Europe By Train #7: Budapest: Finding the Past

Merre va Margit Hid? Where is Margaret Bridge?

No offense, only affection for both: Prague is the cool, chic, with-it sister while Budapest is the wry intellectual in arty vintage clothing. 

During our six-hour train ride to Budapest, we chatted with an Aussie couple bound for a Danube cruise and two young Scots sampling the local bar culture. Travel creates sudden intimacy and then you never see them again. Yet somehow they stick with you.

Located on the Pest side of the Danube, the Keleti railway station is vast and old, witness to the sweep of history, armies of many nations, peoples on the move. 

The city wears her age with pride, her buildings gray and brown, in need of an update, but who cares? 

Across the river, Buda is even older, dominated by Castle Hill, a citadel against the 13C Mongol hordes. 

The most recent invaders were booted out twenty-five years ago and Russians come now only as tourists. “We don’t like them,” our Czech taxi driver had said. “They are arrogant.” In Prague and Budapest, museums mark their Communist past, a source of mockery in both countries.

The Nazi regime is another story, still evoking shivers of fear and hate. We had come to Budapest to ask “Merre va Margit Bridge?” Where is Margaret Bridge? And “Merre va Deak Ferencz utca 21?”— a bridge and a street, landmarks of my family’s life. My nieces’ grandmother, Annie, and younger sister, Vali, had lived with their widowed mother, Rose Gabor, at Deak Ferencz utca 21 in the center of Pest. Then in 1944, the first Jewish deportees were sent to Auschwitz—in freight trains that may have left from Keleti Station. The family was torn apart, forced to hide in three Christian homes on the Buda hillsides. On the day of their road not taken, a bitter reunion took place when they were arrested by Hungarian Arrow Cross fascists and marched toward Margit Bridge. 

Rose, seeing a work unit walking along the river, pulled her girls into that line—in the blink of an eye changing their fates, and that of my family itself. Without her quick thinking, my two wonderful nieces would have never been born.

We stood on that bridge corner imagining those horrific days, the soldiers, the fear. Unable to return to their home, Rose turned to a Christian friend, Lily, who sheltered them through the war. Despite heavy bombing, the old stone building at Deak Ferencz utca 21 endured. Here is its courtyard.

Ann’s mother ran her couture business below their central Pest apartment, its front balcony now overlooking a busy pedestrian mall. 

The apartment is not far from the Parliament, with Margit Bridge in the distance.

Just south of the Parliament is the memorial to Jews shot into the Danube by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen. 

It is like a punch in the gut to see the bronzed shoes lined up along the quay. 

The cruel scene evoked in mute simplicity…the shoes old and worn, a child’s beside his mother’s…

Delicate button-ups and high-heels, workboots, all facing the river. The cold black water below…the silence…and then the bullets, and cries as family and friends fall into the river. Shot in the back.

This was late in the war when the railroads were busy, I was told later by a traveler on the Vienna-bound train. They were in a hurry. It was easy. Practical.

It is impossible to walk the streets of Europe without the visceral experience of history. The passage of time, regimes, lives, deaths. The statue or plaque of a famous person now unknown. 

The ordinary street corner where a mother made a quick, life-changing decision. 

Each building has a story to tell. Stories. Our Gerloczy Hotel was once a private residence. Who bathed in our blue claw foot tub? Whose photos are on the wall?

We sit in its graceful café, trying to shake off the ghosts that linger around us in this soulful city. City of souls.

The funicular up to Castle Hill gives us a long shot of history, new bridges built to replace those bombed by Hitler in the desperate last days. 

On top red and yellow cranes hover over old copper roofs and crumbling rock foundations.

Elsewhere on Buda, cranes chew up Soviet-era high rises, preparing for the new future.

Life goes on.

As our lives go on, yet we are changed by what we have seen here.

Next stop, another crossroads of the Austro-Hungarian empire: Vienna.

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