BUDAPEST - 2

 


BRATISLAVA-HUNGARY TO SLOVAKIA BY TRAIN




The idea of visiting Hungary's nearest neighbor was firmly woven into my wanderer's mind, long before stepping into Budapest. There are quite a few trains from Budapest to the Slovakian capital of Bratislava. So, while in Budapest, we opted for the early morning train from Nyugati railway station for a day trip to Bratislava.

The train's scheduled departure was 7.40 am. So we started off early at around 6.30 am, when it was still slightly dark outside in the month of October. It was quite cold also, and on our way sighted a number of homeless people huddled up on benches that line up the entire stretch of pavement along the avenue leading to the station. It took about 10/15 minutes’ to walk down to Nyugati from our apartment in District 7.

Traveling by train in Europe has always been a cherishable experience for me. Almost all trains are high speed (200 to 220 km/hour on average), smooth and noiseless, very comfortable seats and interiors, and large glass windows for enjoying scenic sailing through the East European countryside. In Hungary, it stopped at Vac, Nagymaras-Visegrad, Szob. All very small towns, and at the same time pretty. Szob district borders Slovakia. There were only two more stations Stürmo and Novezamky before the train reached the capital Bratislava. The entire journey took two and a half hours. Bratislava Central station or Bratislava hlavná stanica is a small station with respect to its international stature. There are only six platforms. But well connected to the entire city of Bratislava by an efficient public transport network. We wanted to take a ride in the tram. So, instead of moving out of the main gate, we turned left at the concourse, went down an escalator, and then turned right to arrive at the tram stop. There were quite a few trams of cherry red color standing there. So pretty and attractive that our first impulse was to get in the first empty stationary streetcar, relax and wait till it moved. Like I used to do at Ballygunge or Park Circus Tram Depots during the heydays in Calcutta. But alas, the driver of one of the trams who observed our movement repeatedly sounded the horn and asked us to go ahead to the boarding stand and stand in a queue for availing the service. Boarded the tram when it arrived as per its schedule displayed on the electronic board at the stand. We got down at the City Centre Square and walked down in the reverse direction to reach the approach road to the Old Town.

So mesmerizing was the natural juxtaposition of the cherry red trams, wintry chill, a clear sunny morning, and virtually zero traces of dust or haze that it created a spontaneous visualization of a fairyland. We walked on cobbled streets, a small arc bridge, and some uneven stone surfaces before arriving at the medieval Michalská Brána or Michael’s Gate. This baroque style gate leads into the pedestrian-only historic old town. By that time we were hungry, and before moving further inside the old town entered a confectionery run by a group of Slovak ladies.  Wonderful pastries and tarts were there to satiate our appetite. There were some souvenir shops around. Traversed a series of labyrinthine passages to see some stunning medieval architecture. It surprised us to find that some of the medieval era residential buildings were occupied by present-day local residents and their families. What is most amazing about the Old Town is the way the baroque buildings, churches, narrow cobbled streets, stone pavements, squares and statues erected during that period have been maintained and kept intact. For a moment I was spellbound by the thought of living in a medieval era. We passed a square where some musicians were entertaining the visitors. Further down, through a row of shops and restaurants, we came to the plaza where stood the strikingly graceful Slovak National Theater, the neo-renaissance building opened in 1886. The little bright cherry red Pressburg sightseeing cars operate from here. They are equipped with audio guides. The driver takes a handful of tourists (I think around eight or ten people can be accommodated) to sightseeing spots in the city of Bratislava. He took us around to Leopold’s Gate, Bratislava Castle (a restored hilltop baroque castle dating back to 907 AD, and commanding a majestic view of the river Danube), the university, the technical institute, and parts of modern Bratislava. On its way back the car dropped us at the plaza from where we started.

It’s a busy plaza, with rows of souvenir shops, coffee shops, and walnut shops. We leisurely traced our way back to Michael’s Gate, but this time we tried Bastova Street which happens to be the narrowest medieval street sandwiched between some historic buildings. After emerging out of the old town boundary, we walked towards the city’s central tram station in search of Blue Church. The Church dedicated to St. Elizabeth, who was born in Bratislava is also known as St. Elizabeth Church. Built-in the beginning of the twentieth century, the church is popularly referred to as Blue Church because of its pale blue glazed roof and also for its pale blue interior. We returned to the tram station and had lunch at McDonald's before proceeding to the train station.  The onset of dusk saw us back on the busy streets of Budapest.



