The writing on the wall

For some inexplicable reason, I have a strange fascination with the Holocaust. I can’t quite get my head around so many people being systematically put to death. I can’t even begin to fathom how others could stand by and let it happen. And deep down, there’s the ever-present question: What would I have done had I been around then?

Oh, of course, I’d like to think that I’d have been fighting on the side of righteousness, aiding and abetting Jews in their escape. I’d like to think that I’d have been so incensed by the wrong that was being done that all thoughts of personal safety would dissipate as the need to do something took hold. I’d like to think all that but I don’t know.

A recent study on anti-Semitism in Hungary Anti-Semitic Prejudice in Present Hungarian Society (Antiszemita előítéletesség a mai magyar társadalomban) notes that 32% of Hungarians participating in the survey have strong or moderate anti-Semitic views and somewhat scarily, one of five of those surveyed believe that Hungarian Jews should leave the country.

Let’s go back in time a little, to the Slovakian town of Košice (Hungarian Kassa). Košice was ceded to Hungary, by the First Vienna Award, from 1938 until early 1945. Of course, the German occupation of Hungary filtered down, and between 16 May and 3 June in 1944 the town’s Jewish population was forcibly removed. One in five residents were Jewish: 12 000 of the 60 000 living in Košice. Rounded up, detained, and then transported to the Auschwitz, fewer than 600 would return. Just one in twenty made their way back.

I’ve heard the heartstone beat in Salaspils near Riga. I’ve visited the artists’ colony of Terezín outside Prague that Jews believed was a gift from Hitler. I’ve been to Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Dachau. I’ve seen the memorials – the crystal chandelier in Skopje, the chairs in Kraków, the children’s memorial in Győr. I’ve partaken in the March of the Living in Budapest, heard stories of survivors, and wondered at the other five million also wiped off the face of the earth during that bleak period in history. But what I saw in Košice affected me like nothing else.

IMG_4439 (800x600)

IMG_4440 (600x800)

Looming over Puškinova ulica, the relatively new synagogue (1927) looks remarkably unused.  The side gates were locked, the doors closed tight. We asked someone who said it was never used these days. Always closed.  It was Sunday, so I’d hoped it would be open. A notice in Slovakian mentioned something about something happening at 2 pm on a Sunday… that very day. We hung around and waited. I really wanted to see inside – to see the writing on the wall. We were in luck. That day, they were giving two tours  – in Slovakian.

IMG_4444 (800x600)

We paid our €2 and sat through an hour of history that we couldn’t understand. When the others looked up or to the side, our eyes followed suit, but we had no idea what we were being asked to look at. It was cold. I felt myself wandering. I had little trouble imagining 2000 Jews imprisoned here in a space built for 800. No toilets, no food. Crammed together awaiting an uncertain future. Down the road, in a large steel arena, thousands more awaited the same fate. 

IMG_4448 (800x600)

IMG_4450 (800x600)

And on 21 April, 1944, Tibi, one of the 2000 incarcerated in the house of prayer, scribbled a note on the wall in pencil: We are here.

I don’t know where they are taking us (Itt vagyunk. Nem tudom hova visznek.)

This message came to light during the renovation of 1970. For 63 years, it had gone unnoticed. No one knows who Tibi is. Was he one of the 600 who returned? How old was he? A man, a boy, a child? But somehow, the handwritten note makes it all very real. It personalises the huge numbers – 12000 – and gives one of them life. Weeks have passed and I’m still thinking about Tibi. There are about 250 Jews left in the town – just 0.1% of the population. One local resident, Ladislav Rovinský, is determined to make sure that the town gets a proper memorial. A plaque was erected outside the synagogue in 2004 but it’s easily overlooked and hardly seems fitting, given the thousands who died so needlessly. Rovinský isn’t Jewish himself, but he’s hell-bent on ensuring that no one forgets what happened. Written up in the Tablet a couple of years ago, the article is worth a read.

Perhaps the most frightening element of it all is the danger that this might all be forgotten.

Later Rovinský acknowledged he could likely obtain foreign funding far more easily than he can at home, where the struggle to get the memorial off the ground reflects the awkward realities of “the Jewish issue” in today’s Slovakia, where more than a quarter of the population agreed in a January poll that it is time to stop discussing the deportations and mass murder of Jews in the Holocaust.

Interestingly, back to the Hungarian survey, when asked if they’d agree to having X move next door, 33% said they wouldn’t want Americans! Now, that’s a new one on me.


