|By Nancy Kirsch|
|Friday, 26 April 2013 02:21|
|Steve Jacobson, who visits Budapest often, deconstructs Hungarian Jewish life|
Jews, go back to the camps” shocked a group of Temple
Habonim congregants who visited Budapest in March. The
group visited five cities – Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna
and Prague – during a 12-day trip.
In an interview with The Jewish Voice & Herald, Rabbi Andrew
Klein of Temple Habonim, a Reform synagogue in Barrington,
recounted the disturbing anti-Semitic encounter, one that left several individuals
understandably feeling shaken and disturbed.
After visiting the Dohány Street Synagogue and a Holocaust memorial, the group was
waiting for their tour bus on a frigid, snowy day.
“Behind us was a group of three young men – probably drunk – scaring and intimidating
and harassing us in Hungarian,” Rabbi Klein said. “Our Jewish guide translated [their
words] for us.”
As one of the young men gave a “Heil Hitler” salute, several Hungarian passersby didn’t
respond or react to the harassment, he said. “It seemed to be the normal course … no
They also heard about anti-Semitism from a cantor in Budapest whose children faced
anti-Semitic atrocities each day, said Rabbi Klein, referencing the cantor’s comments.
The cantor wondered, said the rabbi, how much longer he and his family would remain
Anti-Semitism has become a huge problem in Hungary, since the Communists left
power about 10 years ago, Rabbi Klein learned from the tour guide.
Steve Jacobson of the Providence-based Dorot Foundation knows Budapest well.
Vice president strategy and director of the Dorot Fellowship in Israel, Jacobson
leads a five-day seminar in Budapest for Dorot Foundation Fellows who participate
in a seminar to investigate the historical and contemporary experience of Hungarian
Jews in Budapest. He had led these trips for the past decade.
Learning about the experience of the Habonimites, Jacobson said, “It must have been
horrific … I have a different story to tell about the nature of anti-Semitism in Budapest.”
Jacobson asserted how difficult it is for American Jews to contend with and understand
the nature of anti-Semitism as it exists elsewhere in the world. Speaking by phone
during an out-of-town business trip, he said, “American Jews are the only Jews in
modern history who have never needed to be emancipated. [In contrast], if you are a
Jew in Budapest, you are a survivor of the [Holocaust] or a child of a survivor.”
Hungary, said Jacobson, is a new society – one that begin in 1989 – after years of control,
initially by the Nazis and later by the Soviets.
On one side of the ledger, although the current right-wing government is attacking
basic tenets of democratic society, those attacks are not specific to Jews. Jacobson said,
“As much as we hear noise about one part of an anti-Semitic government, the government
itself is not anti-Semitic.” He added that Hungarian Jews differentiate kinds of anti-
Semitism the way Eskimos differentiate kinds of snowfalls. Hungarian Jews, he said,
most fear official, government-sponsored anti-Semitism, which they don’t see.
Nevertheless, Jacobson related a conversation with a friend from Budapest who wondered
whether they are fooling themselves into believing that they are safer than they are. Are
they repeating the mistakes of their grandparents, who continued to tolerate restriction
upon restriction until it was too late?
How large is Hungary’s Jewish population? Dov Ben-Shimon, executive director for
strategic partnerships for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)
– which partners with the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island – has visited the
Hungarian Jewish community, which he estimates at 120,000, many times.
“Nearly all of these live in Budapest, but only some 20 percent of the population is
actively involved in Jewish life,” he said in an email. “The JDC is working with local
community organizations to increase the participation of the unaffiliated.”
Late last year, after Vienna’s mayor issued a blanket invitation to the Jews of Budapest
to relocate to Vienna to avoid anti-Semitism, another friend of Jacobson’s asked the U.S.
ambassador to Hungary if they could expect a similar invitation from the U.S. When she
responded that the U.S. government didn’t believe the anti-Semitic threat warranted such a response, Jacobson’s friend said, sotto voce, “That’s what you told my grandparents.”
Although the Jewish tour company warned Rabbi Klein and others of anti-Semitism in Vienna during the trip’s planning stages, the group experienced no such problems in Vienna, he said. “We were never warned about Budapest … it was very scary.”
On the positive side, Jacobson spoke of a “huge resurgence on a grand scale” of Budapest’s Jewish life. Two-thirds of the initiatives and organizations Dorot visited this year, he said, probably didn’t exist a decade ago.
“There’s a thriving, healthy, vibrant, exciting Jewish life to be lived in Budapest,” said Jacobson, an editorial board member of The Jewish Voice & Herald.
With such an energetic resurgence of Jewish life in Budapest, the advice of a Jewish community leader there might be the best approach to address anti-Semitism. Jacobson said that this individual – a good friend of his – recommends Jews in Budapest educate Hungarian society about Hungarian Jews and their celebrations. Don’t blame, but educate, Jacobson’s friend suggests.
“That’s how the people I know in Budapest are dealing [with life there]. … focusing on the opportunities they have within the somewhat new democratic life [by] celebrating being Jewish and doing so with zest,” said Jacobson. “They believe the threats to be serious but not dire.”
One of the surprises for his group, said Rabbi Klein, was the Polish perspective of World War II. “[They] look upon [the war] as the Polish devastation and killing. Seventy percent of the people who lived in Warsaw were killed by the end of the war ... some of them were Jews,” he said. “To [the Polish people], it was an issue of Poland’s destruction and devastation – not an issue of murdering the Jews.”
Austrians, still in denial about their role in murdering Jews, consider the Holocaust a German problem inflicted upon them. That was what a woman at the Reform congregation in Vienna told the Habonim group.
Notwithstanding the ugly encounter in Budapest – and uncharacteristically frigid weather – the 23-person trip, “was a very hard, challenging trip, but a very good trip,” said Rabbi Klein. “It was extremely emotional and powerful” to say Kaddish for Harold Reisner, a survivor of Auschwitz/Birkenau and a past Habonim congregant, at Auschwitz/Birkenau.