Tuesday, April 28, 2015


This is my last post from Budapest; we leave tomorrow night for our long flight back to the US.  However, it is NOT my last post ABOUT Budapest.  I still have hundreds of things I want to write about and show pictures of.  These Budapest-themed posts will now sit within the context of our US lives, so there will also be posts about Louisville and Lake Medora in the Michigan Upper Peninsula.  So if you are following this blog because you're interested on my experiences in Budapest, please stay and read.  If you're mainly here because you're interested in what Tony and I are up to, also please stay.  Blogging will return over the weekend.

For the last post in Budapest, I am leaving pictures of some of the WONDERFUL desserts I ate in here.  Budapest actually rekindled my love of desserts which had sort of grown dormant.  I think it's because Budapest desserts tend, on the one hand, to be simpler than American desserts (which often have 10+ things on top of one another) but on the other, to be more intense in flavors, especially all the sour cherry and strawberry sorbets and sauces that adorn them.  

Also, this post is dedicated to my dear friend Susan, who I know takes pleasure in my pleasure :)

Monday, April 27, 2015

Antal Szerb. Journey by Moonlight.

  • When I was in High School my favourite pasttime was walking.  Or rather, loitering.  If we are talking about my adolescence, it's the more accurate word.  Systematically, one by one, I explored all the districts of Pest.  I relished the special atmosphere of every quarter and every street.  Even now I can still find the same delight in houses that I did then.  In this respect I've never grown up.  Houses have so much to say to me.  For me, they are what Nature used to be to the poets--or rather, what the poets thought of as Nature. Antal Szerb.  Journey by Moonlight.  

Journey by Moonlight is the last, and oldest, of four great Hungarian novels I read in Budapest.  Antal Szerb (1901-1945--those horrible dates) was one of the greatest literary scholars and novelists of his generation.  His work on world literature--including Stephan George, William Blake, and Henrik Ibsen--is still considered authoritative.  He was also a translator and professor and one of the most important Hungarian novelists of the twentieth century.  Journey by Moonlight, his most famous novel, was published in 1937.  In 1944, Szerb was deported to a concentration camp and beaten to death in 1945, at the age of 43.

Journey by Moonlight is the story of a young man, Mihaley, who is on his honeymoon in Italy.  One night he unexpectedly meets a man from his youth, and then tells Erzsi, his new wife, the story of his relation with this man, another man, and a brother and sister during his school years and early adulthood.  Later, he "accidentally" gets on the wrong train while in Italy and becomes separated from his wife.  He then wanders through Italy, meeting other people from his past, until he arrives in Rome.  His Italian journey (like that of so many others) is to some hoped for self understanding.  It is a journey by moonlight--outside of the world of "the fathers, the Zoltans, the business, world, people."  Except that it is not.  He ends by going home.  The book exhibits what its translator, Len Rix, calls "an irony distinctively Middle-European in character."

Journey by Moonlight is the novel all Hungarians "read as students.  Every educated Hungarian knowls and loves this book."  One can see why: intelligence, humor, warmth, wry acceptance, and of course irony.  It is so very Hungarian.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Night at the Opera. Jenufa.

After our morning at Salgotarjani Cemetery, we spent the evening at the opera.  This time it was Jenufa by Leos Janacek.  It has been described as a grim story of infanticide and redemption.  It's Janacek's first opera in prose.  And it very naturalistic in the drama.  But the opera itself is not grim.  It is incredibly dramatic with music that sounds simultaneously like traditional folk and modern orchestration.  The music is psychologically complex but instantly accessible.

The audience wouldn't let them leave.

It has been such an amazing privilege to live in a city that has such great music.  We were able to go to four operas in the the three months we were in Budapest.  And on each occasion we saw something we had never seen (and some cases never could see anywhere else):  Banc Ban, Ariadne auf Naxos, Parsifal, and Jenufa.  Of course we chose these four, and there were other more familiar operas on offer.  But hearing these operas, all of them connected with the a time and place where culture was so rich, was an extraordinary gift.  

