George Lang, Holocaust Survivor/Restaurateur
TIME: 11 PM. PLACE: The Danube River. COUNTRY: Hungary.
As we glided down the Danube on our approach to Budapest, all passengers rushed to the upper deck of the river boat that had been our floating hotel for the past week. The cruise staff had forewarned us not to miss the sight of this city that would be our on-shore home for the last three days of our Danube River tour.
As we approached the final stretch, a breathtaking sight appeared before our eyes. The city of Budapest, gracing both sides of the Danube River, was ablaze with thousands of lights. Lights outlining the regal bridges; lights outlining the Neoclassical buildings; lights outlining the grand monuments. Budapest (pronounced Budapesht) was a veritable fairyland. A fantasy that Walt Disney might have conjured up.
With morning came reality. Here we were, one-fourth of the way around the world, in an exotic, mysterious city that had been devastated in WWII and inaccessibly cloistered behind an Iron Curtain in the last half of the 20thcentury. Here we were, watching history being made in a city that was, once again, being rebuilt and reinvented by its proud people.
The city we know as Budapest was once three cities existing side by side. Obuda, with Celtic and Roman ruins, is the oldest section; Buda is the home of Castle Hill and the finest residential areas; and Pest is the seat of the bustling government and commercial areas.
PEST FROM THE BUDA SIDE
In 1873, under the reign of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the three were united to form the city of Budapest. That monarchy fell after WW I and Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory. It is said that during WW II, Hungary supported Germany in an attempt to regain its borders. After the war, Budapest was taken over by the Russian troops. In 1990, free elections brought the democratic victory that is responsible for reviving some of the pre-Communist traditions.
In 1251, King Bela IV gave the Jews religious freedom that kept them integrated in Hungarian society until 1941 when Nazi anti-Semitism took over. On January 18, 1945, the Soviet Red Army liberated the Pest ghetto, created in 1944.
With 3000 seats, The Dohany Street Great Synagogue, is the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world. Built in Byzantine-Moorish style between 1854-1859, its brick facade is ornamented with a large rose window flanked by onion-domed towers. The Jewish Museum is within the restored synagogue.
DOHANY STREET GREAT SYNAGOGUE
The Hungarian Holocaust Victims and Heroes Memorial unveiled behind the Great Synagogue in 1991 pays tribute to Hungarian Holocaust victims who were exterminated by the Nazis in WW II. This Weeping Willow sculpture, funded by the late actor Tony Curtis, is in loving memory of his Hungarian-born parents Mr. and Mrs. Emanuel Schwartz.
In Tony Curtis's words, the Holocaust Memorial is "dedicated to the 600,000 Hungarian Jews who perished in the Holocaust and to the many valiant heroes of all faiths who risked their lives to save untold numbers of Jewish men, women and children from certain death."
WEEPING WILLOW HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL
Among the poignant plaques at the base of the memorial was that of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation which read: "We may never understand why or how it happened, but we must never forget it happened." Edgar Bronfman's plaque was inscribed "Evil shall be vanquished by memory".
The United States has imported some of Hungary's most valuable assets…immigrants like Estee Lauder, the world-renowned cosmetic giant and mother of the aforementioned Ronald Lauder; Judith Leiber, the world's most famous bag lady, and George Lang.
"Who" you might ask "is George Lang?" Well, I will tell you. Hungarian-born George Lang was one of the world's greatest restaurateurs. During his lifetime, this talented, witty, erudite, perfectionist invented restaurants. About Lang, Martha Stewart once said: "…he was one of the fathers of modern hospitality industry."
Having survived life in a concentration camp, the young Jewish violinist made his way to America and another Horatio Alger story began. His dream of a musical career eventually took a back seat to the food-as-entertainment business. Lang's culinary path crossed his life with the likes of Queen Elizabeth, Princess Grace, Kruschev, President Clinton, and Pope John Paul II.
After successfully reopening New York's Café des Artistes in all its former splendor, George Lang returned to Budapest to purchase, (with partner Ronald Lauder, Estee's son) the century-old Gundel Restaurant. Founded in City Park (Varosliget ) in 1894, it was taken over by Karoly Gundel in 1910, restored and reopened by Lang /Lauder in May, 1992.
In Gundel's exquisite turn-of-the-century mansion, refined versions of traditional Hungarian dishes, as well as the aristocratic cuisine of the Austro-Hungarian era, are served in rooms decorated with dazzling chandeliers, paintings from 19th century Hungarian masters, opulent floral arrangements, and a collection of Gundel memorabilia from an earlier era.
We began our Gundel dinner with a cup of traditional gulyas (goulash) soup. Proceeded to the warm Hungarian-style goose liver (libamajszeletek) and from there to the pike (fogas) indigenous to Hungary's Lake Balaton. Our splendid dinner was washed down with Gundel's own Bull's Blood wine, and topped off with palacsinta, the thin crepe-like pancake filled with homemade jams and/or nuts. And, all the while, we were serenaded by a Gypsy Orchestra. In my book, the word 'Gundel' is synonymous with the word 'Budapest'. Don't leave Budapest without dining there.
GUNDEL GYPSY ORCHESTRA
Our last evening's dinner was at BAGOLYVAR (The Owl's Castle), another George Lang masterpiece. This restaurant, in a rustic Transylvanian manor house next door to Gundel, is unique in Hungary. Bagolyvar serves comfort food like mama (or grandma) used to make, in the atmosphere of a pre-WW II, Hungarian middle-class dining room. The restaurant was staffed entirely by women who planned, marketed, cooked, served, and provided traditional Hungarian hospitality.
BAGOLYVAR "OWL'S CASTLE" RESTAURANT
A Danube Bend Tour to Szentendre revealed a baroque town, just north of Budapest. Home to the fabulous Margit Kovacs Ceramic Museum, Szentendre is the best place to buy paprika and Helia-D, the magical face and eye creams in the little black jars. Cheaper than Budapest, and oh so much less than in the US.
THE BAROQUE TOWN OF SZENTENDRE
'Taking the waters' at the Gellert Spa is a Pesti (pronounced peshtee) tradition. The Art Nouveau spa inspired by Rome's baths of Caracalla, offers therapeutic massages at bargain basement prices. Once you figure out what to do, and where to go, you will feel great. But don't expect Baden Baden luxury.
JANET STEINBERG is an award-winning Travel Writer, International Travel Consultant, and winner of 40 national Travel Writing Awards.