First impressions of Budapest are of a beautiful city full of grand architecture in the 18th century Viennese style. Churches, the Opera house to streets lined with ornate apartments are emblems of the Austro-Hungarian empires grandeur. The landmark 19C grand parliament buildings on the edge of the Danube suggest confidence and permanence. Yet the state of disrepair of many of these old buildings is an indicator of the politics of the past 100 years: 2 world wars and 50 years of communist rule. Since the 90‘s, transition to democracy is slow but the memory of a grander history is kept alive in the architecture, the museums and the arts.
In amongst the throngs of tourists there are many local people drinking coffee, smoking, engaged in vibrant conversation at the numerous sidewalk cafes and squares. In our dialogue with some residents one senses the frustration with the the government and corruption, but also hope and energy for progress and change.
A large part of the Jewish population of Budapest identified with the Hungarian culture. Hungary’s alignment with Germany early in WW II and the ensuing resistance of the government to cooperate with deportation, allowed the Jewish community to fare better for longer than in other countries under Nazi control. Then near the war’s end, in 1944 the Third Reich occupied Hungary and thousands of Jews were contained in ghettoes where they died of starvation or were deported en mass to Auschwitz-Birkenau. As they disembarked from the trains, the vast majority were ‘selected’ for the gas chambers. This story is sensitively preserved in the many synagogues, walking tours of the former Ghetto area, a very comprehensive Holocaust Museum as well as art installations throughout the city.