Saturday, 30 August 2008

Retrospect of Budapest 2

The synagogue on Rumbach Sebestyén utca (street)

We wandered in here while walking around the area I lived in as a child, the VII District, or Erzsébetváros (Elizabethstadt). The VII district was the ghetto during the war and our street was just inside it, within the dividing ring road. It still contains the Jewish triangle of three synagogues, of which by far the biggest is the one in Dohány utca, with the Holocaust silver memorial tree in the back yard. Like this.


I have no memory of ever going into a synagogue as a child. I doubt I was ever taken. It was going to be a new world without any of that cumbersome rubbish and the dead weight of God with his bloody hands and divine bad conscience. Even now I feel a slight shudder at the thought of entering one and being absorbed into its accusing spaces. It's like fossicking about inside a distant uncle's secret drawer and coming up with his underpants. It's embarrassing finding God's underpants. In any case I don't go into synagogues very often though I feel I should.

That's history for you. It rattles about inside your nerves and bones where you can't see it, but you know it's there.

The interior of the Rumbach Street synagogue is just a shell. Bits of mosaic and wall and railing and fitting lie around in photogenic light, like a wartime film set. What does remain whole, or has been restored so far, is rich and splendidly coloured. Around the octagonal hall runs a message in Hebrew, Hungarian and bad English, to the effect that the cornerstones of Judaism are faith and ethics but that neither is possible without the other. The designer of the building was the famous Ottó Wagner. A feral black cat stole in and out, slinking between the pillars with a worried look. The rest was ruin. The heart does stop a little of course, one should mention that.


X, not Jewish, was saying that she sometimes walks ahead of her husband who looks vaguely Jewish just to hear how people talk about him. In beer-halls and wine-cellars, in open-air bars there is a certain hostile look at times, though she, and I, may be imagining it.

The opposition party has plans, said Y, to change the constitution in order to do away with certain democratic safeguards and to give more power to the president. They are making ever closer contacts with the far right. And they will win the next election, they are so far ahead. Both parties are stupid and corrupt, Y continued, but Orbán, the leader of the opposition, is a dangerous man. Y says he would like to emigrate if the opposition got in. Y is over seventy. He is not Jewish.

The taxi driver (not Jewish) was talking about the decline of football in the country. Few people go to matches now. It's partly hooliganism, he said. The supporters of Ferencváros and, to some degree of Ujpest too. They are skinheads who look for fights. When there were violent protests against the government last year and the TV building was sacked, it was they who led the sacking, he said. Neo-nazis, he said.

I remembered a conversation some years ago with Z, ex-wife of Y. I mentioned the petition that Ferencváros should be banned from European competition because of the supporters' racist chants. monkey grunts and fascist banners. Some members of the Dutch football team, who were due to play Ferencváros, had been among the signatories. Ah, but you know who is behind that, she said. The Amsterdam diamond merchants.

I have not talked to her since.

On the other hand, Jewish Cultural Week was about to get under way the week we left. It looked a good well-packed programme, widely advertised. No crisis there. No, just a sullen seeping.


Anonymous said...

tis a funny thing, i got up this morning and thought to see what you were up to where you were traveling and a parallel thought was, what a shame your blog/news didn't have a comment post... only to find you've gone over to blogger, thats incredibly nice

George S said...

Well, here I am, now in full comment outfit.

The Plump said...

I was taught political philosophy by a Soviet dissident. He was a Lithuanian Jew and a Holocaust survivor. Though I didn't share his classic liberalism, I respected his astonishing erudition and learnt more from him than I have from anyone.

This was back in 1978-81. Then he said, to much incredulity, that the Soviet Union would collapse in ten years time. He also added that fascism was not dead and that it would re-emerge in Russia.

Reading this post reminded me of the fact that the European heritage is not just democratic, there is also an authoritarian and anti-Semitic one and there is an inherent conflict between the two traditions.

There is a need for vigilance and to support light and reason against the darkness that lurks in European culture. Jewish cultural renaissance provides hope against the shadows cast by the opposition.

George S said...

What a remarkable man, Plump! And you are dead right that the European heritage is not just democratic. I think there is plenty of historical evidence the other way too, especially in smaller dependent countries governed by other, larger powers, with a strong hand.

I think there is almost something classically Freudian here. Early dependency, violence and powerlessness breed fetishism. Democracy is insecure and feels like chaos. Bring back the strong hand. Bring back the well known demons so we can find a safe deposit for our fear and self-hatred. Or let us at least dress things that way. In the name of democracy, of course.

It shows how brittle and fragile our democratic habits and institutions really are. We think it's the normal state of the world, but it's not. The great trick is to maintain them as democratic in the face undemocratic challenges.