A midnight walk in the fading Jewish history of Budapest's infamous Ruins Bars.
The nighttime streets of Budapest were alive with action as we walked down the packed streets of drunken weakened revelers, English bachelor parties, and international backpackers all seeking the debaucherous delights of the city once called the Queen of the Danube. As the streetlamps of a bygone era, with their pervasive yellow hue cast long shadows across the neo-baroque façades of the district, neon lights flickered beckoning us to enter and explore the ruin bar district. The heavy pulsating base of live bands and Euro-pop flowed into the streets from nearly ever doorway competing for attention.
It was exactly what my eclectic group of teachers-to-be had wanted. It was the third week in Budapest of our month-long CELTA course, and we were nearing its end. The long nights hovering over a laptop trying to decipher texts that had once baffled us were over, and we wanted to celebrate. We had all heard of the famed ruin bars that drew tourists from around the world, daring them to explore the Generation-X bohemian dream of “alternative” life in Budapest. Their quirky set up and design style was something of a hippy’s, slash punk rocker’s, slash euro-clubber’s, slash grunger’s dream. They took entire blocks of ruined buildings and made them mazes of bohemian wonder.
The traveler in me loved it. The endless string lights guiding us to new food stalls and funky rooms tickled my soul. The use of something old and damaged, but in new creative ways made me think of being a kid again in art class, or the time a group of friends and I had turned a partially defunct kibbutz into an art retreat on political action. As my friends drank their shares of Hungarian beers and I nursed a Coke, something kept pulling on me though. Something that I just couldn’t sit with.
These ruin bars, as amazing as they were, could only exist for a simple reason. They thrived on the destruction of my people and represented a long line of Hungarian anti-Semitism. What everyone else in my group had called the ruin bar district, I knew as the Jewish Quarter. The place where the Nazi Party, and their co-conspiring Arrow Cross Party, had rounded up thousands of my people and forced them into a ghetto. These homes and businesses, where now millions of drunken tourists drank and flirted with strangers every night, had once been the sight of forced starvation, rape, and countless other war crimes.
During the Shoah, the area had been reduced to mostly rubble. Even after the war had ended, the city had abandoned the area. The Soviets buried the dead, fed the starving and then moved on. For decades the surrounding area was built back up, but the tattered Jewish Ghetto had remained a destitute area void of commercial gain. Then in 2002 some bar owners discovered they could capitalize on the low rent of the area by esentially creating glitzy ruin porn and built the now famous Zimpla Kert ruin bar.
I couldn’t shake the idea that less than 100 meters away from where we stood laid a mass grave with an untold number of Jewish bodies. Even being in the ruin bar made my skin crawl as I thought about how most likely I was standing where people had died a horrific death. While the traveler inside was happy to see such creativity and life blooming from sadness, my soul couldn’t help but feel sorrow and a tinge of disgust. Watching everyone mindlessly revel amongst the architectural bones of my people made me think of parasitic beings unconsciously devouring the soul of their host and making hats out of skeletons.
While this had started out as a joyous night of celebrating a training course nearing its end, I couldn’t stay. I did my round of good-byes and paid my tab. It wasn’t their fault that I felt like crap, so I didn’t burden them with why I was leaving. I just wished them a good night and went my own way. As I left the bar and walked the streets, I couldn’t help but notice a sad trend in the Jewish history of this place. Like countless other places around the world, our entire presence had been forgotten. While architectural relics were everywhere to be seen, most of the tourists and even locals lacked the ability to decipher them.
Unknowingly my feet had carried me to the Great Synagogue, where I rested my head against its wrought iron fence. A masterpiece of neo-orientalist architecture, it had been built in 1859. Able to seat 3,000 congregants it was the largest synagogue in Europe and served as a testament to the scope of the once thriving Jewish community.
While I looked inside the synagogue grounds and the mass grave that housed my people, a stream of drunken partiers passed by. Girls in bright red and blue mini-skirts and black stiletto heels hung on the arms of European bachelors with half buttoned shirts and disheveled suits. Chinese businessmen and their wives took pictures, and Budapestian teens walked among the tourists looking for adult fun forbidden by parental units. Hidden from sight, I could hear a seemingly near unconscious and drunk Brit half sentimentally warbling some football tune.
Ignoring the constant flow of people, I directed my attention back to the synagogue. I remembered that growing up my family had always said Kaddish for those that have no one left to say it for them. Now felt like as good a time as any to say it for those that laid buried in front of me.
Once I finished my private peater, my attention returned to the commotion of the streets and the people passing by. The drunken Brit’s tune had gotten quieter and more intermittent. I thought to myself that I should probably check on him as clearly no one else was. I found him lying between two cars wearing a blue Champion League jersey. He was beyond drunk and claimed he had gotten separated from his friends during a bachelor party. Clearly, their group’s plan was trying to create their own version of The Hangover, Budapest Edition. He had no clue where he was, where his hotel was, or even its name.
Not knowing what do and unable to call an ambulance for help, I assisted him to a bench, gave him the transit map I had in my pocket, and wished him well. The night was still young, and while I wasn’t comfortable celebrating in this part of town, I still wanted to celebrate the hard work I had put into the course. I looked back at the synagogue, reflecting one last time on the fading history of the district, and then headed out into the night towards an event I had heard about in an underground rocker bar on the other side of town.
Wiley H. Jackson
Teacher, Writer, Adventurer
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