Yellow-star houses

Seventy years ago, on 15 July 1944, the decree of the Mayor of Budapest was published, the effect of which was that the more than two hundred thousand Jews of Budapest – who since 5 April had been required to wear the yellow star – had to move, within a week, into the houses assigned to them. The gates of these houses had to be marked, in the words of the decree, with a “canary-yellow Star of David”. The Jews crowded into these houses – several families were put together in one flat – could leave the house for only two hours a day, between 3 and 5 p.m. From Governor Horthy’s failed attempt to break away from the war and the Nazi takeover on 15 October, until the end of November, when the inhabitants of the yellow-star houses were further moved into the Budapest Ghetto, the Nazi detachments also often harassed and carried away those living here. There were about two thousand such houses in the capital, which now can be seen together for the first time in the map composed by the Open Society Archive of Budapest.

The OSA, which for more than a year has been collecting and publishing on a separate site and a facebook page the documents and recollections connected with the yellow-star houses, yesterday organized, on the longest day of the year, together with the former and present inhabitants of these houses, their first presentation. The impressive program encompassing more than two hundred sites extends from on-site commemorations and survivors’ recollections through concerts and film screenings organized in the courtyards to walks that cover several houses.

On Saturday morning we are gathering in the courtyard of one of the yellow-star houses around Teleki Square, where the famous rag-fair – in my childhood only a food market – operated before the war. It was a poor slum, just like now, the first stop of the Jews coming from the countryside to the capital. Thirty thousand Jews lived here, 15% of those in Budapest, crowded into large blocks with inner courtyards and external corridors. It is no coincidence that almost every building in the main street of the neighborhood, Népszínház Street, which started from Teleki Square in the direction of the downtown, was a yellow-star house. In the few exceptions, the inhabitants themselves applied for this status in the Mayor’s office, supporting their request with an envelope with ten thousand pengős – 60 times the average monthly wage – so they could remain in their own flats, relates Tamás Márton in the courtyard of number 46, who has been living there since then.

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The walk is conducted by the young researchers of the apartment synagogue of Teleki Square. Once there were in the neighborhood more than fifty places of worship like this, apartments converted into small synagogues, almost one in each block of flats, but now there remains only this one. The Gláser Jakab Memorial Foundation, named after the recently deceased, legendary leader of the synagogue, has been trying to reconstruct the disappeared Jewish world of Teleki Square and its neighborhood by collecting data and doing interviews with the last witnesses. We will also review their first publications, planned for this autumn.

“It was 15 October 1944, when Horthy proclaimed the half-day long temporary breakaway from the war. I will never forget it: it was Sunday, just like the day of the Nazi occupation. A day of joy. We got to know that Hungary left the war, and turned against the Nazis. The first thing that happened was that the adults went down and took the yellow stars off the gates. And then, on the afternoon of the same day, still in daylight, from the direction of Homok Street the Nazis and the Hungarian gendarmes appeared, through the roofs. They howled us down to the courtyard. I was so scared and seized by such a panic, that I told to my mother to jump down from the fourth floor, to commit suicide. My mother’s reply to me was a spank on the seat of my pants. We went down, we were lined up, then we had to march with our hands up, children and elderly alike. Through the Népszínház, Kun and Rákóczi Streets, the Kerepesi Street, to the Tattersall [the racetrack].” (Interview of the Memorial Foundation with Iván Bánki)

The interviews refer to several hitherto unknown historical threads. For example, the role of the Jewish gangsters, who – as we also know from the novels of the local author Endre Fejes – were dominant figures of the eighth district, just as infamous before the war as now. Several witnesses make mention about a certain Miklós Lantos who, dressed in Nazi uniform, took over from real Nazis the command of Jewish groups which were being led to execution, thus saving them. According to others, more than one local Jewish gangster dressed up as Nazis, and thus were able to get near to the unsuspecting Nazis and “settle them with a brick”, and they even organized an armed resistance lasting several days in Népszínház Street after the 15 October coup. This is also commemorated by a plaque on the wall of Népszínház Street 46. But whether it really happened like that, or it is simply good to believe that even the defenceless had their own Robin Hoods, is not known for sure. Each witness remembers differently. Some say there was no uprising at all, only the Nazi caretaker of the house number 59 shot out to the street, in order to stir trouble for the Jewish inhabitants of the house. One thing is sure: the victims.

“On 17 October 1944, around 9 in the morning the noise of a tremendous gunfire filled the neighborhood of Népszínház Street and Teleki Square… One of the house caretakers told us in secret that there is a fight between the Nazis and the Jews shooting from the windows… From the house opposite number 59, soon there were twenty-one bloody corpses lying in the road.” (Interview of the Memorial Foundation with Dr. József Balázs)

In the courtyard of number 59, former witnesses now remember the events. According to Endre Jakab, the women and children were driven to the racetrack, while the men, twenty-two by number, including his father, were ordered to the front of the house, and there shot one by one. The grandson of one of them, Nick Barlay from London, has been researching the history of his family for many years, and now reads from his book, recently translated to Hungarian, what he has managed to find out about his grandfather’s death.

The commemoration comes to an end. But before the participants of the tour could spread out to take in the further programs, Tamás Adler, the leader of the tour, takes out a bottle of kosher plum brandy distilled in Teleki Square. We toast to the birthday of Ferenc Reisler, who just told us his memories of seventy years ago. Le hayim, we say according to the Jewish custom, to life.

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2 comentarios:

Rupert Neil Bumfrey dijo...

re-posted on twitter via google+

Studiolum dijo...

Thank you very much, Rupert!