The last two days in Budapest were spent by visiting the Heroes Square, which was built to commemorate a thousand years of settlement in Hungary; a boat cruise on the Danube enjoying some spectacular views of Buda Castle District, Royal Palace, and grand Parliament Building as our boat crossed the Chain Bridge and the Elizabeth Bridge over sips of wine and lemonade; the famous Astoria Hotel and Café which was commandeered by the Gestapo and used as their residence; the Central Market; ruin bar in the courtyard of a vacant prewar building; the Jewish Quarter and Europe’s largest Synagogue. 

Delved into the history of Hungarian Jews to know more about the community which constituted nearly one-fourth of the population in Budapest at the beginning of the twentieth century. A peculiar history since their early settlement a thousand years back in the ancient city of Buda, which was then under the Roman Empire. They were mainly merchants, shopkeepers, and craftsmen. They were subject to many persecutions, expulsions, and even decimations under different rules over the centuries. But they were recalled every time for their prominence in science and arts, and their acumen in trade and business. As soldiers during World War I, they laid their lives for Hungary. Hungary and Germany have been allies since World War I. The Jewish community started prospering in the late nineteenth century by contributing to the industrial boom in the country. The Jewish Quarter, which is today located in the inner part of Budapest’s District 7 was earlier near Buda Castle till the late seventeenth century. They turned this into a bustling area that teemed with kosher restaurants, retail stores, and three Synagogues. During the Third Reich and almost till the fag end of World War II, the Jewish community fairly integrated with the Hungarian society and considered Hungary as a safe haven. Miklös Källay, the Hungarian PM during the war, did not allow the deportation of Jews to Poland despite an order from Hitler. The Hungarian Jewish community felt protected, little realizing that their predators lurked for the opportune moment. 

Hitler, dissatisfied with Miklös, ordered Nazi German forces to occupy Hungary. On 19th March 1944 German forces occupied Hungary. Otto Adolf Eichmann, member of SS (Schutzstaffel), arrived on the same day. Arrow Cross, a right-wing fascist party of Hungary formed a new Government by throwing out Miklos. Eichmann converted a portion of Dohany Synagogue to his office and set up an interim concentration camp for the Budapest Jews. Eichmann started a Budapest Jewish Council to deny freedom of movement within the city. Some humiliating acts of legislation were introduced like a) Yellow Star badge to be worn by all Jewish Budapest citizens; b) houses with yellow star markings were designated for the Jews; c) cameras, radios and bicycles were confiscated. Meanwhile, between May and July 1944, Eichmann oversaw the deportation of around four and a half lac Hungarian Jews to extermination camps at Auschwitz in Poland. Most of the Jews were gassed on arrival to comply with ‘Final Solutions’, systematic extermination of the Jewish race in place of emigration as declared. When Soviet and Romanian forces encircled Budapest from 24th December 1944 to 13th February 1945, the Hungarian ruling party Arrow Cross searched for the Jews across the city and murdered them. They were in a hurry to annihilate the Jewish community, knowing that the Red Army would enter any time. From the Central Ghettos, they herded about twenty thousand Jews and killed them. Over two thousand perished due to hunger, cold, and epidemic type diseases in the ghettos in the winter of 1944-45. 

The year 2019. Ambling down Kiraly, Kazinczy and Dohany streets at the Jewish Quarter in the evening was a joyous experience. Restaurants, Bars, Pubs, and retail stores lit up the atmosphere and life was at its fullest. This must have been the scenario until early 1944 or maybe better. The wall surrounding the Central Ghettos ( converted into a Wall Memorial ), and some old buildings still displaying the yellow stars (one such building was opposite Hotel California) were grim reflections of the sordid tales of the winter of 1944/45.

Red trolleybuses operate in the Pest downtown area. These trolleybuses were introduced after the war for replacing trams on narrow streets. I observed this type of transport from Terez Korut Boulevard. The bus on route # 74 covers the entire stretch of Dohany Street, one of the most famous narrow roads in the city. Famous for Europe’s largest Synagogue.

