‘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.
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.
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.