Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Hungary and Germany

Warning: this is a long one.

Here is my travel route:

Rather than a chronological account I have tried to organize things into subheadings…which makes more sense to me.


A large portion of this trip was spent traveling from one point to another. In all, I took 2 planes, 2 rideshares, 8 trains, 2 coach buses, 1 taxi, and various city buses, trams, undergrounds, U-Bahns, and S-Bahns. Including some waiting, I probably spent around 35 hours en route.

Of course having good books is a must in the cases of long train rides. I completed two books on this trip:

Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer (see also Roots, Coincidence)
Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, a collection of works by rock critic Lester Bangs, edited by Greil Marcus.


The initial persuasion to go to Hungary and specifically Bonyhad was to see where my grandmother (my father’s mother) grew up before the Nazis invaded Hungary in 1944, (putting an end to both her childhood and her life in Hungary). However, I found that the themes of going back to one’s roots, which in my case led to Judaism and the Holocaust, continued to follow me throughout the trip.

Throughout my time in Hungary I was reading “Everything is Illuminated” (see also Transport, Coincidences), the story of a man, Jewish, who tries to find the town his grandfather was from in the Ukraine and specifically the woman who saved him, Augustine. I began it on the train to Bonyhad and finished it before I got to Berlin.

But really the allusions began when I found out that my couch-surfing host, Peter, (see also Kindness of Strangers, Coincidences) was also of Hungarian-Jewish descent. His four grandparents had also survived the holocaust as Hungarian Jews.

But it might also have begun when I got out of the metro in Budapest and found myself about a block away from the Budapest Great synagogue.

My time spent in Bonyhad was somewhat disappointing in that it seems to be a completely different town than when my grandmother lived there and it was hard to find any connections, or follow her directions and tips about where to go and what to see. The city hall, for instance, has been relocated to a building that was built 4 years ago (managed to coax this information out of someone who was sort of able to translate to the person at the new city hall). The old building now houses a music school. But really the main problem was communication. Noone spoke English and when they found out I spoke English they were reluctant to even attempt communicating with me. The only words I exchanged were in broken German (broken on both sides, making it even worse).

I walked down a long, long street lined with semi-farmhouses. Each house had a dog and when I passed they would come racing up to the gate, snarling barking. I was now just walking, anywhere, because I had long since given up any hopes of finding someone to talk to who could help me locate things like my grandmother’s old house or school, or let alone the synagogue (mention of this word elicited blank stares, even though, I later found out, the Hungarian word is zsinagóga). I passed some sort of car mechanic. A man started speaking to me. When I didn’t understand, he called his friend over.

Man:Sprechen Sie Deutsch?
Me: Ein Bissen…
(he looked at me as if to say, what do you want. I didn’t WANT anything)
Me: Ich bin von Canada, aber mein grossmuter is von Bonyhad. Sie ist geleben hier nach vier un vierzig, ven … (I searched for the word for war but didn’t know it) ven Hitler…..
Man: Ich verstehe nisht.
Me: Vier un vierzig, pow pow (I made guns with my hands)
(man stares at me blankly)
Me: Sie ist judisch….verstehe?
(he shakes his head)
Me: Okay, danke

I came to realize that nothing remained of the Jewish community that once was. Hitler’s destruction was so complete that people in these areas don’t even know what ‘Jewish’ is. I did finally, by chance, stumble upon one of the old synagogues, a crumbling, boarded up edifice, only distinguishable by the almost invisible star-of-David over its door (and a sign nearby pointing, zsinagóga).

By the time I returned to the town center (a few shops, church, cafes) everything was closed. I had no idea how I was going to get out of there. I had been walking all day with my knapsack, and so I sat. And, by some miraculous chance, Audia, who was, I think, the only person who could speak English in the entire town, walked by (see kindness of Strangers).

I told her my story (grandmother, war, etc.) She didn’t know ‘Synagogue’, I showed her the photo on my camera.

Me: It’s like a church for Jewish people
Audia: I don’t know Jewish
Me: It’s a religion, you know, the people that Hitler wanted to kill during World War 2…
Audia: This is with special church you just show me?
Me: Yes, the Jews prayed in the synagogue. Hitler killed them because they were Jewish.
Audia: Yes, maybe I hear something about this….

Like I said before, Judaism was so completely wiped out that not only the Jews but the memory of them was lost.

I hope I'm not coming across as negative about Bonyhad. I had a pleasant day there just walking around. Mostly, I was just frustrated at not being able to communicate and not being able to find my way around and see/find what I wanted to.

