While my wife and I travel about four months a year, I tend not to write about our trips (she does that on her blog, http://www.eatdrinkfly.com), but our recent trip to Budapest surprised me.
Having traveled extensively worldwide for almost 60 years and being a history student, I pride myself on my knowledge of history and culture. So I was shocked when I recently visited Hungary and realized there was so much about the country that I did not know or appreciate.
Hungary, like Belgium, has the misfortune of being located between significant countries. In the case of Belgium, it was Germany and France. In the case of Hungry, it was Russia and Germany (notice Germany twice).
About a thousand years ago, Hungary was established. For more than half that time, it was occupied but the Turks and then the Austrians. It became part of what was called the Austrian-Hungarian empire. After WWI, that empire collapsed. As a result, Hungary lost over 70% of its territory and almost 60% of its population. My father’s father, born in 1899, listed his country of birth as Hungary or sometimes Austria. But the city of his birth is now in Poland. Now, I finally understand the puzzle. The area where he was born was Hungary at the time of his birth. It was also part of the Austrian-Hungary Empire which is why Austria was also listed. But Jews like my family lived in Galicia’s meta world where they spoke Yiddish. The ever-changing borders of Europe did not play that much of a role in their lives.
But for the Jews of Budapest, it was different. While 5% of Hungarians were Jewish before WWII, almost 25% of Budapest was Jewish. I never realized that the alignment of Hungary with the Germans saved many of those from the death camps. It was not until the last six months of WWII that the Germans turned on the Hungarians, fearing they were about to switch sides. The Jews were forced into a Ghetto during this time, and many were sent to the death camps.
After WWII ended, Hungary was occupied by Russians for almost 45 years. Then, finally, there was a brief moment when Hungarians could leave in 1956. After that, many ended up in the USA, including Les Vadasz, my boss and mentor at Intel (1984-1999) and remained a close friend, and the late Andy Grove, the legionary CEO of Intel, both Jews.
When you visit Budapest now, you can see what a magnificent city it was before WWI. But, unfortunately, it never recovered from WWI. Sadly, it seems to be sliding back into an autocratic state under the control of Victor Orban.