Bikes in Budapest, A Yellow Star House, Songs of Rezső Seress, Rosh Hashanah and the New Year

The third post is way overdue! There’s so much to write about since arriving back in Budapest over three weeks ago. Experiences, observations and photos are accumulating.

I’ve included quite a few links for the curious and the couch-travelers. I know that some of you are not big link-followers, but I encourage you to take a few moments and explore! Some sites are in English, others, only in Hungarian (Google auto-translate works passably well with Hungarian if you have that option). Of course, the music links are well worth listening to, no matter what the language of the lyrics. So enjoy this post as you choose and as you can.

The weather has changed from a sultry Indian summer to chilly, cloudy autumn. We stopped by at Humana, our favorite used clothing store and got a couple of jackets – a wool and suede jacket with silver-colored buttons for Lew, and a black leather jacket for me. Snazzy, cheap and just in time!

We’re settled into our rental flat, which is comfortable, if a little hotel-like with all the Ikea furnishings and pristine white walls. I’ve got a makeshift work table set up near the window, made from a friend’s borrowed keyboard stand and some wood and masonite boards, and am already at work again. I’m still working with Conte crayons on wet, gessoed paper. You can get an idea of what I’m doing now from my earlier Tablet Series or Black Monolith Series on this site. I will post the latest works soon.

Studio on the Fly           Studio on the Fly - 3


This place used to belong to a good friend, and is in the very same building of our former flat of the past decade. We are once again on the second floor of 8 Vasvári Pál Street in the Sixth Distict, gazing out across the intimate, mid-nineteenth century courtyard and looking right at our old kitchen window! We know nearly all the neighbors, which is very nice.

Home Away From Home 1              Home Away From Home 2

Yesterday on the stairwell landing, however, we bumped into a man we’d never met before, as he exited the front door of our former flat. We chatted a bit in English. He was some nationality other than Hungarian – maybe Italian or Greek? Dark eyes, dark hair. In a heavily accented English, he said that he was a businessman, occasionally doing business here in Budapest. He was renting the flat from the new owner, (a Serb – guess it changed hands a couple of times). He asked if we were Hungarians, we said no, Americans. He mentioned that his son lived in New York, to which we replied that we were from Brooklyn. Ah, he said; then, after the slightest pause and with the slightest smile, many Jewish there, heh, heh.  Heh, heh, we nodded, with quiet smiles, after the briefest of eye-grazing contact. Then we wished each other good day, said goodbye and went our respective ways. I love the way identity is shared here in central Europe. It is all so subtle, and so meaningful when it happens. History and identity itself is so complex and layered here.

This house on Vasvári Pál Street was originally built in the 1860’s as a well-to-do family house of three floors, each floor consisting of a square of many contiguous rooms built around a small courtyard. A narrow terrace or gang running around the inside walls of the courtyard on each floor grants access to individual rooms from the main stairway. The front entrance of the house has enormous, heavy, wooden double doors opening into a large entry hall running from the street through the front of the building into the courtyard. Horses and carriages could drive through this passage into the courtyard. The house was built for two brothers; each lived on one floor, while the servants and horses occupied the ground floor. This was the heart of the Jewish quarter, and in the first decades of the twentieth century, the commercial space on the ground floor opening directly to the street was home to the very popular Stern’s Kosher Retaurant!


Home Away From Home 3.                 My Yellow Star House

In the photo of the entry passage, there is a plexiglass commemorative plaque which was placed there in 2014, and deserves explanation. During the depths of WWII this house, along with nearly 2,000 other residential buildings around the city, was seized by the government and turned into a Yellow Star House. People were forcibly relocated on a massive scale; Christians, out, and Jews, into these houses which were then marked on the exterior with yellow stars. The majority of these houses, though, were in Jewish neighborhoods, and there were five such Csillagos Ház on Vasvári Pál Street. My house was one of them. The entire tragic story of these marked houses can be read here and here.

On June 21, 2014, a tremendous memorial and educational project was organized, with very moving and meaningful events taking place in front of many of these extant Yellow Star Houses. Memorial plaques of metal, wood or plexiglass, designed and created by the project were offered to the current residents of these houses. Some chose to place the plaques on the street, while others, like the house at 8 Vasvári Pál Street, chose to place the memorial plaque within the entry hall or courtyard of the house. 