On my rideshare to Berlin I told my car-mates about my travels in Hungary, and why I went to Hungary. Younger Germans love to talk about WW2, Hitler, and the Holocaust. What I mean is the country has greatly come to terms with their history and discuss it openly. One woman, aged 41, told me that her parents, who were only young children during the rise of Hitler and war, are part of the generation that hasn’t quite done this. She says that dinner conversations/arguments often culminate in them saying things like, “Oh, he wasn’t so bad, sure he killed millions of people, but look what he did for the economy”. Their parents had been avid Hitler supporters, as were most people during the time.

In Berlin there are constant reminders of the war, from the Jewish museum (a history of Jews in Germany since before the Middle Ages), which I visited, to the ‘Topography of terror’ exhibit, in the ruins of the government buildings of the Third Reich, which I also visited.


I think the day in Bonyhad and the following night were some of the loneliest hours I ever spent. As I said, noone spoke any English, which would have been fine, but upon learning that I spoke English seemed reluctant to even try to communicate with me. I couldn’t tell if English is resented, as being this global language that impedes on individual languages and cultures, or more of embarrassment at not being able to speak it. So rather than trying to find some common ground, German, or sign language, most people continued on their way. Some people were downright rude. I mean I don’t blame them, who likes annoying tourists asking them questions, but it didn’t make me feel very particularly welcome or enlightened. As I said I found one girl who did speak English and she greatly helped me get back on track. It was that night which was probably the loneliest of all. I had a 5-hour ‘layover’ in…Fonyod? But when I got there the train station was locked and there was nothing else around. There might have been a town center somewhere but I had no idea if and/or where and it was the middle of the night anyways. So I bundled up and sat on a bench outside for a good number of hours. I may have dozed off, I’m not sure. But there was not a soul, anywhere. I did hear some music and laughter somewhere in the distance. By the end I was chilled to the bone and it took me quite some time before I Stopped feeling cold. The next morning after a few more trains I finally arrived in Keszthely. The hostility towards English speakers was even more pronounced here. The people working at the train station literally ignored me when I spoke to them, asking where my hostel was. I asked several other people. No one wished to help me, to at least try and see if they could. Finally I picked a direction and started walking. Luckily, it was towards the town. I asked every person I passed on the street where the street was, and maybe I was pronouncing it wrong, but they just looked confused and kept walking. Finally, starving, I went into a bakery and bought some buns. I physically showed the lady the street name and she pointed me in a vague direction. With the help of two more people I finally managed to find the hostel. And this is where things greatly improved. The hostel owner was very kind, let me check into a room right away (at 8 AM), which I had to myself. I went straight to sleep.

Which brings me to…

The Kindness of Strangers

The people I must mention here are Peter, my Budapest host, who gave me a bed, a roof, conversation, companionship, and made me tea. This was my first couch-surfing experience and it set the standards pretty high.

Second is Audia, the English-speaking girl I met in Bonyhad. She gave me the use of her Internet to find a train, some food for my grumbling tummy, and a ride to the ‘train station’ which was really just a small house with an outhouse building next door.

Third is the man at the hostel in Keszthely, who made such a great effort to communicate with me, gave me the opportunity to sleep when I most needed it, as well as hope. He turned my frown upside down.

Lastly is a man I never met who I assume owns the hostel I stayed at during my last night in Berlin. It was late, the desk was closing soon. He asked no questions, and gave me the code to get in. He gave me trust, and a place to sleep with no collateral.

This meant a lot because I had just had a not-so-nice experience. My other nights in Berlin had been spent at the apartment of a friend of Xavier, who I know from Montreal and who was in Berlin at the same time as me. He had offered me this place to stay, after checking with his friend of course, and I was grateful. But this girl turned out to be quitecruel and I was asked to leave for no particular reason on a Saturday evening in Berlin, almost impossible to find a hostel. There is not much more to say other than I was very shocked that a human being could be so nasty, having never really encountered anything like it before. But I regrouped and explored Berlin on my own for the remainder of my trip.


-First of all, as I mentioned, Peter was also of Hungarian-Jewish descent. What was strange was that his last name is the same as my grandmother’s maiden name, Kramer. His mother’s last name is Schwartz, which was my grandmother’s mother’s maiden name.

-I found ‘Everything is Illuminated’ on a shelf outside my room, left here by a former tenant of the building I suppose. I had heard of it, and knew there it had been made into a movie, but I hadn’t the slightest idea what it was about. And I just happened to grab it before I left, it was small, and looked like a good traveling book. So imagine my surprise when I’m on the train to Bonyhad and I read, “Father toils for a travel agency, denominated Heritage Touring. It is for Jewish people, like the hero, who have cravings to leave that ennobled country America and visit humble towns in Poland and Ukraine…who try to unearth places where their families once existed” and that turned out to be what the entire book was about.

