As the Christmas lights sparkled in Budapest streets in early December, a circle of Jewish history was closed in a city center building.
The Hungarian capital is crammed with places of Jewish importance, but amazingly until today there has been no organized tribute to the Budapest native who shaped modern Jewish history more than any other. Now, the great thinker born there finally has a fitting tribute there.
The new Theodor Herzl Center, which opens to the public on January 1, tells the life story of the journalist who was the ideological father of modern-Zionism and who established the Zionist institutions that eventually led to the founding of the State of Israel.
The December ribbon-cutting ceremony was poignant. It brought together Jewish communal figures from Hungary, Israel and the US, as well as Hungarian politicians. The enthusiasm for the event shown by the non-Jewish Hungarians was especially moving given the anti-Semitism that is currently seen in their country.
Different dignitaries lit Chanukah candles, and speakers talked about Herzl, about his vision and about his determination. Several quoted things that he had said about Chanukah, including one moving passage in which Herzl likened the pioneers who he predicted — correctly — would move to the Land of Israel to Chanukah lights.
Perhaps most touching was the address of former refusenik Natan Sharansky, who today heads the Jewish Agency for Israel. Drawing a parallel between his own Jewish awakening from assimilation and that of Herzl he said that even at their most disconnected from the Jewish People “we knew we were Jews because of anti-Semitism — a familiar story.”
The new Herzl Center has an ambition. It doesn’t just want to be a stop for Jewish tourists and educational groups, and it doesn’t just want to be an educational resource for the Hungarian Jewish community. It wants to welcome non-Jewish groups from across Hungary.
Israel’s ambassador to Hungary Ilan Mor spoke enthusiastically of this aim. Discussing Hungarian youth he said: “If they know more they will fear less, and if they fear less there will be less anti-Semitism.”
A few minutes later, nourished on some traditional Hungarian food, guests were getting a preview of the center, reading the displays, pushing buttons on the multimedia content, and generally responding positively. The exhibition isn’t big, but there lies its beauty.
It targets perfectly the concentration span of teenage groups, be they Jewish or non-Jewish, and is easy-going on adult tourists. The displays quickly and succinctly familiarize visitors with who Herzl was, what his connection was to Budapest, and what his importance was.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and this exhibition is impressively light on the words and clever with the images. The picture of David Ben Gurion declaring the establishment with a huge portrait of Herzl behind him, along with the short accompanying explanation, drives home just how important Herzl has proved to be.
The same goes for the reproduction of Herzl’s barmitzvah invitation for a Budapest celebration and his school report. Budapest residents get the sense straight away that he was a local boy, “one of them.”
The displays are brightly colored and attractive. They take you from Herzl’s early childhood through to his assimilated adulthood and the encounter with anti-Semitism that sparked his Zionism. A smart video explores what a Zionist today, and explains that Herzl wanted the movement to work for the bettering of the Jewish state once it is established.
The display that moved me most was a glass display case which contains just a copy of Herzl’s book, The Jewish State, in which he outlined his Zionist vision. It made me reflect on how such a small book — barely more than a pamphlet — had such an impact on our present.
Whether for the committed Zionist who wants to connect to the Herzl legacy in his own city or the uninitiated who comes — perhaps reluctantly as part of a school group — to the new Theodor Herzl Center, it very quickly and convincingly prompts a respect for the figure and the movement he created.
Budapest Travel Tip
The new Herzl Center highlights the thematic connection between Hungary and Israel — the “roots” of the Jewish State run through Hungary. So it’s never been more natural for Jewish travelers to wrap together a visit to Israel and a visit to Budapest. And today, it’s cheap.
Wizz Air runs flights throughout the week from Tel Aviv to Budapest, meaning that if you visiting Israel from the US or further afield, you can take a short excursion to the Hungarian capital. Equally, visitors to Budapest can make a short visit to Israel for a small outlay.
Wizz Air’s has a low-cost model, which means that it’s easy to find flights today on the Tel Aviv Budapest route for 39.99 euro each way. These drop to 29.99 euro if you join the Discount Club.
The flight time is a little over three hours, and unlike some low-cost flights, the Tel Aviv to Budapest service works to a civilized timetable. There is an evening flight out of Tel Aviv and an afternoon flight in to Tel Aviv.
A range of extra services is available for a small fee, such as extra legroom seats and fast-track security at Budapest, to make flying more comfortable.
Wizz Air may be light on the wallet but it retains a good attitude towards service. Staff are smartly dressed and helpful. As of press time a kosher snack box is available for purchase on board.
The airline, which was established in 2004, has a fleet of Airbus A320 fleet, with average age of around 3.5 years. All 45 aircraft are powered by International Aero Engine’s V-2500 engines Visitors in the exhibition and equipped with leather seats.