Tragedy, Irony, Fate
It seems in Hungary you cannot escape fate. Talk to a Hungarian and they are quick to point out their exceedingly difficult history of conquest, occupation, revolution and independence. Even places that avoid this difficult history during one era seem to eventually succumb to dark historical forces.
Take for instance Gyöngyös, a small city 80 kilometers (48 miles) northeast of Budapest, known as the gateway to the Mátra Mountains. During the century and a half of Ottoman Turkish occupation, Gyöngyös was lucky enough to attain the status of a protected town given by the Sultan.
It made through this fraught historical era relatively unscathed. But being lucky in Hungary always seems to come with a historic backlash. Fortune was not so kind in 1917. It was bad enough that the city was losing many of its finest sons to the ongoing conflagration of the First World War.
Then tragedy struck much closer to home. On May 17, 1917 a terrible fire broke out that consumed over 500 homes and left 8,000 people homeless. The city’s Jewish community was hit especially hard, losing several of their synagogues. Much of the city’s residential area had to be reconstructed.
The Jewish community of Gyöngyös rebuilt the synagogues and revitalized their institutions in the years following the fire. Nonetheless fate would deal them the worst of blows in the coming years.
Jews in Hungary were persecuted and discriminated against in the years between the wars. Their numbers in specific professions such as medicine and law were forcefully limited.
They were given fewer places at universities and many left the country to avoid creeping racism. Just as Hungarian history is unique in the annals of Europe, Jewish history in Hungary is quixotic as well.
A striking example is what happened in World War II.In Gyöngyös though Jews suffered soft discrimination throughout the war the community was still relatively intact as late as 1944.
Hungarians were generally unwilling to commit genocide in their own country. Many were bitter at the Jewish presence, but they were not willing to go so far as killing what had become a highly assimilated part of their population.
This all changed with the German Occupation of the country on March 15, 1944. Very quickly Jews were deprived of all their civil rights and forced to wear yellow stars. By and large the ethnic Hungarian population collaborated with the Nazis.
In June of 1944 Gyöngyös’s Jews were swept into transit camps which acted as nothing more than waysides towards the gas chambers of Auschwitz. In Gyöngyös, a census taken in 1941 counted 2,429. Only 461 of these survived the Holocaust.
That means 80% of this historic community – dating all the way back to 1735 – was ethnically cleansed in a matter of months. A year after the war there were only three hundred Jews living back in Gyöngyös. What to do?Lacking any economic or social opportunities in the city, those left behind emigrated first to Budapest and eventually on to Israel or the west.
Today in Gyöngyös there is a heartfelt official memorial to the Jewish community that was all but eradicated here less than seventy years ago. Two much more disturbing memorials (though they are not called such) are much more instructive as to the vicissitudes of fate.
These are the two pre-war synagogues which still stand as a testament to both what once was and of the tragic fate that befell the community. The endurance of these two synagogues is sadly ironic. Here is the Great Synagogue no longer a house for worshipers, but instead home to a carpet warehouse.
There is the Memorial Synagogue, once a refuge for Orthodox Jews partaking of ancient traditions, now a studio for a local television station. This is what happened to Hungary’s Jews suffering history as tragedy, as irony, as fate.
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