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Monica Porter

My Budapest

Jewish Chronicle, 18 September 2009

Budapest beyond the guidebooks.

Writer Monica Porter offers a very personal view of the Hungarian capital

Some people love Paris in the springtime. But I’ll take Budapest in the autumn, the perfect time to go. Especially this year: Hungary was named best-value country in the Post Office’s Holiday Costs Barometer for 2009. With its recession-hit economy and devalued forint, the country is keen to attract visitors and prices have fallen accordingly.

Of course, for me Budapest is much more than an affordable holiday destination. It’s where I was born, four years before the 1956 Uprising which led to my family’s flight to the West, along with 200,000 of my compatriots. I’ve been back many times over the past four decades, for pleasure and for work. Almost every part of this scenic, soulful capital is invested with echoes of my family’s past, which is intertwined with the history of the city itself. Let me take you on a personal tour, to complement the standard guidebooks.

I inherited my love of city life from my father, the writer Peter Halász. He was born and bred in Budapest, the only child of ill-matched Jewish parents. His businessman father was a dapper man-about-town and thoroughly secular, while his observant mother ran a dairy shop near the Great Synagogue on Dohány Street.

A tour of the beautiful Synagogue is the must-do for any Jewish visitor to Budapest. The largest in Europe, it was built in the 1850s in the Romantic style – with Byzantine and Moorish influences – and seats over 3,000. Its restoration a few years ago was partly funded through money raised by Hollywood star Tony Curtis, who has Hungarian-Jewish roots. During the Nazi occupation the building marked the edge of the ghetto, which is commemorated by the Holocaust Memorial in the synagogue’s grounds. The National Jewish Museum is next door.

District VII is the Jewish Quarter, bordered by Király Street, where my father’s cousin Gyuri lived with his family. This quarter is a favourite area of mine. Its melancholy, crumbling, but wonderfully intricate buildings are redolent of a vanished era. During the property boom a few years ago developers started tearing down the evocative old houses and erecting trendy apartment blocks. Luckily the recession has put the brakes on that.

You can still spot the signs of a continued Jewish presence on these quiet side-streets: a wig shop, a kosher bakery, the venerable Frolich cake shop which still makes old favourites such as flódni, a layer cake with apple, walnut and poppy-seed, and kindli cookies. At the heart of the quarter is Klauzál Square, a park and playground where the locals come to relax with their children and dogs. Along one side is the handsome 19th century market hall, which retains its original architectural features, although it now houses a slightly chaotic supermarket. There are a number of small Jewish eateries around the square, and during the summer months open-air pubs in the courtyards of endearingly ramshackle buildings.

In his late teens my father lived for a while with his mother on Páva Street, to the southeast in District VIII. Their flat was next to a synagogue and occasionally my father accompanied my grandmother there (although by then was a Christian convert).

On my last trip to Budapest I went to the Páva Street synagogue. It’s been extended and now houses the Holocaust Documentation Centre and exhibition. My grandmother never knew about the Holocaust. She fell ill and died in 1942, two years before the Nazis occupied Hungary and began the deportations. As for my grandfather, he was rescued by his gentile business partner, who hid him. Cousin Gyuri and his family survived in the ghetto, which was famously saved from liquidation by Raoul Wallenberg.

A visit to Budapest must include a slow stroll along the city’s premier boulevard, Andrássy Avenue, lined with the neo-renaissance mansions of former aristocrats and industrialists. Just off the avenue is the renowned Ferenc Liszt Music Academy, where my mother Vali Rácz studied in her youth and later gave concerts as a celebrated chanteuse. It’s still a great place to go for a classical concert and to admire the Art Nouveau interior.

The avenue is also home to the House of Terror, a museum about the evils of Hungary’s communist and fascist eras. I once got a shock there when, looking at the rows of mug-shots of members of the hated AVO secret police in the 1950s, I recognised the mother of a former friend of mine – a lady I’d only known 20 years later as a middle-aged sweetie.

The highbrow Írók Boltja (Writers’ Bookshop) is at 45 Andrássy Avenue, which once housed the Japan Coffee House, a fashionable hangout for writers and artists. Above it were the offices of the weekly arts magazine where my father was a staff writer from 1942 until 1943 – the year he was conscripted into the lethal labour service and sent to the Eastern Front. He escaped from his battalion, but fell into Russian hands and ended up in a Soviet POW camp in Ukraine. Against the odds he survived, and at this coffee house in early 1946 he was introduced to my mother, who was also lucky to be alive, considering she’d spent the Nazi occupation sheltering Jews at her Budakeszi Road villa across the river in Buda.

A walk along the Danube embankment between the Elizabeth Bridge and iconic Chain Bridge is another must. There are swish modern hotels, pavement cafes and restaurants where you can stop for a bowl of spicy goulash soup and take in the splendid view of Buda’s hill-top Castle, symbol of the nation’s Habsburg past. Also along this embankment you’ll find the Vigadó concert hall. My mother was due to sing there on 19 March, 1944, but on arrival she found the building locked and a notice announcing that the concert had been cancelled. A few hours earlier the Wehrmacht – and the Gestapo – had entered Hungary and the nightmare began.

Walk further up the riverfront and you reach another great landmark, the neo-Gothic Parliament, which offers fascinating guided tours. The square behind it was the scene of a terrible episode in 1956, in which hundreds of peaceful demonstrators were massacred by Soviet tanks. My father was caught up in it, and when he got home afterwards he told my mother that there was no choice, we had to leave this country behind.

True, much of my personal Budapest is linked to tragic historic events. But there are warm and happy memories, too. Such as the exciting month I spent living at my mother’s villa with my son Adam in 1980, encountering an array of colourful personalities who enriched my life. And the visit with my father in 1990, just after the fall of communism – his first trip back since ’56 – when after decades as a persona non grata, he was being published in his homeland again. His publisher took us for a slap-up lunch in a restaurant by the river, the sun shone and the air was alive with promise.

More than anything, Budapest is about the will to survive, and that’s a powerful message – to natives and visitors alike.

The updated edition of Monica Porter’s book The Paper Bridge: A Return to Budapest, is published by Quartet in October