IMG_4441 (600x800)




15 replies
  1. Bernard Adams
    Bernard Adams says:

    It’s significant that that message on the wall is in Hungarian, not Yiddish, even though many ethnic Magyars had left after Trianon. A sign of the degree of assimilation of the Jewish population of Greater Hungary. Slovak was not spoken in Kassa before the First World War – it was the language of the countryside, and the other urban language was German.

  2. clive75mercer
    clive75mercer says:

    The Poll results, appear to be part of a trend towards Nationalism, the cause of the First and Second World Wars. An what else is it but Nationalism that is at the heart of those in Britain campaigning to leave the European Union.
    We must never forget the Holocaust, or any other travesty of Human rights in Recent History.
    How wil,l or would each of us react given a similar situation, one can only hope that it would be with selfless compassion, but I wouldn’t be holding my breath !!

  3. stcoemgen
    stcoemgen says:

    The Srebrenica massacre, also known as the Srebrenica genocide, was only 21 years ago. Genocide is not just something in Europe’s past but in its recent history. And may be again in its future (consider, for example, those that were killed at Srebrenica were Muslims [even thought they were ethnic Europeans] — and compare the current anti-Muslim rhetoric today in Europe found in many countries and right wing parties).

    Also, there has been a lot of anti-American rhetoric from the Hungarian Government ever since the US Government banned some Hungarians from entering the US due to accusations of corruption two yeas ago. If you are not aware of that, and the consequences and malicious anit-American rhetoric still today perpetrated by the TPTB in Hungary ever since, you really do kind of live in an expat bubble. Someone even told my Hungarian wife that the Volkswagen emission scandal was all an American lie to discredit Volkswagen (the person claiming such had never heard that Volkswagen admitted their culpability, because he never heard this so reported over government national news (or those controlled by its oligarch’s) — Much like someone just watching FOX News in the USA and thinking that is providing all the news).

      • stcoemgen
        stcoemgen says:

        Yes, I understood you were surprised by the number. But ask yourself, why were you surprised? This view of Americans in Hungary was not hidden news, nor is it recent news.

        Or to put it another way: IMHO, visiting tourist sites is fun, and learning about history is important, but unless one takes the almost daily effort to also aware of local people’s opinions and world views today, including the populistic ones, one may never really understand the country and its people where one calls home so as to put historical information into current context. Then one risks being just a perpetual tourist, and one’s home in that country just a place to store old furniture. Of course, and then again, I guess some expats are okay with that status. Each to their own.

  4. Arthur Provost
    Arthur Provost says:

    The Holucaust is not just a Jewish issue. There were about 5 million non-Jews put to death by the Nazis. We Jews need to make that more broadly known. At what group of persons would the Nazis stopped the killing?

    The Holocaust is not unique in recent history. Just the numbers.

    • Mary
      Mary says:

      Agree – one of the links in the piece points to an earlier blog on a Holocaust Memorial Day where the fate of the other 5 million was highlighted outside the House of Terror on Andrassy. Sobering indeed.

  5. zolimely
    zolimely says:

    Dear Mary, Just a short note to your blog entry: It is true that Kassa (Kosice) ceded to Hungary in 1938, but only after it was occupied by the freshly born Czech army in 1918 (1st WW), then taken over and evacuated by the Russians in 1919 (still 1st WW) and, eventually, ordered to become part of the than 2 years old state of Czechoslovakia in 1920 by the Trianon Treaty. Yes, Hungary seriously lost WW1 (and two third of its territory) by fighting on the side of the Germans. However, Kassa has been a royal seat (with a stormy history) since 1347, and also that of the Bishop btw. 1596 and 1700. ‘Ceded’ without a bit of explanation of the past I find somewhat misleading.
    Mind you, Slovakia, as an independent state, exists (after a short impromptu in 1939) since 1992.

  6. Leslie Green
    Leslie Green says:

    Thank you for posting this. My mother, a survivor of Auschwitz, Plaszow, Bergen Belsen and a Death March was from Kosice. My children and I went back to to the city 10 years ago along with my mother. I remember seeing this, but did not get a photo. Now, thanks to you, I have one. It was the most powerful thing we saw. during our visit. Thank you again.

    • Mary Murphy
      Mary Murphy says:

      Your mother is quite the woman, Leslie Green. Quite the woman. And yes, it remains one of the most moving things I’ve seen. Thanks for taking the time to comment.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] and promised ourselves to come back when everything was open. And we lucked out and got to see the heart-wrenching inscription preserved on the wall of the […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply to clive75mercer Cancel reply