For some inexplicable reason, I have a strange fascination with the Holocaust. I can’t quite get my head around so many people being systematically put to death. I can’t even begin to fathom how others could stand by and let it happen. And deep down, there’s the ever-present question: What would I have done had I been around then?
Oh, of course, I’d like to think that I’d have been fighting on the side of righteousness, aiding and abetting Jews in their escape. I’d like to think that I’d have been so incensed by the wrong that was being done that all thoughts of personal safety would dissipate as the need to do something took hold. I’d like to think all that but I don’t know.
A recent study on anti-Semitism in Hungary Anti-Semitic Prejudice in Present Hungarian Society (Antiszemita előítéletesség a mai magyar társadalomban) notes that 32% of Hungarians participating in the survey have strong or moderate anti-Semitic views and somewhat scarily, one of five of those surveyed believe that Hungarian Jews should leave the country.
Let’s go back in time a little, to the Slovakian town of Košice (Hungarian Kassa). Košice was ceded to Hungary, by the First Vienna Award, from 1938 until early 1945. Of course, the German occupation of Hungary filtered down, and between 16 May and 3 June in 1944 the town’s Jewish population was forcibly removed. One in five residents were Jewish: 12 000 of the 60 000 living in Košice. Rounded up, detained, and then transported to the Auschwitz, fewer than 600 would return. Just one in twenty made their way back.
I’ve heard the heartstone beat in Salaspils near Riga. I’ve visited the artists colony of Terezín outside Prague that Jews believed was a gift from Hitler. I’ve been to Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Dachau. I’ve seen the memorials – the crystal chandelier in Skopje, the chairs in Kraków , the children’s memorial in Győr. I’ve partaken in the March of the Living in Budapest, heard stories of survivors, and wondered at the other five million also wiped off the face of the earth during that bleak period in history. But what I saw in Košice affected me like nothing else.
Looming over Puškinova ulica, the relatively new synagogue (1927) looks remarkably unused. The side gates were locked, the doors closed tight. We asked someone who said it was never used these days. Always closed. It was Sunday, so I’d hoped it would be open. A notice in Slovakian mentioned something about something happening at 2pm on a Sunday… that very day. We hung around and waited. I really wanted to see inside – to see the writing on the wall. We were in luck. That day, they were giving two tours – in Slovakian.
We paid our €2 and sat through an hour of history that we couldn’t understand. When the others looked up or to the side, our eyes followed suit, but we had no idea what we were being ask to look at. It was cold. I felt myself wandering. I had little trouble imagining 2000 Jews imprisoned here in a space built for 800. No toilets, no food. Crammed together awaiting an uncertain future. Down the road, in a large steel arena, thousands more awaited the same fate.
And on 21 April, 1944, Tibi, one of the 2000 incarcerated in the house of prayer, scribbled a note on the wall in pencil: We are here. I don’t know where they are taking us (Itt vagyunk. Nem tudom hova visznek.) This message came to light during the renovation of 1970. For 63 years, it had gone unnoticed. No one knows who Tibi is. Was he one of the 600 who returned? How old was he? A man, a boy, a child? But somehow, the handwritten note makes it all very real. It personalises the huge numbers – 12000 – and gives one of them life. Weeks have passed and I’m still thinking about Tibi. There are about 250 Jews left in the town – just 0.1% of the population. One local resident, Ladislav Rovinský, is determined to make sure that the town gets a proper memorial. A plaque was erected outside the synagogue in 2004 but it’s easily overlooked and hardly seems fitting, given the thousands who died so needlessly. Rovinský isn’t Jewish himself, but he’s hell-bent on ensuring that no one forgets what happened. Written up in the Tablet a couple of years ago, the article is worth a read.
Perhaps the most frightening element of it all is the danger that this might all be forgotten.
Later Rovinský acknowledged he could likely obtain foreign funding far more easily than he can at home, where the struggle to get the memorial off the ground reflects the awkward realities of “the Jewish issue” in today’s Slovakia, where more than a quarter of the population agreed in a January poll that it is time to stop discussing the deportations and mass murder of Jews in the Holocaust.
Interestingly, back to the Hungarian survey, when asked if they’d agree to having X move next door, 33% said they wouldn’t want Americans! Now, that’s a new one on me.