Yellow Starlight in Budapest

In 1999, I bought a small apartment in Budapest. It was on the top floor of a building located at the edge of the city’s downtown Seventh District, just off Király Street and opposite the lavishly ornate Academy of Music.

I was spending a lot of time in Hungary and elsewhere in central Europe—and still do; I bought my little place in order to have a convenient base for travel.

It pleased me to have found a flat in the Seventh District—Budapest’s historic downtown Jewish neighbourhood.

Király Street, the border between the Sixth and the Seventh Districts, was Budapest’s downtown Jewish main commercial avenue, and the inner part of the Seventh District is anchored by three grand synagogues that form the so-called “Jewish Triangle”. Even today, my flat is within a fifteen minute or so walk from most of the city’s main Jewish institutions: several active synagogues, the Jewish Museum, the Rabbinical Seminary, the Jewish Community Centre, Jewish and even kosher restaurants, not to mention the new clubs, “ruin pubs” and cafes that since the mid-2000s have become hangouts for secular young Jews (as well as tourists and other young people).

When I bought my flat, the Seventh District was one of the poorest and least developed districts in the city. I spent hours walking through the run-down streets, photographing the decaying tenements ripe for urban renewal—or the wrecker’s ball. Today, the district is still grimy, but piecemeal gentrification has turned it into a sprawling hub for youth-centred and “alternative” clubs and cafes, as well as a burgeoning restaurant scene. My apartment has given me a first-hand opportunity to observe and chronicle the changes.

According to plaques affixed to the outer wall, my building dates from 1896 and was designed by an architect named Antal Schomann. It has a typical Budapest layout: you enter through an outer street door, walk through a foyer, and then the flats are arranged on four tiers of balconies that encircle an open courtyard.

I never thought much more than that about the history of the building until I was asked to write this article. It was only then that I learned that it was one of the 1,944 apartment buildings in the city to which more than 200,000 Budapest Jews were forcibly relocated in the summer of 1944.

The Mayor of Budapest decreed the move on 16 June 1944, and the Jews had to leave their homes and move into the designated buildings by midnight on 21 June. The buildings were scattered all over the city, and each one was marked with a canary-yellow Star of David. It was a prelude to the forced march of 70,000 Jews to Austria and the establishment of the Budapest Ghetto in November of that year.

I had known, of course, that the ghetto was located in the Seventh District, but I was aware that my street was outside the ghetto borders. I also knew about the Yellow-Star Houses, but for some reason I had never checked to see if my own address was on the list.

In fact, this chapter in Holocaust history remained almost forgotten until a few years ago, when the Open Society Archives at Central European University launched a project to identify and map the Yellow-Star Houses. In 2014, it set up a website including photos, videos, testimonies and an interactive map pinpointing the addresses of all the houses, including the 1,600 or so that still stand and the four hundred or so that no longer exist.

On 21 June 2014, commemorative events at dozens of Yellow-Star Houses marked the seventieth anniversary of the forced relocations. There were concerts, readings and exhibitions, and people who had been forced to live in the Yellow-Star Houses bore witness with their memories.

“The houses served the same purpose as the ghetto, a preparatory stage for deportation,” the Yellow-Star Houses website states. “For the Budapest of the time, an astonishingly large number of apartment buildings bore the yellow star, but barely a trace of this remains in public memory. For half a year, every passer-by in the city could see precisely who the persecuted Jews were, and where they lived. In the following months, tens of thousands of them died on death marches, thousands were shot to death on the banks of the Danube, and thousands died during the siege of Budapest.”

The Irish photographer, Nigel Swann, who has lived in Budapest for more than a decade, has spent years documenting the city’s architecture and street scenes. Thanks to the Yellow-Star Houses project he discovered that he had actually photographed many of these buildings. When the addresses of the houses were published, he went back and photographed hundreds of these locations again, focusing specifically on the doorways. The doorway to my building was not among them, however. A collection of Swann’s photographs was exhibited in London in November 2015.

One of the initiatives of the Yellow-Star Houses project was an attempt to mark all of the houses with a star-shaped commemorative plaque or painted stencil, with text explaining that the house had been a building “where Budapest citizens defined as Jews were forced to live”. But it is not clear how many houses have been marked and I do not recall ever seeing one on my door. Could I have somehow missed it? Painted dark brown, the door looks like countless other doorways in the city: rather shabby despite an ornamental grille, and set back in a slight recess from the street. When I came home late one night during a recent stay, I found a young man urinating in the corner.

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