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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Saving Budapest's Jewish quarter - one building at a time

BUDAPEST, March 2, 2006 (AFP) - It survived the horrors of Nazi occupation and the neglect of communism, but Budapest's old Jewish district is facing a new threat: greedy real estate developers bent on razing historic buildings.

Since 2002, six tenements in this maze of streets have been demolished, giving way to spanking new apartment blocks and office buildings. Some are twice as tall, intruding sharply on the bygone grace of the late 19th-early 20th century facades.

"The old buildings are disappearing," complained one of the local activists fighting the trend, Orsolya Egri. "Instead of destroying them we should remember our past and cherish what we have."

Egri is a member of OVAS, a group formed in 2004 to protect this neighborhood whose history they fear could be silenced by demolitions.

The group claims credit for rescuing eight buildings so far through protests and public awareness programs. But it warns that another 25 others are threatened with demolition on these narrow lanes that still echo the past.

The neighborhood, in Pest on the eastern side of this capital that straddles the Danube, was the birthplace in 1860 of Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl, whose ideas led to the creation of the modern state of Israel.

Later, it was the focus of another sort of visionary -- Hitler sidekick Adolf Eichmann who oversaw the Holocaust. When Eichmann was stationed in Budapest, his agents had an office here -- while Swiss and Swedish diplomats Carl Lutz and Raoul Wallenberg were busy elsewhere in the city issuing documents that saved thousands of Jews from Nazi deportation.

It was also here that 70,000 Jews were herded in 1944 into a central ghetto, where thousands died of starvation, disease and arbitrary execution.

But thanks to the city's liberation by Soviet troops in January 1945, the Budapest ghetto became the only one in Europe whose people were spared mass deportation and death in concentration camps.

Of late the area has become an eclectic mix. Upscale stores selling designer furniture share the sidewalks with family kosher restaurants and the many synagogues that dot the area.

At night, it is a favorite with young Budapest intellectuals who seek out trendy watering holes tucked inside courtyards of crumbling buildings, too deep into the labyrinth for tourists to find.

"These buildings survived the world war, they survived four decades of communism, but they cannot survive greed," said Mihaly Raday, a respected expert here on architectural protection.

He and other critics also point a finger at what they call complacent officials who, instead of financing the restoration of dilapidated buildings, give realtors free rein to raze the old and build new structures that offer a higher return on investments.

As with other parts of the capital, the buildings here fell into general neglect under four decades of communism.

"I am outraged at the demolitions and the absence of any planning on how to preserve our architecture," said Julia Kishegyi, a 53-year old doctor who has lived her entire life in the same building on the edge of the old Jewish quarter.

Just a stone's throw away from her apartment, the latest demolition is taking place at 40 Kiraly Street.

District officials gave permission to raze the building without notifying the city's Cultural Heritage Bureau as required, according to the bureau's head, Kalman Varga.

Raday charged that "realtors skirt the law with the consent of district officials in order to speed up construction," but municipal officials -- who have wide-ranging powers to decide on local real estate development -- were unavailable for comment when called.

Meanwhile the movement to save buildings in this district keeps swelling.

Culture Minister Andras Bozoki was among the latest to come on board, with a stinging open letter two weeks ago to the mayor of the sixth district where Kiraly street is located.

"The case of 40 Kiraly Street -- like the case of the former Jewish district -- is more important for me than a few legal paragraphs," he wrote.

"Where we cannot advance with the tools of the law, only our common sense and responsibility for our cultural heritage can help. This is why I ask you to stop the demolition of the building," Bozoki appealed.

OVAS may have scored a new success, though it is too early to tell.

In a temporary reprieve, the Budapest prosecutor's office suspended the demolition of 40 Kiraly Street last week, citing irregularities in the authorization of the permit.

129,476 Posts
Discussion Starter · #2 ·
Young Hungarians spark Jewish renaissance
Revival of tradition has new generation teaching the old

Tracy Wilkinson
Los Angeles Times
9 December 2007

Inside the funky Siraly coffeehouse in Budapest's Seventh District, the air is smoky and the tables are crowded with the young, cool and Jewish.

They are sipping creamed coffees and Hungarian Merlots, chatting about theater and planning for a Hanukkah that will include music from jazz jams to Klezmer and a menorah made from recycled materials. Another evening might feature Hebrew hip-hop, a spirited debate with some of the country's leading intellectuals. Or an Iranian film.

This is the heart of an unconventional revival of Jewish life that is injecting fresh and eclectic energy into the largest Jewish community between Paris and Moscow. With the horrors of the Holocaust and the atheistic sterility of communism part of a distant past, a new generation of Hungarian Jews is embracing and recasting its Jewish identity, asking questions and posing answers while asserting diversity. Some are teaching their communist-era parents to be believers.

Despite dire predictions that Jewish communities in Europe are dead or dying, depleted by immigration and drowned by persistent waves of anti-Semitism, Budapest, with at least 100,000 Jews, has bucked that trend.

More Jews survived World War II and stuck around in Hungary than in the rest of Central Europe. Today, the Hungarian capital has bustling synagogues, including the world's second largest, Jewish schools, Jewish publications, Web sites and blogs, and a huge expansion in cafes, restaurants and bookstores in the so-called Jewish Triangle, the historic Jewish neighborhoods of the city's central Seventh District that is undergoing something of a renaissance. There are older Orthodox Jews, middle-aged Neologue Jews (a branch of Judaism indigenous to Hungary) and thousands of secular Jews of all ages.

Many have been experiencing the rediscovery of faith typical in the former Soviet bloc. Others are creating alternative ways of pursuing, if not the faith, at least some of the traditions and meanings of being a Jew. And they chafe at the bureaucracy that has managed formal Jewish affairs in Hungary for years.

