Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Night at the Budapest State Opera House

Budapest State Opera House
Budapest's State Operahouse is second only to Vienna's in terms of beauty, acoustics, and size. I learned this on one of the two daily tours in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, and of course, Hungarian, at 3 and 4 in the afternoon. The architectural gem dominates Andrassy Utca (Andrássy út 22., VI. district., M1 metroline Opera station, just in front of the Opera House). Designed by Hungarian architect Miklós Ybl and financed by Emperor Franz Joseph,  the building was finished in 1884.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Train north to Sátoraljaújhely

I hardly slept the night before I left Budapest for Sátoraljaújhely, knowing that I needed to catch the train from the East train station (Keleti pályaudvar) at 6:30 am. I have great difficulty falling asleep, but once asleep, I can sleep through even the loudest alarms.  And I didn't want to miss this train.

Sátoraljaújhely was the former capitol of Zemplen county, world-famous for its wines--the Tokaji wine. Lajos Kossuth was one of the city's most famous alumni, renowned and honored all over Hungary for his efforts to free the country from the Hapsburg empire. Ferenc Kazinczy, considered the founder of the Hungarian language, worked in Sátoraljaújhely as the chief country archivist for 16 years.

25 Arpad utca
The biggest draw is that my mother and her family spent a good part of their life in the town before crossing the border to Slovakia and later entering Germany as refugees.

Three and a half hours later, I stepped off the train from Budapest into another world. Signs posted on locked gates warned of dogs, and as I walked along the sidewalk, I heard them barking angrily at me.  The shops were closed; not many people were outside. Partly because of the cold, I imagined as I pulled on my mittens and hat.  It was freezing. But I also sensed a more guarded atmosphere, and I felt less likely to blend in as I did in Budapest, save when I opened my mouth.  My pronunciation of what few Hungarian words I knew must be painful to hear.

The owner of the guest house where I stayed didn't speak English, nor did most people I met.  But she did speak German, and when I didn't understand the Hungarian, she tried out some German on me.  The room where I stayed was well heated, almost too well heated.  Too cold outside.  Too hot inside.  Walking briskly was a healthy medium.

I set out to find the streets where my mother lived, turning down Arpad utca, and continuing because I spotted a bazaar set up with clothes, vegetables, fruits, pots and pans galore. The merchants (is this too formal a word to call them?) were entertained by me taking photos.  One man posed with his upright bundle of brooms made of twigs.  They reminded me of the story a Hungarian woman had told me about St. Nicholas's day on December 6--that children would receive miniature versions of these brooms festooned with chocolates. There were cauldrons for gyulas, and lots of stalls with clothes. 

Mozes Teiteblbau's tomb is also in the old Jewish cemetery in Sátoraljaújhely; he was a rabbi who miraculously healed the young Lajos Kossuth who was deathly ill, and predicted the boy would become a great statesman. And there were once a great many Jews who lived in Sátoraljaújhely, but all of them were rounded up during WWII and put on trains north to Auschwitz.

After WWI and the Treaty of Trianon divvied up Hungarian territory to other countries, Sátoraljaújhely was divided as well, and the town that became part of Slovakia was renamed Nove Mestro.  I walked down Rakoczi street, where my grandmother owned a store, all the way across the border.  On one side was a sign that read "Hungary" with a bar through it, and on the other was "Slovakia". I saw the smaller railroad station by the side of the tracks, which is where the Jews of Sátoraljaújhely were loaded up on trains.

I found an open bar to use the restroom, warm up, and have a drink. Then I set out once more despite the dimming light at 3:30 pm; I would not have much daylight left.  The underground cellars were closed up tight, as were the museums that I could have visited, and the 13th century church, too. But I only had to phone, as they tried to help me do at the tourist information office in town, when I asked to visit the old Jewish cemetery.  It was thanks to them that I had a place to stay at all; they had help me arrange the accommodations& Privát Guesthouse, 3980 Sátoraljaújhely, Dózsa György u. 17.

