I arrived in Budapest yesterday morning and spent the day wandering through the city. My hotel happens to be in the Jewish quarter, just a few steps away from the synagogue, which I will visit this afternoon, just before Shabbat.
My people suffered terribly in this country and city during the second world war, especially towards the end of the war. It feels fitting to me that this week‘s Torah portion includes the Shema, which I imagine was on the lips of many of these people when they died.
Some years ago I became acquainted with a Hungarian Holocaust survivor named Imre Hecht, z’l. He told me of surviving a Nazi death march, emerging into a tiny town after starving in the woods, walking into the square, and finding volunteers from the Joint Distribution Committee there, who gave him both soup and shoes. He never forgot their kindness and support, and was fortunate later in life to become wealthy enough to be a major supporter.
One morning he showed me a photograph and told me that it was taken of his family just before the war. They were 90 people, all first-degree relatives. He told me that not one outside of himself survived the Holocaust.
As I walk through the streets of this lovely city with its tortured past, I keep seeing that photo in my mind’s eye — 90 people posed stiffly near a massive tree, gathered one bright afternoon for an enormous family portrait before a picnic. On Shabbat in services when we say the Mourner’s Kaddish I usually say “may their memories be for a blessing” but in their case, as with so many others, there is no one left who remembers. And so tonight instead I will say “may their souls be a blessing.”