of those on board was 75-year-old Catherine Zummer. When she was just 6  years old, she and her family were taken with hundreds more by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party.  She still remembers standing in line along the banks of the Danube waiting for their turn to die. Catherine and her family were freed by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who talked to the Arrow Cross and convinced them to let many of the women and children go. That was 70 years ago.

History cannot be rewritten
History cannot be rewritten

I’ve heard stories of Jews being spat upon in this city. I’ve heard people I know (and once respected) talk about ‘them’ as one might speak about something unsavoury. I know people blessed with dark hair and generous noses being randomly stopped and asked to produce ID. The World Jewish Congress estimates the number of Jews living in Hungary between 35 000 and 120 000 as the vast majority of Jews in Hungary are unaffiliated.

Budapest’s Jewish history goes back for centuries, back to 1307. The flourishing Jewish population fell afoul of the rulers in 1490 just before the Ottomans invaded Hungary. Things righted themselves and all went well until the siege of Buda in 1686, when the Jews took to the Turkish side, with only 500 surviving. Under Hapsburg rule, the Jews saw pogroms and deportations and it wasn’t until the early 1800s when Karl the 2nd awarded privileges to them that they began to flourish once again.  Following the union of Buda, Pest, and Óbuda in 1873, the Jewish population of Budapest grew to some 200,000 and 125 synagogues were in operation. By 1944 some 600 000 Hungarian Jews had been sent to the camps, decimating the population, leaving just 200 000 behind under Soviet rule.

Monday’s march in Poland started by remembering the genocide in Rwanda, the mass slaughter in the Balkans and the murder of tens of thousands of innocent people in Syria.  Although the holocaust was 70 years ago, it would seem that we have learned little from history.

I struggle with what I believe at times and as I try to sort through the whys and wherefores of Israel and Palestine, while I search for  truth amongst the myriad of words published,  I keep coming back to one thing and one thing only: regardless of your religious perspective or political beliefs, the holocaust should never have happened and should not be allowed to happen again. The persecution of any people – be they Jew, Tutsi, Moriori, Romani, Armenian – cannot be right in any circumstance.

And let us not forget that the holocaust wasn’t just about Jews. Of the 11 million said to have perished, 5 million were not Jewish.


13 Responses

  1. That story that you regulary tell of the man who didn’t do anything whilst others were attacked leaving nobody to help when his turn came seems very relevent.
    Whatever Israel gets involved in I can’t help but think that the world must continue to give it some slack………..this is a group of people who faced being wiped out 70 years ago, Israel is all they have ………what a suprise that they do all they can to defend themselves. They are surrounded by people who have stated that they wish to wipe them off the face of the earth………..if we as individuals were faced with that situation do we think that we would ‘hold back’ in our attempts to defend ourselves. I do sympathise with the Palestinians ( who are surrounded by ‘friends’ who seem to do little to help them) but I feel that the world should give Israelis’ sympathy and understanding too.

    1. I’m increasingly left feeling that there is no right and wrong in these situations and that anyone who lays claim to a them/us attitude has to be missing the bigger picture.

      1. Fully agree — which is why compromise is necessary. But political moderates and the concept of compromise the world over seems to becoming an endangered species as extreme idealists become more and more entrenched in their concept that their own way is the only right way and the other way should just go away. Sad. Very sad.

    1. I think perhaps she was speaking of then vs now… I know a number of people who compare today (mass unemployment, homelessness, xenophobia) with yesterday (full employment, supposed equality, free education) and wonder what if… It’s all a matter of perspective.

      1. I have a golden rule: Once someone reaches 80 years of age, they are forgiven for anything they say, and they are untouchable. I will not argue their view of the world. But I also need not promote there position when it conflicts with fact or historical evidence. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but that does not make their opinion a fact or the truth. And everyone is entitled to their perspective, but that does not mean such a perspective need to be broadcast by others without due diligence of the evidence, else others may take it as truth. Even what bloggers write or repeat (even if the source seems legit) some people may then take as “the truth”. The word can be mightier than the sword and should be handled with care and diligence. That is the type of world we live in, and it is nothing new. As Mark Twain said “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”, and he lived in the era of the lowly telegraph.

        1. …which is why quotation marks should be used and direct speech need to be clearly indicated.

          “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but that does not make their opinion a fact or the truth.” Yet if I have lived it, seen it, witnessed it first-hand and then say it happened, that is a truth for me, which will be interpreted and disputed by others. I wonder if there is, or every was, anything that approaches to an absolute TRUTH

  2. What’s new about entrenched attitudes? Was it Mark Twain who said “the only lesson of history is that people don’t learn from it”?

    1. Hegel, I thought… but who knows. Twain supposed said: The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.

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