Downtown, Kossuth square
I went to the 5 pm service at the Greek Orthodox Catholic Church, which dominates Kossuth square in the center of town.  Although I didn't understand a word of the service, I knew the parts of the mass so well from growing up Catholic. There were a great many dressed up older women, and only one youngster as far as I could see.

Norpan's delights
And the next morning, I had a delicious fish paprika stew served over noodles. It was second only to the meal that Katalin later made me in her home. Gabor in the tourist office sent me to Norpan, a delicious bakery on Rakoczi street. And then back at the guest house, I met a wonderful Hungarian gentleman who is a physician and professor in Washington, D.C.  He grew up in Sátoraljaújhely, and he told me a great deal about the area and about Hungary as we rode the train together--him to Eger and me to Budapest.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Back in time

I came to Hungary to research Hungary before and during WWII, but Hungary's rich history can't be confined to those few years, of course.  But for any history nut (of any period), there is so much to explore and sample and learn.

The Alexandra Bookstore Coffee House
In Budapest, many buildings have been restored to their glorious facades and interiors of over a hundred years ago.  One of these was the Alexandra bookstore and cafe, where I met an American who has been living with in Budapest, who shared with me much Hungarian history. And through her stories, I felt transported back to that time. The coffee house was elegantly furnished with a variety of tables, armchairs, and sofas.  Like one of those salons meant for deep and intelligent conversation and where great ideas are forged over strong espresso.  I salivated when I glimpsed all the cakes, tortes, and pastries in the display case. How could I choose but one?

Later in the week I sat in awe of the stories that a Hungarian gentleman and his wife told me about WWII and the years leading up to and after the 1956 Revolution in Hungary. Why have I waited so long to come back to Hungary and hear these stories, I wondered to myself.

I took the bus out beyond the borders of my Budapest tourist map to a the Hungarian Railway Museum (Vasúttörténeti Park), where old steam and diesel engines of the Hungarian State Railways (MÁV) can be examined, explored, and peered inside. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for these great engines to be chug-chugging across Hungary's railroad tracks. What it must have been like for these trains' engineers to stuff coal into their furnaces to power the engines of those older powerhorses.

Hungarian National Railway (MAV)
Then I bused back to present-day Budapest and to the East train station (Keleti pályaudvar) where I bought a train ticket to ride the MÁV north to Sátoraljaújhely, where my mother lived until she was nine years old.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Quaint O-Hungary

On Thursday, I met a wonderful Hungarian professor who was my guide through Obuda, the oldest part of Budapest (merged with Pest and Buda in 1873) and a gorgeous little village just north of Budapest famous for its colony of artists.

Although cold, the day couldn’t have been finer—full and brilliant sun.  Sorry, Seattle. I don’t miss your rainy days.  Katalin showed me the old town center, and where the tram once ran.  The shop fronts recall days of yesterday—some of them still housed in renovated traditional homes with the stucco fronts, the peak roofs covered in adobe-colored ceramic tiles.
Obuda traditional home "for sale"

Leaving Obuda, Katalin pointed out the ruins of a Roman town, Aquincum.  The “rooms” of the buildings looked no bigger than a twin-sized bed. Tiny, tiny.  Not very luxurious by American standards. But  then again, I’m not sure American buildings would withstand the test of time like these buildings have.  All things are relative.

Cobblestone quaintness in Szentendre
Within a short drive, we were at the quaint town of Szentendre.  Katalin explained that in the summer it is bursting with tourists. But there were relatively few that I could see.  The narrow cobblestone paths are lined with restaurants and shops.  And some of them were too tempting to pass up.  I remembered my mother and relatives with their hand-embroidered tablecloths, the bright floral design characteristic of Hungary.  And then I fell in love with a little girl’s outfit—again characteristic of the Hungarian traditional dress.  Perfect for my niece when she gets a wee bit bigger.