#HungarianStateOpera  #Jenufa  #Leos Janacek  #Budapest

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Salgotarjani Cemetery. Salgotarjani Utcai Temeto. Budapest Hungary.

This week, Tony and I were able to visit the Salgotarjani Cemetery, the old Jewish cemetery next to Kerepesi Cemetery.  I have thought a long time on how to write about this.  And I have decided that I will only present the facts, as I have found and seen them.  I will use a few photographs to illustrate.  If you would like to see more photographs from the cemetery, I have put up a flickr site here.

The cemetery on Salgotarjani Street was opened in 1874 and is now the oldest cemetery on the Pest side.  (Two other cemeteries, one on Vaci and one on Lehal streets were built over and the bodies buried in the cemeteries were reinterred.)  It is right behind the Kerepesi Street Cemetary, separated by a wall.  The entrance and ceremonial hall were designed by Bela Lajta.  Many notable architects, including Lajta, erected mausoleums and monumnets.  The walls of the cemetery are lined with mausoleums and there are several monumental graave sites near the cemetery's entrance.  In the middle and back of the cemetery are graves of ordinary people.  The mausoleums were built for Jewish entrepreneurs and leading economic and political figures by noted architects, such as Lajta, Ignac Alpar, Emil Vidor, and others.  Eventually, the Salgotarjani cemetery became full and a new and larger synagogue on Kozma street was built.  (It is still in use.)  The last burial at Salgotarjani was in 1965, but no new grave sites have been added since the 1950s.

Salgotarjani Cemetery holds the graves of people who died, for the most part, before World War II. These, often very rich people, had families who would have been alive in 1944 or 1945, and thus likely to have been killed or to have left Hungary.  Thus, there is really no to care for this cemetery.

As of this writing, the cemetery can be visited.  It is guarded by two large German Shepherd dogs and a caretaker.  We tried to visit a couple of times but weren't able to figure out how to phone the number displayed.  We eventually spoked to someone at JewishInfo beisdes the Dohaney Street Synagogue who called and made an appointment for us.  The people who live above the top of the entrance gate do not have English, but they were very kind and welcoming.  (And they tied up the dogs.)

The cemetery is in extreme disrepair, despite the attempts of the caretaker.  We began by walking around the walls where the mausoleums were situated.  We then tried to see some of the other parts, but it is hard to negotiate because of all the vegetation.

The grave stones, monuments, and mausolea are being destroyed in three ways.

First, and most pervasive, is the result of natural causes:  the heavy vegetation and the decay of the buildings through natural processes of weathering.  In some cases, trees have grown into the grave and destroyed the structures.

Second, grave sites have been vandalized or defaced.

And third--most disturbingly--tombs have been looted: coffins and bodies removed.  These acts of looting preceded the presence of the dogs and caretaker,  But many tombs remain open.  Looters were apparently looking for valuables on the corpses or gold teeth.

This cemetery is a space of memory.  Budapest is a city that memorializes many of its citizens.  There are plaques all over the city saying who lived where and when.  There are sculptures spread through the city, many of which are memorials.  The two large public Christian cemeteries, on Kerepesi and Kozma roads, are well tended and often visited.  Salgotarjani cemetery is primarily forgotten.  Like many other Jewish cemeteries in Europe, the next generations who would have remembered were annihilated.  So what is left?

