BUDAPEST, March 16, 2014 — Budapest is the magnificent city on the Danube where my father was born on the eve of the First World War.
Budapest was once a royal capital, ruled by the Austrian emperor in his capacity as king of Hungary; then a war erupted the effect of which was to tear apart Europe, with particularly disruptive consequences for Hungary. As the result of being on the losing side, Hungary had to forfeit half its population and about two-thirds of its territory. Despite that, and despite the later misfortunes of being occupied by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (until 1989), the Hungarian capital has retained its regal charm reminiscent of the country’s last golden age.
Composed of two onetime separate cities on both sides of the Danube, Buda and Pest, and then incorporating the hilly district overlooking Buda, known as Obud, the city stands as an architectural treasure that has few equals in Europe. Although boasting Baroque churches, a towering Var, or fortress, built in the Middle Ages, and thermal baths developed during the Turkish occupation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, most of Budapest’s impressive vistas, along the Danube, around the Parliament and looking down Andrassy Utca, the fashionable main boulevard in Pest, were constructed between 1850 and the outbreak of the Great War.
This includes the Dohany Utca Templum, a synagogue begun in 1859 for wealthy Hungarian burgers of the (non-orthodox) Jewish faith, which was once the largest Jewish house of worship in the world. My relatives once attended the synagogue. The proud Budapest residents who built it and enjoyed favor under the monarchy could never have envisaged the catastrophe that would befall their community in 1944. That was when Nazi German troops occupied the Hungarian capital and deported to labor camps or killed most of the Jewish residents.
Those who survived had mostly fled before this disaster, knowing that Hungary would fall to either Hitler or Stalin. In the end, it fell to both. As in the cases of Germany and Austria, there seems to be no real continuity between the prewar Jewish community in Hungary, which had existed there for centuries, and those who have taken its place, with the influx from Eastern Europe. If one wishes to see what is left of the old pre-World War Two Hungarian Jewish families, one may have visit their descendants in the US, Australia, or England.
Despite this tragic past, Hungarians seem visibly cheery. Everywhere we walked, we saw handsome young couples holding hands. And we commented simultaneously that it would be a good thing if these couples produced more babies. Under Soviet rule, the country had fallen to a sub-replacement population level, and right now it may be in competition with the Italians for the lowest birth rate in Europe. Moreover, the inhabitants of Budapest, who are working furiously to repair their splendiferous public buildings and sumptuous apartments from an earlier age, could easily accommodate a larger population. Budapest is a world-class metropolis with relatively sparse demographics.
Two other characteristics of the city left an impression on me. Although the Russians occupied Budapest steadily from 1945 until 1989, hardly anyone there speaks, or admits to speaking, a word of Russian. The second language, which used to be German, is now English. Only Hungarians or those with Hungarian backgrounds speak this strange-sounding, agglutinative language that is related to Turkish, Finnish, and more distantly Japanese. As Fate would have it, Hungarian broke off from other members of the Finnish-Uralic languages group about four-thousand years ago, and so knowing one of these other tongues doesn’t help much in learning Hungarian.
The other characteristic of Hungarian life I noticed is how readily the people have turned their back on an unhappy time period. Hungarians are proud of their past as a nation going back more than one thousand years; and they now pay tribute to the Habsburg ruler of Austria who consented to becoming specifically a Hungarian king (rather than a foreign ruler) in 1867. It was the age of the Emperor-King Franz Josef (1848-1916) that coincided with the height of Hungary’s political and cultural achievements. Significantly, the bridges and monuments commemorating this now legendary ruler and his much beloved wife, Elisabeth, are now being again called by their original, pre-Soviet names. In conversing in my broken Hungarian, I took care to call these landmarks by their imperial names. For example, the Szabasag Hid, the FreedomBridge, will always be for me the Ferencz Josef Hid, the FranzJosefBridge.
Who says you can’t go back, at least linguistically, to a nicer past?