In 2014 I played a small part in this tremendous memorial project, exhibiting my  Dom Feliksa Series in the Brody Art Yard Gallery. This exhibition took place in the very space where the Stern Kosher Restaurant once served its customers, and in the very same house where later, during the War, Jews were forced to live in unbearably oppressive conditions. It was in this same building that I, unaware of the historical significance of the place, lived and worked for over a decade, during my visits to Hungary.

Soon after returning to Budapest from the Bernecebaráti Art Colony, we went out for a stroll on the broad, tree-lined Andrassy Boulevard and happened upon Autómentés Nap or International Car Free Day. Yes, it took place here in Budapest too, in a big way. The entire Boulevard was closed to car and bus traffic, turning it into a huge pedestrian mall filled with displays of antique buses, information booths, very simple children’s games and rides. Budapest kids are as hi-tech as anywhere else (a friend described how in his son’s first grade class, the teacher collects the students’ cell phones each morning in a basket to get them away from their devices in order to focus in the lessons). Here on Autómentés Nap, however, the rides and games were all simple mechanical creations, sliding and swinging in boxes or baskets, pushing on wheels – and everyone was having a blast. Jugglers and street performers shared the street with presentations about Budapest’s history of public transportation, and of course, with bicycles of all kinds.

Car Free Day Budapest - 2      Car Free Day Budapest - 1


Car Free Day Budapest -7      Car Free Day Budapest - 8


Car Free Day Budapest - 6           Car Free Day Budapest - 5b           Car Free Day Budapest - 3.


Car Free Day Budapest - 9        Car Free Day Budapest - 9b


Car Free Day Budapest - 1a             Car Free Day Budapest - 11            Fagylalt.

I was aware that Budapest had, for many years, a world-famous Critical Mass Day where bicycles took over the major city streets and arteries, and was there in person to see one of the biggest of  such events. It was in Budapest that I first saw bikes becoming a symbol of an anti-establishment, alternative youth culture, kind of like the guitar was for us in the 60’s.

The first Critical Mass in Budapest took place on International Car-Free Day in September, 2004, and by 2008 had grown to over 80,000 participants, one of the biggest such gatherings in the world! The point was to encourage people to use public transportation (a fantastic system, in my opinion), to walk and bike, and more broadly, to avoid the terrible over-clogging of the city with cars, pollution and noise. Actually, the over-use of cars in Budapest is relatively recent. I can remember back in the mid-’90’s, when the streets of Budapest  and surrounding highways were sparsely populated by cars, since far fewer people had the luxury of owning one. Another time, another world.

The city government, initially antagonistic towards cyclists, eventually responded more positively towards them and to their calls for a more bike-friendly city infrastructure. Bike paths, now with their own stop lights, have become a part of the city, and around the country. Critical Mass became a world-popular event. Over the years, participants included the Dutch Ambassador to Hungary, one of Hungary’s past presidents, various government ministers, the Mayor of Budapest, and many celebrities. Here’s a video of the 2013 Critical Mass event, offering a lovely tour of the city on both sides of the Danube, from a biker’s-eye view. Check it out to see beautiful Budapest, even if bicycles aren’t your thing.

Critical Mass Budapest has since been renamed I Bike Budapest, a festival of biking and bicycles. European Car-Free Day has been renamed too, becoming European Mobility Week – a little too official-sounding for me, but still very important, given the way things are going. Here’s a very clever animation that says it all in nutshell: European Mobility Week 2016.


After walking up and down Andrassy, we took a turn off the Boulevard onto Nagymező (Big Meadow) Street, stopping for some ginger and coffee ice cream at Fragola, our favorite fagyizó, before heading across Király (King) Street, into the 7th district (the old Jewish quarter). There, we came upon a small memorial event honoring Rezső Seress, a famous song-writer who composed what we know in English as Gloomy Sunday, performed by countless famous jazz and pop  singers around the world. Here are Billie Holiday and Paul Robeson in two classic performances, and the original hit in Hungarian, sung by Pál Kálmar.
That afternoon, the memorial was taking place right on the sidewalk in front of the Art-Deco apartment building Seress called home for decades. His friend, jazz performer “Bubi” János Beamer lived in the same building, as did numerous other popular performers of the era. A memorial plaque and wreath honoring Seress are on permanent display beside the front door of the house.