#SalgotarjaniCemetery #Budapest #JewishCemetery

Saturday, April 18, 2015

"I Used to be Erno Szep": The Smell of Humans

According to John Batki, the translater of Erno Szep's Holocaust memoir, The Smell of Humans, the phrase "I used to be Erno Szep" is how Szep introduced himself after World War II.  Szep (1884-1953), also according to Batki, is an author "in danger of falling into a 'black hole' of the nation's collective consciousness."  He certainly exists in a black hole outside of Hungary; except for The Smell of Humans, none of his work appears to have been translated into English.  During his life, Szep was known as a poet and playwright, and according to information on the internet, some of his plays are still performed in Hungary. His scant biography is, however, immaterial, as he suggests in "The Autobiographical Statement (1947)" that precedes his memoir:  "One's life history shows in one's thinking.   What took place in my head constitutes my life; the other things that happened to me were not really my doing and do not belong to me."

The Smell of Humans was first published in Hungary in 1945 as Emberszag.  In 1984, it was reprinted in Hungarian, and in 1994 was translated and published by Corvina Books and the Central European University Press.  The back cover of the English edition describes it as "primarily a piece of creative writing and autobiographical literature,"  This, in my view, begs the questions--as all autobiographical literature involves creative construction of a self and its history, and all creative writing somehow bears the life history of the writer.  The cover goes on to describe the book's tone as a "meld of stupefaction and irony," and this strikes me as completely right.

The book describes events between October and November 1944, after the brunt of the "organized" part of the Holocaust in Hungary had largely transpired: the deportations and transports to Auschwitz.  During this period, Szep occupied one of the Jewish Yelllow Star houses but had been saved from deportation, in part, by being protected by Raoul Wallenberg.  Nevertheless, on October 20, 1944, the 60-year old Szep, along with about fifty other elderly Jewish men, was rounded up and sent on a forced "labor" march by Arrow Cross thugs.  The Smell of Humans narrates the 19 days of the march that Szep experienced.

Despite the full horrors of Hungary under the Nazis, most of the men who are taken with Szep on this march are flummoxed at what is happening.  They appear, dressed in gentlemanly clothes, carrying suitcases and knapsacks with food and utensils.  They all smoke, and have brought various forms of tobacco.  The men over 60 assume that this is all mistake and they will be returned to their home soon.  Things, however, go from bad to worse, and realization dawns (at various speeds) about the brutality of the Arrow Cross youths and the complete meaninglessness of the work they are forced to do. Szep's description of what is happening similarly becomes more and more anchored in the brutal details of the men's torture.  His tone, however, continues to reflect both the stupefaction of the elderly men and the irony Szep locates in their predicament: the quotidian realities of old men sleeping, defacating, smoking, snoring together.

When Szep was first taken into the ghetto and forced to wear the yellow star, he says "I thought I would die, degraded to the level of a marked beast, a marked object.  No, they wouldn't see me wearing that star."  Szep never denies he is Jewish, nor is he anything but loyal and supportive of the men with whom he marched.  But being Jewish is not a part of his identity in the way being Hungarian is.  It is this sense of being "other" that seems to me the source of Szep's deepest existential irony. 

The Hungarian title of the book, Emberszag. joins the Hungarian word ember--or man--and swag--or odor.  It is, I discovered, the concluding word of the saying "Fee, Fie, Foe, Fum, I smell the blood of a. . . " in Hungarian.  In this saying, the monster smells the man whose odor identifies him as something "other" than the monster. But even though many claim that people of a different race, ethnicity, religion, "smell differently," the truth is that they all smell like humans.  In this case, the monster is the "inhuman" Arrow Cross youth who smells the human, Jewish man.     

Near the end of the The Smell of Humans, Szep says that "A man's biography consists of his thoughts.  Everything else that happens to me is something alien."  This assertion of the self in the face of meaningless brutality may be what allowed Szep to write this remarkable book.  

