We’re leaving Budapest this weekend heading south and west to Pecs (pronounced Pay-ch). I’m looking forward to it–about as much as I ever do for an upcoming trip. I’d prefer that a trip sneak up on me, and impress me–as they almost always do. I prepare for these visits in my old, perhaps too comfortable manner: I look at photos of the place on-line, read the Wikipedia entry, in this case, one on Pecs, and then, time permitting, check out the city’s Jewish history.
Each place in Europe has its own particular story regarding its Jewish residents over time. Vilnius in Lithuania, once had so many Jews it was referred to as the “Jerusalem of the North.” Remarkably, Vilnius once had 106 Jewish Houses of Worship. Today, only one active synagogue remains. Its active congregation consists of 15 members.
Pecs, too, has it own unique Jewish history. Nineteen forty-four was a particularly tragic year for the Jewish citizens of Hungary. Lively discussions are to be had about these matters. There is the side that reminds us that the German army was completely responsible, inserting itself with total control, throughout Europe. Let’s say, the “German accountability perspective.” This view tells us the German army organized and managed the collection, removal and extermination of local Jewish populations. Then there is the story describing local collaboration and the extent of its capitulation with the Nazis. This take is the “let’s not forget the locals’ role in this tragedy” view. Always too, are those who remind us about local citizens who courageously risked their lives to help Jews hide or escape, let’s say, the “things were horrible, but let’s focus on the heroes and heroines” frame of reference. Of course, all were true in turn. But alas, 600,000 Jewish lives were taken during just the last few months of World War II here in Hungary.
Nothing is clearer, or more poignant, than reading the actual day-to-day promulgations of the Pecs authorities during that fateful year of 1944. There’s April 10, when Jews had to report the possession of their radios. Then there is April 27, when officials announced Jews could no longer buy lard. Soon Jews had to relocate to the ghetto. Especially revealing was May 18, when the announcement was “The City of Pécs offers for sale Angora rabbits turned in by the Jews.” This otherwise mundane news symbolized the end of things for the Jewish population in Pecs.
I usually approach my visits to European cities with an open mind and a great deal of curiosity. There’s a 3-4 hour train ride awaiting–almost always a good thing. Invariably, there’s an “Old Town” with cobblestone streets, historic churches, and a river with curves, providing sanctuary to local swans and ducks. Somewhere, under its layers of history, is the story of how a city treated its Jews. This, is the narrative I seek most. More than dates carved into stone buildings, statues placed in parks, or tales tweaked and reshaped over time, how a city treated its Jews, reveals a great deal about a place.