Open­ing the yel­low doors

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT - Nick Bar­lay

THE COURT­YARD of 59, Nép­szín­ház Street, in Bu­dapest’s poorer Eighth District, has barely changed in 70 years. The three storeys of flats still fun­nel to­wards the sky. The tiles, rail­ings and stair­way are the same. So, too, is the cel­lar in which two boys, my fa­ther and my cousins’ fa­ther, were hid­den while a mas­sacre took place above them.

When I first vis­ited Num­ber 59 with my fa­ther in 1978, I was 15. The bul­let­holes were still there, at knee-height just in­side the main en­trance. They marked the place where around 20 old and young men – the ones of mid­dle age hav­ing been taken on forced labour – were ex­e­cuted. It was the first time my fa­ther had re­turned to Hun­gary since es­cap­ing in 1956. He had wanted to visit his child­hood home to thank the wife of the concierge. She, along with her hus­band, who by then had died, had helped to hide both boys, reg­u­larly bring­ing them food in the days that fol­lowed.

June 21 saw the Bu­dapest-wide com­mem­o­ra­tion of a net­work of houses that was unique in the his­tory of the Holo­caust. From that day in 1944, around 2000 houses were des­ig­nated as com­pul­sory res­i­dences for over 200,000 Jews. Like their forcibly re­lo­cated res­i­dents, the houses had to be clearly iden­ti­fied with a yel­low star of David. Num­ber 59 was one of them.

I was there partly be­cause I’d writ­ten a book about my fam­ily’s his­tory, Scat­tered Ghosts, re­cently trans­lated into Hun­gar­ian, and partly to or­gan­ise a com­mem­o­ra­tion. My fa­ther died in 2010, and my cousins’ fa­ther in 1991, but there were sev­eral people who had known both of them as boys and who had lost fam­ily mem­bers dur­ing the mas­sacre in the house on Oc­to­ber 17 1944, two days af­ter the Hun­gar­ian fas­cist Ar­row Cross Party came to power.

Over years of re­search, I man­aged to find a range of cor­rob­o­rat­ing ev­i­dence, in­clud­ing vic­tims’ graves in an over­grown plot of Bu­dapest’s Jewish ceme­tery. As a writer, one some­times as­sumes a book to be de­fin­i­tive. In the case of fam­ily his­tory, this is wrong. Af­ter pub­li­ca­tion in Hun­gary, I was con­tacted by new people, sur­vivors, de­scen­dants of sur­vivors, and for­mer res­i­dents who re­mem­bered my fa­ther as a child. Stand­ing with them in the court­yard of No 59, it could not have been clearer that his­tory casts long shad­ows.

The Yel­low Star Houses project was non­govern­men­tal, ini­ti­ated by the Open So­ci­ety Ar­chive at Cen­tral Euro­pean Univer­sity. But its suc­cess de­pended on first and sec­ond

Ge­orge Soros stood on a pave­ment, re­call­ing...

gen­er­a­tion in­di­vid­u­als or­gan­is­ing events in around 1600 sur­viv­ing houses. Each was dif­fer­ent: a song in a court­yard; a talk in a hall­way by a sur­vivor; the read­ing of names from a bal­cony; a pi­anist play­ing in a street; a video pro­jected on a build­ing; an old woman speak­ing from the win­dow of her flat; Ge­orge Soros on a pave­ment shar­ing mem­o­ries; a gath­er­ing in a prayer house that was like a time cap­sule from the 19th century. I wish I could have gone to many more, not only for their dif­fer­ences but for the col­lec­tive bridge they cre­ated be­tween past and present.

Bu­dapest’s Jews gen­er­ally sur­vived com­pared to their provin­cial coun­ter­parts, the vast ma­jor­ity of whom were de­ported to Auschwitz be­tween May 15 and July 9 1944. Of­fi­cially, this is Holo­caust Me­mo­rial Year in Hun­gary, but it has been con­tro­ver­sial for its lack of con­sul­ta­tion with the people be­ing memo­ri­alised. For many sur­vivors, the po­lit­i­cal is­sues are poignant. One warned me against do­ing any­thing, sug­gest­ing that it would pro­voke “in­ci­dents”. The truth is that the day was more likely to be ig­nored by main­stream me­dia. And so it was.

Fam­ily his­to­ries creak un­der the weight of the un­writ­ten sto­ries. The ab­sences are al­ways the greater part, and na­tional his­to­ries are some­times no more than amplifications of ab­sence. In Hun­gary’s case, there are far too many ab­sences. Now, af­ter 70 years, Bu­dapest’s Yel­low Star Houses have been com­mem­o­rated, and at least a few doors have been opened to re­veal the his­tor­i­cal com­plic­ity of a na­tion that has yet to come to terms with its past.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.