#ErnoSzep  #TheSmellofHumans  #HolocaustMemoir

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Hungary and Its Complicated History: Memorializing the Holocaust in Budapest

Hungary's involvement with the Holocaust is complex and (in my experience) not well understood outside--as well as inside--Hungary itself.  Hungary was unofficially allied with the Nazis in 1938, and in 1939 Jewish men of military age were forced to join the Hungarian Labor Service, where they were brutally treated as slaves by Fascist, Nazi-allied Hungarian military.  In 1941, Hungary became a formal ally of Nazi Germany.  In 1944, Miklos Horty, the leader of Hungary, tried to negotiate a separate peace with the British and American Allies.  At this point, Germany occupied Hungary and forced Horthy to abdicate in favor of the fascist Dome Szalasi,  Szalasi immediately legalized the anti-Semitic Arrow Cross Party, who were responsible for the movement of Hungarian Jews into ghettos and for their murders.  Adolph Eichman arrived in Budapest in March 1944 and helped the Arrow Cross more efficiently take care of their "Jew problem."  The Budapest ghettos were liberated in January 1945 by the Soviets and those in concentration camps were in the spring of 1945 by Allied Forces.  Budapest Jews, who had been relatively safe until near the end of the war, felt the full effects of the Holocaust during 1944 by the Hungarian Arrow Cross movement and Adolph Eichman. Approximately 80,000 Jews were killed directly by the Arrow Cross and the Nazis, and thousands more died in the ghettos of disease or starvation.

What I have offered in the preceding paragraph is one version of the history of Hungary and the Holocaust.  My version is pretty basic, gleaned mainly from the internet.  Like many other people, I really didn't know much about Hungary in World War II until I came to Budapest.  Histories are meant to be faithful to the facts, insofar as they are known.  But as a student of narrative, I know that all histories are also constructions that are put together within the context of particular sets of ideological commitments.  The complications of narrating Hungary's role in the Holocaust have been much in the news recently, and were dramatized vividly for me in two memorials Tony and I visited this week.

The first memorial, which is called "Shoes on the Danube Bank," was installed in 2004 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary.  It is a line of bronze shoes that records a series of executions conducted on the  Pest side of the Danube River, The memorial, conceived by the film director Can Togay and created by the sculptor Gyula Pauer, marks the occasion when the Arrow Cross made Jewish men, women and children take off their shoes before being shot such that their bodies fell into the water and were carried down the river.  It is, for me, and for most people who write or talk about it, an incredibly moving and poignant memorial.

The second memorial, which we saw directly after, is in Szabadsag (Liberty) ter, a large square with many government buildings, including the American Embassy.  This memorial consists of two parts: a sculpture that was installed by the Hungarian government in 2014 to mark the 70th anniversary of the "invasion of Hungary by Germany" and a response by many people who find the sculpture both historically inaccurate and offensive.

The sculpture was designed by Peter Parkyani Raab,who explains that the ferocious eagle is a symbol of Germany and the archangel Gabriel is a symbol of Hungary.  Part of the memorial is translated into in three languages (English, Hebrew, and Russian) "In Memory of the Victims."

This memorial has stirred up a great deal of controversy.  In response, many have claimed that Hungary was not a "victim" in the sense that the Hungarian Jews were, and that Hungarians were complicit in the murder of Jews during World War II.  For a more thorough analysis of the memorial by historians as well as politicians, see this article in the Budapest Telegraph.

In order to talk back to the official memorial, protestors have created what they call a "Living Memorial."  In this memorial, murdered Jews are represented not just as "victims," but as specific once-living people.

These two memorials, the official one and the response, show that Hungary's collective memory of World War II and the Holocaust is still fraught and perhaps inadequately examined.  It also shows how difficult historical narrative can be--told about the past but from the perspective of the present.  On  a related note, there has been controversy about the famous Terror Museum in Budapest, because it presents the Holocaust and Hungary under Communism as a continuum, rather than two separate acts of terror, with separate motivations and consequences.

Budapest is a city alive with history: it wears its past on its streets, in the mixture of buildings--post World War I, World War II, and Communism.  It has more commemorative plaques and statues than any city I have visited.  But as vivid as the history is, it is also opaque--as these various memorials demonstrate.

#Budapest  #Hungary  #Holocaust  #Memorial