Built in the mid-nineteenth century, the synagogue is a fascinating blend of Moorish architecture and décor of Al Hambra in medieval Spain. It’s a large complex at one corner of Dohany Street. The complex has a courtyard where over 2000 Jews, who perished in the Central Ghetto during winters of 1944-45, were buried; Heroes’ Temple for honoring tens of thousands of Jewish soldiers who laid down their lives fighting for Hungary in World War I; Holocaust Memorial Space and Hungarian Jewish Museum. Dohany Street Synagogue, a symbol of Hungarian Judaism, turned out to be the first Jewish Temple, we visited. Non-Jewish are allowed inside the prayer hall, but males have to cover their heads with a kippah (a sort of skullcap). The worship area was large and could seat about 3000 people. Dohany Synagogue is the largest synagogue in Europe and the second-largest in the world. Since we were mostly tourists, the zones were divided on a language basis. We joined the ‘English’ group. Our rabbi was smart and eloquent as a guide. After the congregation, we moved to the rear portion of the synagogue. En route, on the right-hand side was an entrance to the basement area of the synagogue. During the world war, this area served as a cellar. The Hungarian Jewish Museum was located next to the synagogue. There were about 1500 artifacts. Two employees of the Hungarian National Museum hid the artifacts in the cellar of the synagogue in 1942, and thus the rich collection exists today. The archives in the cellar turned museum include the poignant tale of the Jewish community in the grip of Arrow Cross and the Nazis, the 'Yellow Star'branding, and construction of ghettos. Since there was no restriction on taking photographs, some of the photographs taken have been included here. From the museum, we went to a courtyard at the rear where a poignant Holocaust Memorial in the form of a metal Weeping Willow was designed by a Hungarian artist Imre Varga. Names of all the holocaust victims are inscribed on the metal leaves (perhaps about six lakhs Hungarian Jews killed in the year 1944-45). This Holocaust Memorial park is named after Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat in Budapest who saved thousands of Jews. One thing I observed from visits to all the Jewish memorials is that they place pebbles at the graves or memorials in place of flowers as a mark of respect. Although a very strange custom, but stones have a very special character in Judaism. The most sacred shrine in Judaism is a pile of stones. This stems from the fact that Abraham had taken his son for sacrifice on an altar of stone called even hashytiah, the foundation stone of the world.

The grandeur of Dohany Street Synagogue not only lies over the façade of the temple but also in its core for having crushed the evils who tried to take over and convert it in 1944.


Photo credit: Arundhati Sengupta (RUBY)

prayer hall
Dohany Synagogue Prayer Hall can accommodate 3000 worshippers



bratislava
Slovakia National Opera  Bratislava



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Nyugati rail station Budapest



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International train ticket counter at Nyugati station Budapest





train travel
Hungarian countryside from the train

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Hungarian countryside from the train


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Bratislava Station



slovakia
Bratislava Station


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Bratislava market place

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A musician in Bratislava





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Pressburg sightseeing car in Bratislava

bratislava street
Bratislava street

Tickets for sightseeing

Old Town Bratislava


Michael's Gate Bratislava

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Bratislava Museum

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Mouthwatering patties and pastries in a confectionery run by ladies in Bratislava

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One of the narrow streets in Bratislava

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Bratislava



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Old Town Bratislava



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Outside Bratislava Castle




bratis square
Bratislava Square







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Pressburg in Bratislava

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Blue Church


bratis church
Blue Church

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Blue Church

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New Bratislava near Danube





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Budapest

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A view of Parliament from Danube

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danube
Budapest Danube Cruise




budapest ghetto
Memorial Wall over Jewish Ghetto


Statue of Sisi or Empress Elisabeth of Austria at Andrassy Avenue. She was married to Emperor Franz Joseph I. Her connection with Budapest was when she got Andrassy appointed as the first Hungarian Prime Minister. In return, Andrassy made Emperor Joseph as the Emperor of Austria and Hungary, for which the coronation took place in Budapest.

budapest synagogue
Dohany Synagogue Budapest


synagogue
Dohany Synagogue



rabbi
Our English speaking Rabbi inside Dohany Synagogue


jewish memorial
Weeping Willow at Dohany. A unique memorial in which names of about six lakhs Jews killed in the Holocaust during 1944 - 45 are inscribed on the metal leaves of the tree.



weeping willow
Names of victims inscribed on the metal leaves of the weeping willow






dohany
Dohany Synagogue

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FROM JEWISH  MUSEUM AND ARCHIVE

dohany



archive


archive
Jews summoned to Budapest from the countrysides. The yellow star was introduced to identify the Jews.




cemetery dohany
Cemetery in the premises of Dohany Synagogue






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cemetery dohany



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Comments

Michael Kisku said…
Amazingly beautiful description and equally good photography. I need not go to Bratislava any more.

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