A Step Beyond the Boycott: Opening up Hearts and Wallets

On a warm day in the early 1980s in Budapest, while clandestinely taking a quick break from the morning prayer service, my friends and I made a shocking discovery in the courtyard of the Dohány Street Synagogue. I will never forget the moment when an elderly man who walked to the courtyard from the synagogue shortly after we did told us with a sombre face that what lay below the thick, snake-like coils of the ivy leaves on which we had been playing a game of tag were thousands of skeletons. I remember how stunned I felt by his chilling words that he had seen hundreds bodies laid out in this very courtyard in 1945. I was incredulous. Perhaps he only wanted to frighten us away the courtyard. After all, nobody had ever told me before that time that the synagogue’s courtyard was also a graveyard. And certainly, nobody talked to me or any of my friends about how the bodies got there. But then the small stone memorial plaques with individual names and the year 1945 inscribed hidden by the ivy leaves lined up against the framework of the gravesite made me realize that the man was telling the truth. It sickened me.

I was no more than ten years old then.

The horror of it all only intensified as I grew older and learned that the thousands of people buried in the courtyard of the synagogue died of starvation, the winter’s cold, and the murderous bullets of the Hungarian Arrow Cross men on the hunt for Jews in the Jewish ghetto within the last two months of the war leading up to January 18, 1945, the day the ghetto was liberated. Because most bodies could not be transported to any Jewish cemetery, the decision was made to bury the Jewish victims right there in the courtyard of the synagogue.

Now, this unique cemetery wedged between the largest synagogue in Europe, the Dohány Street Synagogue and the Heroes Temple synagogue is in such a bad state that the courtyard has been closed to visitors indefinitely. A major overhaul and restoration project with the price tag in excess of 20,000,000 Hungarian Forints (approximately $89,000) had been planned to take place with the help of a grant provided for this purpose by the Hungarian government. According to the rabbi of the Dohány Street Synagogue, Robert Frolich, the foundation intends to renovate the frames around the graves, replace those memorial plaques that have been ravaged by the passage of time with brand new ones, upgrade the graveyard’s vegetation, replace the gravel on the pathways, and install two interactive monitors with the map of the cemetery and a searchable database with the names and burial locations for each person in the graveyard.

But this sorely needed restoration project has now been jeopardized by the courageous and exemplary stance of the Dohány Street Synagogue Foundation to stand up to the Hungarian government’s ideological cuddling with the era named after Hungary’s leader between 1920 and 1944, Miklós Horthy, mainly remembered for Hungarian chauvinism buttressed by increasing anti-Jewish measures. Many, including the foremost historian of the Holocaust in Hungary, Randolph Braham of New York’s City University, have voiced their concerns that Hungary’s government, while talking the talk of contrition abroad, is in the process of whitewashing Hungarian responsibility for the wholesale murder of Hungarian Jewry in the Holocaust. In light of that, the Dohány Street Synagogue Foundation, along with other Jewish foundations, has refused to accept the 20,000,000 Forints awarded for this project by a Hungarian government that has for the past few years has created an atmosphere in which anti-Semitic public discourse is nothing unusual and has recently angered most Hungarian Jews by pushing plans for projects about the Holocaust without meaningful input by Jewish organizations.  

Since February 9th, 2014, when the largest Hungarian Jewish umbrella organization, Mazsihisz, declared that it would not be able to participate in any official government sponsored Holocaust commemorations in 2014 until the government reversed itself on two damaging projects and fired the head of the new Veritas Institute for labeling the very first deportations from Hungary in 1941 as an “immigration procedure,” the situation has only gotten worse. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s response was to offer no response until after the Hungarian general elections on April 6th. Holocaust commemorations, however, are scheduled to take place shortly thereafter in April, leaving no time for any meaningful discussions.

The boycott, thus, is here to stay.

In order to show resistance to a culture of intolerance in Hungary supported by the actions of the current Hungarian government, I urge all people of goodwill to make a concrete gesture by opening up not only their hearts but also their wallets in order to make sure that this extremely important project can go forward. Help the Dohány Street Foundation make sure that no ten-year-olds will ever play tag on the ivy-covered graves of the Dohány Street Synagogue’s cemetery simply because they are unaware of what lies below and, equally importantly, how the bodies ended up there.

Please join the resistance against the forces of anti-Semitism and xenophobia by making a donation in memory of all those murdered in the Holocaust. The Dohány Street Foundation’s bank account information is IBAN: HU71 1170 7024 2035 9234 0000 0000 Swift code: OTPVHUHB.

The memory of those who died in such brutal circumstances and were buried in mass deserves no less.

You may email rabbi@dohany-zsinagoga.hu for more information and/or send him a message of support.

Follow me on twitter: Dr. David Mandler @MandlerDr