A Walk Through the Jewish Neighborhoods of Eastern European Capitals

During the time I’ve spent in Eastern Europe, I’ve traveled to three different countries and their national capitals. As a part of our program, we visited several sites significant to Jewish history in both Belgrade, Serbia and Bucharest, Romania. While the history of Jews in the 20th century differed significantly in both cities and countries, the parallels between what happened during the second world war, as well as the situation in the post-war years are quite shocking. As was the case in many countries allied with and occupied by Nazi Germany in the years during and leading up to the holocaust, unimaginable numbers Jews were isolated from society, rounded up, deported, and murdered. While I’ve learned a lot about the holocaust in my life, this program has brought me to places where it is possible to see the impacts the holocaust and anti-Semiticism has had on Jews in Eastern Europe to this day.
The first day in Belgrade I went for a walk around town and ended up wandering through the park on the banks of the place where the rivers Danube and Sava meet, and while I didn’t know it at the time, I would later find out that the park I had wandered through on the first day was in fact the site of a concentration camp.  Right across the river from the most populous city in Serbia and what was at the time the capital of Yugoslavia was the place where the city’s Jewish people were forcibly moved, murdered, and deported to holocaust centers in Germany, Poland, and Austria-Hungary. What I learned and felt at those sites, inspired me to look into the history of Jews and the holocaust in the city Rohan and I spent mid-term break in, Budapest, Hungary.
We chose a day to go to the Jewish Synagogue and History Museum in Pest. It was there that I saw the history of the holocaust in a way I’d never seen it before. The Museum, located on the site of part of Budapest’s Jewish neighborhood, is focused on documenting Jewish life and traditions in Eastern Europe and remembering the holocaust. The neighborhood was turned into a ghetto during holocaust, with the gate placed right in front of the largest synagogue in Europe, the center of the Jewish life and community in Budapest. 70,000 Hungarian Jews in the city were forced into a space that only has a population of 20,000 today. Shut inside the ghetto for six weeks in the winter, thousands of Jews perished or were executed at the hands of the army and citizen groups.  With virtually no space in the Ghetto, and thousands dying, the people in the Budapest ghetto had little choice but to bury their dead in mass graves in the courtyard of the synagogue. On the site of this courtyard which as Jewish law prohibits cemeteries near synagogues one of the only Jewish cemeteries next to a place of warship. Contrasting this cemetery with those in the Christian churches we saw where people were intentionally buried to be closer to god deeply humanized the horrors lived by the Jews in Eastern Europe. What it must have been like for those people, forced to bury their dead friends and loved ones in mass graves right outside their synagogue. They were cut off from the cemetery outside the city where they had buried their dead for generations, and oftentimes lucky to even find a body, never mind identify it.  There was hundreds of marked and unmarked gravestones and a list of thousands of names of those who died in the Ghetto between 1944 and 1945, most of whom were all buried in the tiny courtyard I was standing in front of.
Standing in front of that mass grave amidst the Jewish neighborhood in Budapest helped me understand the full scale of the impacts the holocaust had on Europe that have resonated until the present day. Three different cities, some of the largest in Eastern Europe, and the situation of the Jewish community in the post war is staggeringly similar. Though the Jewish culture, life, and neighborhoods across eastern Europe were decimated by the horrific events of the holocaust, there is hope for a brighter future. In all three cites, the Jewish community despite an aging population is rebuilding schools and synagogues, hopefully growing stronger as cites become more open and multicultural.

A Walk Through the Jewish Neighborhoods of Eastern European Capitals

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