Budapest Stories

After the Vienna train debacle, I finally managed to check into my hotel in Budapest after 10:00 Thursday. This is my third time here, and each time I’ve stayed at the King’s Hotel. It’s in the Jewish quarter, just down the street from the massive Dohany synagogue, the largest in Eastern Europe, convenient to much of what I plan to do here, and, well what can I say, I’m a creature of habit. But every time I mention where I’m staying to anyone Jewish and under 35, the eyes start to roll. 

Friday morning, the meetings began — four in a row, from 10-4. SInce not all of them will result in formal articles, I bring you, in three acts, a snapshot of Jewish Budapest. 

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The offices of the Haver Foundation occupy one room of an apartment on the third floor of building around the corner from my hotel (convenient, see?). There I met Mircea Cernov, the Romanian-born director, just before noon. With Cernov as its only full-time employee, Haver uses a network of some 30 volunteer educators to bring Holocaust and Judaic studies to Hungarian public school students. The entire operation, which reaches between 4-5,000 students annually — only about 1 percent of high school students in Hungary — survives on an annual budget of $100,000. 

"Generally speaking, Hungarian society became very intolerant, I would say, or a bit aggressive," Cernov told me. "Everything is very polarized. There is no dialogue. I think that is the most problematic thing at all levels of society, from the top political elite to the level of civil society."

Haver provides its services for free, pushing a curriculum that deals not only with the Holocaust and Judaism — topics Cernov said are scarcely addressed in Hungarian public education — but critical thinking skills as well. 

It struck me as a strange arrangement. Do school districts in the U.S. or Western Europe allow non-profits with their own pedagogical and educational agendas to peddle them in public classrooms? But Cernov said the Hungarian authorities recognize the gaps in the education they provide their students, particularly on the Holocaust issue, and don’t have much of a clue as to how to rectify it. Requests for Haver’s services have jumped 50 percent this year. 

"We solved them a problem," he said. 

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FOR SEVERAL YEARS, Alexandra Kowalski, a French-born lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at the Central European University here, has been studying historical preservation. Recently, she has turned her attention to efforts to protect important properties in the Jewish quarter from destruction by developers. 

This is a complex story, and I hope to have a fuller picture of it by mid-week. But Kowalski was able to give me a decent primer on the creation of Óvás which formed in 2004 to fight efforts by the then mayor of Budapest’s 7th district — which includes the Jewish quarter — to sell off historically significant properties to developers. The mayor, György Hunvald, was arrested in February on suspicion of financial fraud and shady real estate deals. 

The buildings in question, Kowalski explained, are vital to Jewish memory in Budapest, but landmark preservation laws in Hungary aren’t strong enough to protect them. The kicker is that many of the developers are Israeli, who are believed to control significant chunks of the Budapest real estate market. 

It’s a tale rich in political intrigue — government ministries opposed by the local municipal districts opposed by a ragtag group of intellectuals and writers opposed by a group of largely foreign investors. Like I said, it’s going to take a few days to sort it all out.

But in the meantime, Kowalski took me on a brief tour of the area. Just a few doors down from where we had a cup of tea is an old building draped in construction netting. A huge banner announcing the arrival of Herzl Passage hangs from the roof. For the moment, construction has been halted on the project — a victory, if a temporary one, for the preservationists. 

"It’s a memory of historic Budapest at the turn of this century," Kowalski said. "This area lost 40 percent of its patrimony."

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THE GOLEM THEATRE, one of a small number of Jewish theater groups in Budapest, shares an office with the Haver Foundation. On Friday afternoon I met with its artistic director, Andras Borgula, and Edina Schon, the producer. 

The company performs mainly Israeli works, including Etgar Keret, translated into Hungarian by Borgula. In December, they will be performing with Hungary’s National Theater, by far Golem’s biggest show to date.

"It’s very, very big," Borgula said. 

But the most interesting part for me was to hear their thoughts on the Jewish communal structures in Budapest. As I’ve noted elsewhere, complaints about the way Jewish communities operate in Europe is quite common from young people, as they are in the United States and elsewhere. 

But in Hungary, the resentment seems to run deeper and young Jewish groups, of which there are an impressive number here, have more or less written them off. Despite the financial support they could theoretically win from the community leadership, Golem gets nearly all of its funding from other sources — grants, Jewish organizations, state funding, and ticket sales. Borgula told me that even if the community offered him an unrestricted pot of money to do a performance, he would likely decline. 

"They’re a kind of mafia," he said. 


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