Then Katalin treated me langos, the real McCoy. Fried bread coated in sour cream and sprinkled with shredded cheese.  My kind of fried food. Move over French fries and donuts. I’ll take langos from here on out!

Drying peppers (paprikas)
We headed back to Budapest and Katalin suggested we visit the Budapest History Museum (Budapesti Történeti Múzeum), housed in the Royal Palace high up on Castle Hill in Buda.  It was a quick (but very detailed) introduction to the history of Budapest from ancient times to the present.  Since we arrived an hour before closing, we didn’t have much time to spend dawdling.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A dive into history and lángos

Hungarian National Museum--mesmerizingly good
I spent over five hours in the Hungarian National Museum (Magyar Nemzeti Muzeum), and I started at the 17th century, not at the first beginning.  The exhibits were THAT GOOD.  I mean, amazing. A combination of artifacts, clothing, documents, paintings, multi-media. I was mesmerized.  I was even disappointed that I couldn't have more translations available on all the documents, rather than the overview that I was hearing on the audio-guide I had purchased for 700-some forints/hour. The clerk counted out the hours that I had had the earphones, and amazed requested to take the total sum out of the 10,000 forint note I had left as deposit.

If there was any disappointment, it was in the André Kertész exhibit, which had few of his photographs and more of him. . Or in having to check my bag and then lug my camera and wallet and notebook around me for the six hours, since well, I'm a worry-wort and don't think it's safe to leave valuables at the coat check.

Across the street from the museum are a number of used bookstores, which I ducked into for some help locating any books about WWI military medals or pre-Trianon maps of Hungary. It amazes me daily how many people speak English.  When I visited here in 1994 with my aunt, uncle, cousin Maria, and two sisters, we didn't have that experience.  But truth to be told, I do love the challenge of having to learn phrases and try them out.

Drum Cafe, Dob utca in the Jewish quarter
After coming up empty in the bookstores, I set off to find some food as I was starving. I was close to the Astoria metro station, where I stayed in a small studio for the first two nights last week, so I poked around the neighborhood looking for something good. And boy did I luck out.  Not much on the outside, but the Drum Cafe had delicious food, especially the lángos (fried bread) stuffed with gyulas beef, sour cream, and cheese.  And the chef himself spent a good deal of time finding me a place (Football Factory, 55 Bajcsy Zsilinszky utca VI), the Hungarians are goo-goo-ga-ga over Ferencvárosi Torna Club aka FTC.  

Monday, November 14, 2011


One learns best from mistakes. True, ain't it?

So mine is to figure out how to use a cellphone in a foreign country before getting to said foreign country. Lucky for me I am blessed with encountering kind, oh so kind and patient folks here in Hungary.  Peter, who is helping his brother's rental apartment business in Budapest, located a T-Mobile shop in West End City, a shopping mall near Nyugati (West) train station. Apparently, it's called "West End City" because every shop in the mall has a "pretend" street address. Cute! But the place is not cute; it's huge! Three floors huge.  Thanks to my Hungarian teacher, I am well versed in two trusty phrases that I have had to use plenty of times thus far: ....hol van?  (Where is....?)  and Bezel angolul? (Do you speak English)  The problem with asking the first one is that I don't understand the answer unless there is a great deal of pointing and demonstrating along with it.

Nyugati train station, a stop in time
The other excellent part of heading out to West End City was to visit Nyugati train station. Talk about gorgeous!  This is one of the reasons why Budapest was dubbed the Paris of Eastern Europe.  The architecture--most of it Art Nouveau, Baroque, and Gothic--overlook broad boulevards and narrow streets. While most of the train station has been converted to businesses (the finest looking McDonalds among them), the ticket office still is contained within its former structure.

Parliament Building glittering like a jewel above the Danube.
Monday most of the touristy things like museums are closed. So I headed over to the over-the-top amazing Parliament building. It felt like I walked for a full fifteen minutes along the Danube gazing up at the porticos, curly-cues, and dodicos (the latter two being stupid  made-up words of non-architecturally literate me.)  Most of the time my jaw was wide open in awe.

