Life & Culture

The last mourning pilgrim to the loneliest place on Earth


This year has been Holocaust Memorial Year in Hungary, the land of my birth. Seventy years ago, in 1944, the Nazis marched in to deport to Auschwitz the country's 800,000-strong Jewish population. In two months, 437,402 Jews were transported to the death camp, with 90 per cent killed on arrival.

So the Holocaust is not taken lightly in Hungary, and throughout this year there have been government-sponsored commemorative events, speeches and concerts.

I have marked this Hungarian Holocaust memorial year with a pilgrimage to the Rakoskeresztur cemetery in Budapest. It's Hungary's biggest Jewish cemetery, dating back to 1893. My paternal grandparents are buried there and I went to visit their grave. The cemetery features an impressive memorial to the 600,000 Hungarian Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and another to the Jewish forced labourers who perished during the war, mostly on the Eastern Front.

There is a separate monument to the heroine Hannah Szenes, who joined the British Army and attempted to enter Hungary as member of the Special Operations Executive. Arrested as a spy and tortured, Hannah refused to give details of her mission and was executed.

To enter this vast cemetery is to journey back to a lost world, the proudly opulent world of the once-flourishing Jewry of Budapest - bankers and industrialists, business magnates, artists and scientists. There are fabulous Art Nouveau mausoleums built for prominent Jewish families in the late 19th and early 20th century, designed by famous architects. The most eye-catching was created for the Schmidl family of store-owners in 1903 - a magnificent blue-and- gold work of art in majolica, marble and glass. The lavish tombs of other wealthy families have long fallen into decay. All around are rusty doors falling off hinges and elegant stonework overgrown with weeds. Those families perished or joined the diaspora, their crumbling shrines a metaphor for the Holocaust. There are 300,000 Jewish dead buried in the vast cemetery, which has paths radiating in all directions, some in a poor state of repair, others disappearing altogether into tangled undergrowth. My grandparents' grave is in a neglected corner and is anything but lavish. Antal Halasz and his wife Jolan, nee Gluck, were not wealthy or prominent. Their marriage was unhappy and they separated, to be reunited only in death. She died of cancer in 1943, while he was saved by his Christian business partner and lived until 1962.

These decaying tombs are a true metaphor for the Holocaust

I had to clear a lot of dirt and leaves off their grave in order to read the inscription. There are big cracks in the gravestone. Standing beside this humble, ruined resting place, I realised I'm the last generation to have any memory or knowledge of these two people. When I go, so do they, into the eternal void.

That same place to which so many of their fellow Jews were consigned in 1944. It is the saddest spot I know.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive