Budapest has a special place in my heart - Here is Why
A lot of people, to be totally honest, either haven’t heard of Budapest or have heard about it mainly in the context of it being a really cool party city as of about 5-8 years ago. So when I say that I love Budapest, even Hungarians often look at me like I must just be saying this to be polite, as though I must say this about every city I speak to locals in.
But the truth is, I do love Budapest and it has nothing to do with the crazy bath parties at Szechenyi, or Sziget music festival, or even the tourist attractions of the city itself. And yet, the irony remains, why love Budapest? I’ll get to that in a moment.
My family is Hungarian and so my maternal grandparents were both raised in Budapest - generations of my family had lived in Hungary prior to my grandparents of course but as two of the most important people in my life, my connection stems really from them.
Born in 1930 and 1941, my grandparents lived in Hungary in an extremely tumultuous time - through the rise of Nazism, WWII and the Holocaust in which many members of both of their families perished in the camps and at the hands of the Nazis. My grandpa lost his father, a lawyer amongst the first taken when the Nazis invaded Hungary. My grandma’s father was imprisoned in a labor camp but was miraculously liberated and reunited with his family. My grandma and her mother narrowly escaped death and deportation a number of times in Budapest.
My grandparents and their surviving relatives stayed through the communist era, a tragically difficult time to live in Hungary but each knew that there was no choice but to flee with the outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Their journeys out were dangerous, challenging and unimaginable to so many of us now.
As Holocaust survivors, their stories are fascinating, haunting but vital and I’m privileged that they have shared their stories with me, and that my great-grandmother was alive for much of my life to share her stories with me too.
With these experiences informing their impression of their homeland, it may not come as a surprise to you that neither of my grandparents felt much towards Hungary. Sure, there was nostalgia in seeing places that they had spent time at as kids, and of course, with family still there, there has always been reason to return and the time has been enjoyable because they were reunited but Hungary...doesn’t rate highly.
Hence the irony - why do I love it?
I am not a religious person in the slightest so I struggle with the idea that I would have been categorised by my religion of all things during the time of the Holocaust. That said, I get such a sense of, well more than satisfaction, of victory I guess it is, when I get to Budapest that all of a sudden I am happy to categorise myself! I am so proud to walk the streets there, to visit the monuments, to stand by the graves of my relatives, to visit the synagogue, to see where my grandparents grew up, to...anything really! Because I know that it is a miracle that both my grandparents made it through, made it out and made it over to Australia. I know that that was not supposed to happen. I have read about it, studied it, heard stories, visited museums, etc - I know what fate was sealed.
I also know what didn’t happen.
At the back of the synagogue in Budapest is a memorial tree. It is a large iron tree that is made up of individual leaves, each one inscribed with the name of someone who perished in the Holocaust. When I first visited Budapest I was 11 and went with both my grandparents and my mum. We went to the tree, we saw it weeping in its mystical glory and I asked then how we could go about getting a plaque for my grandpa’s father, a man who has never had a grave and whose ending will never be known as it is one of the unrecorded lives lost.
10 years later I went back to see the tree as my grandma, along with her cousin in Budapest had arranged for a leaf in my great-grandfather’s honour. We searched high and low and found the leaf and I held it in my hand and knew that as far and wide as I travelled, few places would feel as significant to me as the very spot I stood in in that moment.
I have been back 4 more times since then and will always continue to go back. It felt even more meaningful after my grandpa, my personal super hero, passed away - it’s just a very special feeling that I don’t quite have words to articulate...I’m crying even as I share this with you now.
I can’t really explain why Budapest means so much to me when the people who shared it with me didn’t like it so much except to say that 2 generations on, I am extremely proud to walk around as the descendant of Holocaust survivors and as the legacy of those who perished.
It’s a VERY different city now - it’s cleaned up so much even since I started going there and now it is so cool, SO beautiful and so fun! Of course I love it for all those reasons. But I love it the most for the warm hugs from my grandma’s cousins, the delicious home cooked schnitzels those cousins make, the privilege of seeing where my grandparents grew up and most of all, for that leaf…