The streets of Budapest, like many other European cities, are punctuated by brass plaques in the pavement. These plaques are called ‘stolpersteine’. They are ‘stumbling stones’ that you can come across purely by chance and which, placed in the street outside the last known address of a victim of the Holocaust and Nazi Persecution, remember their name and life.
I passed many of these while recently in Budapest with the Holocaust Educational Trust. I was there as one of the Trust’s Regional Ambassadors for a study visit to learn more about the history of Jewish life and the Holocaust in Hungary. While in Budapest, I was reminded of the importance of standing together with the memory of those who were killed, to ensure that their voices live on.
While in Budapest, I was reminded of the importance of standing together with the memory of those who were killed, to ensure that their voices live on.
These stolpersteine were created by the artist Gunter Demnig who spoke of the Talmud, the Jewish civil and ceremonial law: “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten”. For most stolpersteine, information besides the person’s name is scant. One that we passed in Budapest commemorates Kertész Tivador, born in 1900 and killed in 1942 by the Don river while part of a forced labour battalion. Another remembers Band Sándor, who was killed in Budapest in December 1944 by the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian fascists.
These stories show two very different experiences of the Holocaust in Hungary. The forced labour battalions, like the one Kertész Tivador was in, compelled Jews in Hungary to work for the state, often in horrendous conditions. Just across the road from Kertész’s stolpersteine is the memorial to these battalions. This memorial remembers the around 40,000 people who were killed while in forced labour, many of them having been mistreated and humiliated in battalions sent to the military fronts. Kertész Tivador was killed in 1942, probably during the Hungarian Second Army’s preparations for the battle of Stalingrad.
By contrast, Band Sándor avoided conscription, most likely due to his age (he was 60 at his death). He survived in Budapest until December 1944, living opposite the Status Quo Ante synagogue on Bethlen Gábor square. In October 1944, the Arrow Cross took power alongside German troops who had invaded Hungary earlier that year in March. In December, the Arrow Cross rounded up Jews and shot them into the river Danube. Standing by Band Sándor’s stolpersteine in the 8th District we could only imagine the fate which most likely befell him.
A 40-minute walk from Band Sándor’s last known residence is one of the most moving, and perhaps well-known, memorials in Budapest: the Shoes on the Danube Bank. This famous memorial remembers all those whom the Arrow Cross shot into the river. These individuals, men, women and children are represented by sixty pairs of shoes of different sizes. Especially heartbreaking are the small shoes of the many children killed, deprived of their futures. Standing there reminded us of an important aspect of remembering the Holocaust, that each and every victim was an individual person with a story and a life of their own.
Reacting to the Holocaust, a significant minority of people chose to resist and help Jews who faced persecution. As a history student focusing on the Holocaust, I know Budapest well for its cases of rescue led by international diplomats. Raoul Wallenberg, for example, a Swedish diplomat in Budapest during the Second World War, has almost become a household name for his work distributing protective passes and running houses where Jews could live in relative safety.
While in Budapest, we visited the building where another one of these rescuers worked. Jane Haining was matron of the Girls’ Home for the Church of Scotland Mission in Budapest. There, she looked after around 400 children, many of whom were Jewish. Arrested for her involvement, Haining died in Auschwitz in July 1944. One of our group, Kirsty Robson, grew up close to where Haining lived in Scotland. Reacting to visiting Haining’s workplace in Budapest, Kirsty said that it ‘felt very surreal because I’ve known about Jane Haining for most of my life. Whenever I’ve gone away, I’ve found something that connects to Jane. I’ve seen the places where she lived, worked and trained in Scotland, where she died in Auschwitz and where she is remembered in Yad Vashem in Israel. I feel very privileged to have seen where she brought so many people comfort in Budapest too.’
It is said that, during the winter of 1944-45, the river Danube was called ‘the Jewish Cemetery’. When welcoming us to the Frankel Leo Synagogue for a shabbat service on Friday evening, Linda Vero-Ban, the rebbetzen (rabbi’s wife), told us to remember that ‘this is not a cemetery’. After the service, I was asked to introduce our group. When speaking to members of the congregation, I told them what the visit meant to us. I spoke of how we had learned about the Holocaust in Hungary: we knew about the Jews who were killed and that was why, for us, it was ever more powerful to be welcomed to a Jewish community in Hungary living strong today.
The situation for Jews in Hungary is by no means perfect. As one of the other students on this trip wrote for the Jewish News: ‘the Hungarian government has been criticised for reportedly trying to distort a historically accurate narrative on Hungarian involvement in the Holocaust’. But when we spend so much of our time learning about the destruction of communities, speaking to a Jewish community in Budapest and hearing their discussions and debates about daily life reminded us that, fortunately, Nazi Germany and its accomplices ultimately failed in their attempts to murder every Jew under their domination.
Returning to the UK after the visit, my mind turned to January 2020, when we will mark Holocaust Memorial Day. The 27th January 2020 signifies the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp to which over 400,000 Hungarian Jews were deported. The majority of these became a part of the 1 million people who were killed in the gas chambers there.
Gunter Demnig’s quoting of the Talmud hangs in the air: “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten”. On Holocaust Memorial Day 2020, I will remember especially Kertész Tivador and Band Sándor, keeping their memory alive. I will also recognise and honour the bravery of those like Jane Haining who stood together with members of the Jewish community in Hungary against the hatred that they received.
The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2020 is ‘Stand Together’. In light of what I’ve learned in Budapest, I am reminded of the importance of standing together with the memory of those who were murdered. In doing so, we honour their culture, identities and history – the lives that the perpetrators of genocide sought to destroy. Linda Vero-Ban’s welcome echoes in my mind; truly, this is not a cemetery, but a place to remember the life that was.