The 20th century was rough on Hungary, which celebrated its 1,100th anniversary in 1994. World War I saw the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had reigned since the mid-1800’s. The Treaty of Versailles, which ended WWI, stripped Hungary of two-thirds of its former territory. Just 20 years later came World War II, and while Hungary managed to stave off invasion until 1944, the price was collaboration with the Nazis. As soon as the Nazis fell, Hungary was invaded by the USSR, which started almost 50 years under the thumb of communism.
Not all of Hungary’s past is pretty, but they present it in an elegant, graceful way. Here are a few examples:
Memento Park – By the time the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, Budapest was filled with statues forced on them by the communists. What to do with all of them, they wondered? They hated the thought of having them in their beautiful capital city, but they also felt it was important to remember the lessons of those years. The solution: Memento Park, located 12 km on the outskirts of Budapest. Memento Park is a tasteful reminder of painful years, and to those of us who didn’t have to live through it, some of the statues are pretty cool looking. www.mementopark.hu
Shoes on the Danube – During WWII, Hungary was led by Miklós Horthy. To some, Horthy was a strong leader who allied with the Nazis but stood up to Hitler by refusing to deport Jews (“These are OUR Jews!”). To others, he was nothing but a collaborator and one of the first European leaders to implement anti-Semitic laws. Towards the end of the war, Horthy saw the writing on the wall and negotiated a separate peace with the allies. The Nazis got wind of this and kidnapped Horthy’s son, forcing him to renege on the peace agreement. In 1944 Horthy was deposed and the Nazis invaded. One of the first acts of horror was carried out not by German Nazis, but by the Hungarian fascist Arrowcross Party. Scores of Jews were lined up along the bank of the Danube River, stripped naked, and shot dead, their bodies tumbling into the river below. Shoes on the Danube is a tribute to those victims. What makes this memorial so poignant is the lack of fanfare: there are no signs nor long lists of victims’ names. Instead, it’s a quiet, respectful reminder of the tragedy in the form iron-cast men’s, women’s and children’s shoes, as if they’ve just been stepped out of by the victims. You can find it on the east bank of the Danube River on the Pest side, just in front of the Parliament building.
Tree of Life – Budapest is home to the Great Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe, located on Dohany Street. The Tree of Life is a Holocaust memorial with the names of all Hungarian Jews inscribed on each leaf. It was sponsored by the Emanuel Foundation in New York, a foundation created by actor Tony Curtis in honor of his father, who emigrated from Hungary to America. http://www.greatsynagogue.hu/