"We want to focus on the traditions to re-create a new identity, a new concept of Jewish identity," said Eszter Susan, 29, one of the people running the Siraly coffee house. (The name means Seagull in Hungarian.)

"We are Jewish and it's nothing to hide," she said, speaking over the noise that bounced off walls covered with posters and abstract paintings.

Like many Hungarian Jews of her generation, she grew up with a vague notion she was Jewish, although not really what that meant.

Adam Schoenberger, who opened the rambling, three-story Siraly last year, said he was casting about for "points of access" for young Jews who, like him, found synagogues with aging congregations to be less than inviting.

"We are trying to change things," said Schoenberger, a wiry man of 27. "We are asking the questions: Who is a Jew and what does that mean?

"We are here. We are alive. We are cool."

Similar motivation led blogger Bruno Bitter, 31, to found the popular Web site and social network known as He took the name from an anti-Semitic reference made by a Viennese mayor a century ago, turned it on its head and converted it into something positive, he says.

"I wanted to change the rules and the context of being Jewish in Hungary," Bitter said by e-mail. "I wanted to take 'Jewishness' out of all its negative contexts (like anti-Semitism, the Holocaust or the Middle East conflict)."

A key reason Jews in Budapest have the luxury to flourish and experiment is sheer numbers, said Edward Serotta, head of the Central Europe Center for Research and Documentation in Vienna, which is collecting the history of Jewish life in Europe for the past century.

Jews were exterminated throughout the Hungarian countryside in World War II, but many were spared in Budapest, faring better than in most neighboring countries. And Hungarian communism was less repressive than in other places, allowing the Soviet bloc's only rabbinical seminary to continue to operate.

But only after the fall of communism in 1989 did many Hungarian Jews begin to return to their faith, a process often led by the younger generations.

At their second-floor walk-up in the Seventh District, four generations of the Sardi family come together on a Friday evening for Shabbat dinner and the lighting of candles.

Dora Sardi, 33, a historian, has reinvigorated faithful observance in the family. Her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, felt it necessary to repress his faith; his son, Dora's father, wanted nothing to do with religion. It was an era when many Hungarian Jews changed their last names, stopped speaking Yiddish, dropped holidays.

"My mother was educated by her grandmother, so she knew a little more about the traditions. But my father didn't want to hear about it," Dora Sardi said. "We celebrated Christmas for a few years, and then nothing at all for several years.

"Slowly, slowly, we are finding the way back."

Her father, Gyula Sardi, 60, said he always knew he was a Jew, "But it was a kind of secret."

Wearing an oversized white-silk "kippah," or skull cap, Gyula Sardi found it somewhat amusing that it is his daughter now teaching him how to worship.

"To have this from your children is unusual," he said. "Usually the parents give religion to the child, not the other way around. We inherited it from our children."

The patriarch, Fulop Sardi, was condemned to a wartime forced- labor brigade, a fate shared by tens of thousands of male Hungarian Jews, but he lived. Sardi, 94, who changed his name from Steiner in 1946, began talking about the Holocaust only in the past 10 to 15 years.

His eyes twinkle at the Shabbat ceremony, especially as he watches his great-grandchildren gather around silver candlesticks for the blessing.

"I am more active now than as a youth," Fulop Sardi said. "And it is even better now, because where it used to be an obligation, now it is a pleasure."

The traditions have jumped generations: Dora Sardi's grandfather had a bris and bar mitzvah, but neither her father nor her brother did; her 7-year-old son had a bris, is studying Torah and will have a bar mitzvah.

Dora's husband, Mate Gaspar, is more pessimistic about the revival of Jewish life here.

"It's too late," Gaspar, a theatrical director, said. "The roots are not there anymore; it's lost its context."

He also believes that anti-Semitism is still ingrained in so many Hungarians, with the history of the Holocaust still not confronted, that Jews once again can become the scapegoats in any disaster or national misfortune. "If they look for an enemy, they will say 'the Jews,' " he said. "The reflex is still there."

For many young Jews, rediscovering their faith also has been helped along by a visit to Israel, although, significantly, not a decision to remain there. Schoenberger, the Siraly manager, said he enjoyed living in Israel with its Jewish majority, but he felt he belonged in Hungary. "The best thing I can do is live in Hungary with my full identity," he said. "I can be a whole person here. I don't have to go to another country" to live a Jewish life.

Some people question, however, whether a Jewish identity based so overwhelmingly on cultural and intellectual pursuits, and not on religion, isn't hollow. Is it sustainable in the long term?

"This is about Jewishness more than Judaism," said Ruth Ellen Gruber, an expert on European Jewry and author of "Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe." "I don't know if something called Judaism can survive if all it is a vague sense of intellectual attitude. They're going to have to figure that out."

Still, no one disputes the changes and potential.

Budapest is also site of the largest of 40 schools set up across Europe by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation intended to promote Jewish identity. At the Lauder Javne School in the western suburbs of Budapest, kindergartners in parkas were playing in the snow during recess on a recent day while older kids prepared decorations for Hanukkah. In an English class, they were learning words from the holiday, like "miracle."

When the school opened in 1990, principal Anna Szeszler held the first staff meeting in her kitchen with five teachers. Today, there are 70 full- and part-time teachers and 600 students from kindergarten to 12th grade, and a long waiting list. Jewish studies and Hebrew are required courses up to the ninth grade, but the student body includes Jews and non-Jews.

Rather than force tradition on the children, she said, the school tries to show pupils how to enjoy it, convinced that will be the best way to attract them to Jewish life.

"The next generation," she said, "will be involved more easily. It takes time and you have to keep going."
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