With Halloween upon us, everyone loves a good ghost story. A native of Hungary, I’ve learned this about the U.S.
I also learned that for many Jewish visitors to Europe — including some I’ve met in New York City during a visit the last week — ghosts are what they think they’ll find in the communities where their ancestors once lived.
But I am no ghost.
A leader of the growing and increasingly vibrant Jewish community in my homeland, I have integrated the spirits of the past into my daily life, working every day to strengthen Jewish life in a place where most outsiders assume Jewish life is dead or threatened.
My story is an example. Sixty-two years ago this month, during the Hungarian Revolution against communist rule from Moscow, my mother Eva, an only child, then 18, was sitting on a truck waiting to be driven over the border to leave Hungary for good. The borders were open, and her future beckoned in the U.S. But she jumped off that truck and stayed. She could not bear to leave her parents.
Seven years later, she met my father, a Holocaust survivor who lost almost all his family in Auschwitz. I was born three years later, on a cold February day in 1966. We lived together with my grandparents in the same apartment in the heart of Budapest, a minute away from the iconic Chain Bridge.
I played hide-and-seek in front of the austere Houses of Parliament. I walked on the banks of the Danube River with my grandmother, who often quoted the poem of Janos Arany, the famous Hungarian poet, to me. My grandfather was a tour guide, knowing every brick and stone in the city, and my father was a cab driver who sang “La Boheme.”
In other words, I was very typical of those of my age around me. Expect for one secret unrevealed.
Everyone in my family, in our social circle, was Jewish. But I had no idea.
I learned this because my father died when I was 16. And no matter how much my family didn’t lead a Jewish lifestyle, no matter how much they didn’t want to talk about it at all because of the stigmas associated with being Jewish and the history of the Holocaust, one thing was for sure: You bury a Jew in the Jewish cemetery.
That is what they did at my father’s funeral, praying in a language I never heard before. When he died, I was born a Jew.
Right then I started slowly crossing the bridge from total mystery to awareness. I was intrigued, and wanted to know more. And so I learned about my family story from my mother and my grandparents: that my grandparents got married in the striking Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest in Europe; that my mother’s Catholic nanny saved my family in the Shoah; that the Shoah happened; and that our Christmas tree, in communist Hungary, was not a Christian symbol at all but one that protected us from the past by concealing our identity.
So I began to dip my toe into the quiet Jewish activities that were available, including the local rabbinic seminary’s Friday night services. It was more a social gathering than a religious occasion, and the place where my Jewish mother hoped I would meet a husband.
I did meet a special companion there: my community.
When the Iron Curtain fell, we all were suddenly free to be who we wanted to be. We — together with Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) — established schools, youth movements and Jewish organizations. I took the fast track and delved into Jewish education and visited Israel when relations were re-established between our two countries.
I came back energized. I began volunteering in even more Jewish community programs and began working for the JDC, helping to create the educational programming for the JDC-Lauder International Jewish Summer Camp at Szarvas established in the Hungarian countryside in 1990.
For people like me, who had no idea what Shabbat, Chanukah or a Torah were, the camp opened our eyes to the beauty of our tradition. In my work today as director of the Balint House JCC, established in 1994 and Budapest’s first Jewish community center, I have the opportunity to offer to countless others the same path to Jewish identity I experienced. Indeed, we’re the very place where some Hungarian Jews are exposed to their first taste of Jewish life and culture, from clubs for youth and seniors to courses, films and lectures.
Beyond the familiar questions I get from those seeking their Jewish identity, other questions are raised by visitors from abroad and by Jews I’ve met here in America during my visit: “How can you live there?” “Why don’t you leave?” “Don’t you see there is no future for Jews in your country with all the anti-Semitism?”
Quite Jewishly, I answer with two more questions: How can you abandon that which is thriving? After all we have been through, and all that we are proudly doing today in terms of Jewish life, how can we give it up?
We feel at home there — as do our Jewish brothers and sisters in places like Warsaw, Krakow, Bucharest, Kiev and Sofia — where JCCs just like mine are thriving. Today we are in charge of our own destinies; we’re working through the past traumas and standing firmly on our feet as Jews. We are working towards a better society among and around us.
An estimated 150,000 Jews live in Hungary today — many still in hiding like my family once was — afraid or insecure to come out as Jewish, carrying on the fearful legacy of parents and grandparents who wanted to play it smart and safe. But we can show them the way, changing their perception of what it is to be a Jew.
The next time you’re in Budapest, accept this invitation to change your perception: mourn with me at the banks of the very Danube I walked with my grandmother, where today the solemn “Shoes Memorial” recalls the tragedy of our people’s past.
Then join me at our JCC where we will dance the hora in celebration of a Jewish future waiting to be written.
Rest assured, it’s better than any ghost story you have ever heard.
Zsuzsa Fritz is the director of the Balint House JCC in Budapest.