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Fighting for Tradition: Budapest's Jewish Quarter Under Threat

By Marion Kraske in Budapest

In Budapest's historic Jewish quarter, a café owner is fighting an uphill battle to protect the area against the encroaching property developers. But with international investment funds flocking to the quarter to make a killing, how long can the traditional character of the area survive?

Adám Schönberger is a busy man. His café, the "Sirály" -- "seagull" in Hungarian -- is doing a booming business these days. Young Budapest couples drink cups of tea or mocha, while other patrons sit at one of the dark brown wooden tables slumped over their laptops, hammering away at the keyboards. The walls are adorned with posters condemning racism and black-and-white photos from days long gone, when Budapest's 6th and 7th district was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood.

Adám Schönberger wears his hair cropped close to his head, his three-day growth shows a tinge of red and his wire-rimmed glasses give him a thoughtful air. He is both the "manager" of the café and the chairman of "Maron," an association of Zionist youth that practically lives in the café. Instead of the Kippa, the traditional cap worn by Jews, he wears a faded sweatshirt and sneakers.

The building's exterior is covered with colorful graffiti and there are empty wooden shelves inside, reminders of the days when the Sirály was a bookstore. After it was closed down, the building stood vacant for 10 years until Adám and his Zionists occupied and furnished it last autumn. Since then the café has been transformed into a meeting place for young intellectuals and Jewish activists. It features hip-hop acts and jazz performances, art exhibits and theater productions.

Many NGOs -- "civil organizations," as Adám calls them -- also meet at the Sirály. It was here, for example, that the giant peace sign was organized that many young Budapesters formed on Heroes' Square in downtown Budapest on the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war. A small activist group known as "Ovás" ("Objection") also meets at the Sirály. Its main aim is to prevent the demise of the old Jewish quarter.

Adám supports Ovás's goal, because the neighborhood, as he says, "is in jeopardy." He twists a piece of paper into little balls with his fingers. Here and there bits of plaster hang from the walls like stalactites in a cavern. The noise outside is deafening as construction workers excavate a rear courtyard.

Everywhere in districts 6 and 7, still known by their old imperial names, Theresienstadt and Elisabethstadt, workers are hammering, building walls and demolishing buildings.

Theodor Herzel, the founder of the Zionist movement, was born in 1860 in one of the Art Nouveau buildings lining the area's narrow streets, where there are still kosher butcher shops, kosher bakeries and kosher restaurants. There is a Torah school on Dob Street, and Europe's largest synagogue stands on Dohány Street.

But everywhere one looks the masonry is crumbling and entire streets are derelict. The Rumbach Synagogue, designed by Viennese Art Nouveau architect Otto Wagner and complete with small, Asian-inspired towers, has the look of a major construction site. There is apparently a shortage of funds for the renovation.

A dozen old houses have already been torn down, and many others will follow. A four-story building with a classical façade stands, wrapped in scaffolding, a few meters from the Sirály. The building, which bears the number 40, has been slated for demolition for some time. But it has since become a symbol of the fight to preserve the old quarter. Opponents of the demolition like Adám and his club are constantly taking a stand against the plans of investors who, in this case, are backing a planned hotel complex.

Adám Schönberger grew up in the old Jewish quarter. He went to kindergarten there and later attended the Jewish elementary school on Wesselényi Street. After finishing high school he went on to study literature at university. "I have spent my entire life here," he says, as if to emphasize that he has a right to play a part in determining the neighborhood's future.

Adám's parents live only a few minutes away, and so do his grandparents. They experienced how the Nazis turned the Jewish quarter into a ghetto, crowding about 70,000 people into a space of only a few square kilometers, after marching into Budapest in March 1944. Today children play on Klauzál Square, where the dead were once buried. A branch of "Kaiser's Szupermarket" has just opened next door.

"My grandfather still goes to the old milk shop today where he has been shopping for decades," says Adám. "Small businesses and workshops are typical of our neighborhood" -- the old quarter that means so much to Adám.

But the new quarter is rapidly encroaching. Fadesa, a Spanish real estate development company, has just built a huge concrete structure at the beginning of Király Street. The building, taller than everything around it, will house 270 new apartments. Hungarian real estate giant Autóker is constructing an imposing new building nearby. Trendy designer shops with names like Goa Home and Arcadia are springing up across the street, where chic German furniture maker Hülsta has already set up shop.

Foreign real estate companies have discovered the quarter, where investment funds from Spain, Ireland and Great Britain compete for potentially profitable properties. According to Autóker, investors achieved astronomical returns of about 40 percent in the old Jewish quarter in 2006. And this year, according to the forecast, prices will shoot up even higher.

Adám fears, with some justification, that his old neighborhood hardly stands a chance against new development. If rents climb, his café and the Jewish youth center could soon be forced out. "Our biggest project," he says, "is to survive."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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