More sombering was the memorial to the Jews who were shot into the freezing Danube in late 1944 by the Hungarian Nazis--the Arrow Cross Party. Over 100 pairs of copper shoes line the edge of the boardwalk here to commemorate those murdered. The Parliament building overshadows this memorial and over on the other side of the Danube is Buda and the Castle Hill district.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Dohany Street Synagogue

Dohany Street Synagogue
Until I rounded the corner of the block where I was staying to see Europe's largest synagogue, I hadn't realized how close I was staying to the old Jewish quarter and historical ghetto during WWII.  Imagine my surprise, as this place will be essential to the story I'm writing.

It's a sad history--the story of the Jewish people in Hungary, as elsewhere in Europe. Nearly 600,000 people perished in the Holocaust. In March 1944, Hitler took over Hungary, and in two short months, had deported Jews from all over the country to Auschwitz.  The Nazis had the full cooperation of the Arrow Cross party in Hungary. But the injustices against the Jews had started even before Hitler's invasion.  Hungary passed the first Anti-Jewish laws in 1920, which limited the number of Jews that could attend Hungarian universities to six percent. On May 29, 1938, a law: restricted the number of Jews in each commercial enterprise, in the press, among physicians, engineers and lawyers to twenty percent. On May 5, 1939,a law defined Jews racially: people with 2, 3 or 4 Jewish-born grandparents were declared Jewish. They were forbidden from taking a job in government at any level;from being editors at newspapers, and  their numbers were restricted to six per cent among theater and movie actors, physicians, lawyers and engineers. Private companies were forbidden to employ more than 12 percent Jews. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941, and Hungary allied with Germany, Hungary formed the labor service system, and conscripted 150,000 Jewish men into labor service.  These men were ill-equipped for this service; they weren't given boots or clothing or weapons to defend themselves. The following month, in July 1941, the Hungarian government deported 40,000 Jews who had questionable citizenship. The "Third Jewish Law" was passed on August 8, 1941, and that prohibited intermarriage and penalized sexual intercourse between Jews and non-Jews. The same month, 16,000 foreign Jews who had fled to Hungary from neighboring nations were taken to Kamenetz-Podolsk in the Ukraine and machine-gunned together with 7,000 local Jews.

The Great Synagogue, Tree of Life and Memorial Garden, and the Jewish Museum bear witness to the tragic events and the hundreds of thousands of people lost. The small cemetery on the grounds was used to bury the dead who perished in the sealed ghetto in Budapest, an aberration of the sacrosanct rules of Judaism to separate blood (death) from the sacred grounds of the temple. The Hungarian guide explained to us in English that it was one of the many ways the Nazis shamed the Jews.  Another was to use the pages of the sacred Torah into drum heads.  Or to take the men's prayer shawls and make them into women's dresses.  In the Jewish Museum (Zsido Muzeum), a dark room depicts the horrors of the 40s, the propaganda about the Jews, the men in the labor service, the deportations, countless numbers of people in the concentration camps, and the dead that lined the streets in the Budapest ghetto. In the middle of this are the pictures and names of people--Jews and non-Jews--who attempted to save as many Jews as they could.   Most famous among them was Raoul Wallenberg, a diplomat from Sweden, who gave Swedish passports and admitted thousands of Jews to designated "safe houses".  A memorial to him and others lies in the Memorial Garden.  The Tree of Life, sculpted by Imre Varga, is a weeping willow and a contorted upside-down menorah, one of the symbols of the Jewish faith. Etched on the metal leaves are the names of Holocaust victims.
Tree of Life, weeping with the name of Holocaust victims

Much of Budapest was destroyed in WWII, when the Soviets advanced into the city, and from the Nazis' defense. But there is still remnants that stand, and in the old Jewish quarter, there are many four-, five- and six-storey Art Nouveau street-facing facades, if pock-marked with bullet holes and other damage suffered during the awful siege of Budapest nearly seventy ago.