-Pretty much every place I visited started with a ‘B’; Budapest, Bonyhad, Balaton, Berlin, Braunschweig, Bremen. The only exceptions were Frankfurt (where I stayed for 1 hour) and Keszthely (which is in the Lake Balaton region).

Other Stuff

-I got fined 12000 Forint (about 50 Euros) in the Budapest metro for accidentally reusing my ticket (it really WAS an accident). The policewoman was yelling at me in Hungarian, “Passport, passport” which I finally gave to her. She copied down my information as I pleaded with her and protested, trying to make her see that it was all a misunderstanding. She just kept repeating, “6000 Forinth, 6000 Forinth”. I said I didn’t have the money, so she gave me a written fine (which was twice as much). I looked at a nearby policeman, also guarding the exit of the metro, as if to say, “Can you do anything?” He shrugged, as if to say “no, not really”, but then he made some ripping motions with his hands. Just rip it up! I took the fine and left. I didn’t rip it up though, I kept it as a souvenir.

-I visited a bathhouse, the Széchenyi bathhouse. It contained small pools/baths of varying temperatures, the warmest being about 36 degrees. There are also various saunas (dry and wet) and outdoor jet-pools and this one part that just pushes you around and around in a circle.

I also visited a thermal lake/hot spring (which stays above 25 degrees Celsius year-round!) in Keszthely/Hevis near Lake Balaton in Hungary. Apparently the waters are both therapeutic and radioactive.

- There’s a really cool bar scene in Budapest. They set up bars in buildings that are set to be demolished, and move them to other buildings once/if they do. The buildings are old houses, so there are many rooms and floors and usually a courtyard. They are decorated with all kinds of junk and wacky/wonderful art projects and installations.

- Budapest is filled with communist era cement-apartment buildings. These are amazing to see. The biggest one houses 30 000 people.

-The night I got to Berlin was May 1st, which is labour day or worker’s day in Germany. In the past there have been huge riots and uprisings, so they cover the city with riot police who block off certain areas. The police come from all over Germany. This year though they appeared quite useless as everyone seemed to be behaving themselves. But really, if anything, their presence provokes conflict and confrontation.

-We went to a show in Berlin at this place called the Magnet Club. It was Xiu Xiu with ‘Petula’ and Chris Garneau as openers. Was not too impressed with Xiu Xiu, but really liked Chris Garneau, sort of reminded me of a male Joanna Newsom or something.

-Really great flea market in Berlin. Bought a bunch of singles, old photos/postcards, and a few other knick-knacks. Great way to spend the morning before to Braunschweig to visit my friend Marlen for the day who I met on an orchestra exchange in 2003-2004. Also met up with another guy I know from then, Pascal, who I went to Potsdam with (the town right next to Berlin, location of Frederick the Great’s Palais Sans-Souci and its impressive grounds).

More photos:





an assortment of monuments and statues


carnivora said...

Dear 'Kid in Holland',

I found your blog doing a Google search for Bonyhad.
My name is Leslie Barany (a kid in New york City)
I left Bonyhad in 1956 and now live in Manhattan. My Uncle, Leslie Blau is also from Bonyhad and had written a book, "BONYHAD, A Destroyed Community", (about the history of the Jews of Bonyhad) published several years ago in English, which will be published in Hungarian in the next few months. I would like to communicate with you via email. Please write to me at: and also copy it to

Without question, my uncle will be familiar with your family, both living and gone. His book contains a complete list of the names of every individual who perished in the Holocaust. I eagerly await your family information so I can tell him who it is I've located. I am sure your family will also remember my father, Erno Barany.

I am fascinated by the few photos I've seen on your blog of Bonyhad. In fact, that's what I would like to communicate with you about. My uncle, I am certain, would greatly appreciate seeing any photos you have of the two synagogues, and may want to use them in his book and I, personally, would be very happy to see all your photos of the town.

I am certain we could send you a copy of the English language edition of the book. It contains many photos of an era in Bonyhad that you were searching for and, sadly, could find no trace of.

Let me hear from you soon.
Best regards,

Les Barany

226 East 27th Street, #3D
New York, NY 10016

(My first book, on an entirely different subject,
was just recently published.)

Agnes said...

Dear Kid in Holland,

My name is Agnes Takacs, I´m a hunagarian girl, living in Munich, Germany. I come from Bonyhád,and have also jewish roots, my grandfathers family died in Auschwitz...
This summer I made the same tour as you. I´ve visited the 2 synagogues and the 2 jewish cemeteries. It´s too bad that we didn´t know eachother, because I know, where the entries of the cemeteries are:)
I would like to hear more about your trip to Bonyhád, so if you want you can write me an e-mail:

Best wishes: Ágnes