My new article in the Jewish Quarterly: Yellow Starlight in Bp

Me at the map of the Budapest Ghetto, at the Ghetto Memorial in the city's 7th District

Me at the map of the Budapest Ghetto, at the Ghetto Memorial in the city’s 7th District

 

My article on my (sort of) personal connection to the Yellow Star Houses in Budapest has been published in the Jewish Quarterly.

Yellow Starlight in Budapest

Ruth Ellen Gruber

November 4, 2016

In 1999, I bought a small apartment in Budapest. It was on the top floor of a building located at the edge of the city’s downtown Seventh District, just off Király Street and opposite the lavishly ornate Academy of Music.

I was spending a lot of time in Hungary and elsewhere in central Europe—and still do; I bought my little place in order to have a convenient base for travel.

It pleased me to have found a flat in the Seventh District—Budapest’s historic downtown Jewish neighbourhood.

Király Street, the border between the Sixth and the Seventh Districts, was Budapest’s downtown Jewish main commercial avenue, and the inner part of the Seventh District is anchored by three grand synagogues that form the so-called “Jewish Triangle”. Even today, my flat is within a fifteen minute or so walk from most of the city’s main Jewish institutions: several active synagogues, the Jewish Museum, the Rabbinical Seminary, the Jewish Community Centre, Jewish and even kosher restaurants, not to mention the new clubs, “ruin pubs” and cafes that since the mid-2000s have become hangouts for secular young Jews (as well as tourists and other young people).

When I bought my flat, the Seventh District was one of the poorest and least developed districts in the city. I spent hours walking through the run-down streets, photographing the decaying tenements ripe for urban renewal—or the wrecker’s ball. Today, the district is still grimy, but piecemeal gentrification has turned it into a sprawling hub for youth-centred and “alternative” clubs and cafes, as well as a burgeoning restaurant scene. My apartment has given me a first-hand opportunity to observe and chronicle the changes.

According to plaques affixed to the outer wall, my building dates from 1896 and was designed by an architect named Antal Schomann. It has a typical Budapest layout: you enter through an outer street door, walk through a foyer, and then the flats are arranged on four tiers of balconies that encircle an open courtyard.

I never thought much more than that about the history of the building until I was asked to write this article. It was only then that I learned that it was one of the 1,944 apartment buildings in the city to which more than 200,000 Budapest Jews were forcibly relocated in the summer of 1944. […]

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Pilgrimage to Lipot Baumhorn’s grave

LB-wm1

At the end of September I made one of my occasional pilgrimages to the grave of the architect Lipot Baumhorn in the vast Kozma utca Jewish cemetery in Budapest.

Baumhorn designed or remodeled about two dozen synagogues in central Europe: in Hungary, and in what are now Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Croatia. You can read about them in a travel article I wrote some years back. He is reckoned to be the most prolific synagogue architect in Europe before World War II.

I wrote a section of my 1994 book “Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today” about him and his work.

Baumhorn's gravestone bears a carving of the great dome of his masterpiece, the synagogue in Szeged, Hungary, and also a list of more than 20 other synagogues he designed or remodeled. It also has a very flowery poetic epitaph.

Baumhorn’s gravestone bears a carving of the great dome of his masterpiece, the synagogue in Szeged, Hungary, and also a list of more than 20 other synagogues he designed or remodeled. It also has a very flowery poetic epitaph.

 

In the course of research for it, in 1992, I discovered his gravestone, totally overgrown with vines.

LB-1992-wm1

 

Cleaning it was a spiritual — or at least highly emotional — experience.

Photo © Edward Serotta

Photo © Edward Serotta

This is what wrote (in “Doorposts”) about cleaning the grave: “I felt like a liberator, and I guess I was, restoring to the light of this cold, gray day the chiseled memory of this man. It was a highly personal liberation. For more than three years I had followed a trail of monumental buildings whose style number and significance had made Lipot Baumhorn successful in life and more than just a footnote in the history of his profession. His synagogues were his survivors; he was honored on gilded plaques in their entryways …. the person was here, shrouded in ivy. I tore at the clinging vines…”

Lipot Baumhorn

 

My section about Baumhorn in “Upon the Doorposts” is called “Synagogues Seeking Heaven.”

The name derives from  the complex poetic epitaph on his gravestone. In the chapter I tell how various Hungarian friends of mine tried, with difficulty, to translate it for me. The end version was:

Our inspired artist: His inspiration and heart gave birth

To the lines of synagogues that look toward heaven and awaken piety.

Above his peaceful home hovered devotion;

The soul of a father and husband gave birth to heaven-seeking consolation.

 

Some years back I was delighted to find a monument to him outside one of his synagogues, in Szolnok. The monument is positioned so that Baumhorn seems to gaze at the synagogue, which is now used as a concert hall.

reg-lb szolnok 2006