Rezső Seress Memorial - 1             Diane Sophrin at Rezső Seress Memorial


Rezső Seress Memorial - 2             Beamter Buby

Rezső Seress Memorial - 5                The End of the World - Gloomy Sunday by Rezső Seress


Seress’s story is a tragic one. A Holocaust forced labor camp survivor, Seress chose, after the war, to remain in Budapest. He first worked as a circus and theater performer and later turned to music, writing songs and performing in restaurants and bars. Unwilling to travel to New York to collect his large accumulation of royalties, he remained relatively poor while continuing to compose and perform regularly at a small neighborhood restaurant named Kispipa (Little pipe).

His most famous song, eventually known world-wide as Szomorú Vasárnap (Gloomy Sunday), was first written in 1933 and originally titled The End of the World. These original lyrics expressed Seress’s despair at the tide of war and fascism rising around him:

The End of the World (Rezső Seress lyrics translated from Hungarian to English)
It is autumn and the leaves are falling
All human love has died on earth
The wind is weeping with sorrowful tears
My heart will never hope for a new spring again
My tears and my sorrows are all in vain
People are heartless, greedy and wicked…
Love has died!

The world has come to its end, hope has ceased to have a meaning
Cities are being wiped out, shrapnel is making music
Meadows are coloured red with human blood
There are dead people on the streets everywhere
I will say another quiet prayer:
People are sinners, Lord, they make mistakes…
The world has ended!

This early version may never have been recorded. Rather, it was a second set of totally different, darkly romantic lyrics written by Jávor László, which became the better known Gloomy Sunday. This version became infamously known as the Suicide Song, supposedly linked to a spate of suicides in wartime Europe. Seress himself survived a leap from his apartment window to die in the hospital by his own hand.

But all Seress’s songs were not that dark. One song which still seems to bring all Seress fans to their feet is Kids, Let’s Love One Another! On the warm afternoon of the little memorial event, around thirty loyal Seress fans sat in folding chairs below those very windows, singing his beloved melodies and remembering this Hungarian icon of popular song. When the keyboard-saxaphone group began to play this last song, everyone slowly stood up, and swaying happily to the music, sang in unison. In a nutshell, the words say that life is fleeting, nothing but a colorful dream, and the most important thing is to love one another! 

Here it is, performed by a stage-full of Hungarian stars at a lavish Hungarian New Year’s Eve Gala.  And this last one is my own favorite Seress song, I Don’t Know What Tomorrow Will Bring, sung by the contemporary group Budapest Bar

Finally, a quick holiday update. We celebrated Rosh Hashanah with both the Sim Shalom Progressive Congregation and the Pava Street Conservative congregation. We joined our many friends at Sim Shalom for the festive evening meal and for Taschlich along the Danube, both led by Rabbi Kata Kelemen, the only woman rabbi in Hungary. For the morning service I went to the beautiful, small Pava Street prayer house. It is on the grounds of the restored Pava Street synagogue which is now home of the Budapest Holocaust Museum. The young cantor, whom we know personally, has a beautiful, awesome voice. For the Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service we returned to the Pava prayer house. The next day I once again joined Sim Shalom for services at the Bálint House (the Budapest JCC).

This afternoon, I’ll go to the Art Market Budapest, a huge annual international art fair established in 2011. Somehow I always managed to miss this, so finally I get to check it out. Hundred of galleries and museums from Budapest and other parts of Hungary, as well as many other Central and Eastern European countries. I’ll report back on that in the next post. 

Also next to come:
New Works
Décollage on Vasvári Pál utca – Writing on the Wall
István Vankó exhibition
Janos Dréher exhibition
Hunyadi Square Market

Diane Sophrin
Sunday, October 23, 2016. Budapest












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