The Jewish Chronicle

Opening the yellow doors

- 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.

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