Budapest is a living history, and few streets are capable of taking you back in time like Király utca, which divides District VI and District VII.
Before World War II, Király utca (King Street) was one of Pest’s grand boulevards and central shopping streets. Jewish and gentile shop owners sold haberdashery, cut hair, sold jewelry and foodstuffs. There was actually a trolley that ran up and down the cobblestone street, ferrying shoppers from one end to the other.
Strolling down Király these days, you will come across many unique small shops and unique spaces, including used book stores, pubs, and design stores. At Király 19, if the gate happens to be open, go to the back of the builiding, through the passageway, and you will find the last remaining portion of the ghetto wall that kept many of Budapest’s Jewish population contained during the Nazi occupation.
Despite the Nazis’ retreat, the dangers in the ghetto persisted, and this was a very dangerous street to be found on. Jews were hunted day and night by the blood-thirsty, virulently anti-Semitic Arrow Cross party, a Hungarian militia who took it upon themselves to finish the job the Nazis started. They killed an estimated 25,000 Jews in the brief period from 1944-1945, during and after the Nazi occupation.
Farther up, across the street, at number 50, is Sirály (Seagull) a former squatters’ bar that was, until its recent closure, the hub of young Jewish culture. Experimental, folk, and klezmer concerts took place in a club under the bar, literary readings happened on the quiet book-lined second level, and there was an excellent used book store behind the bar on the main level of Sirály.
If you look right on Kertész street you can see faded Hapsburg Café lettering (from a former café from turn-of-the-century Budapest). Scanning the buildings, you can spot pock marks in the facades. These are bullet holes are from building-to-building urban warfare, most likely during the Siege of Budapest in WWII, when the city was taken from the Germans block by block. Though the street is not named for him, Imre Kertész was one of the Jews from Budapest who was rounded up and deported, sent to Auschwitz first, then eventually imprisoned in Buchenwald. His novel Fatelessness was a fictionalized version of that upheaval, and would contribute to his winning of the Nobel Prize in literature, Hungary’s first.
Much of the history of ‘King Street’ is tragic. But the street itself is still alive with activity and commerce – and is visually captivating as always.