I met Ernő Weinberger in Brooklyn, New York when I was doing research for my article about the Hungarian (ultra)orthodox community there. The 85-year-old Ernő, who operates a small kosher wine store, still regularly returns to Hungary. During his recent visit to Budapest, I had a chance to sit down with him on the terrace of the InterContinental, his hotel of choice, with the Danube River and the Buda Castle before us.
You fled Hungary after the Revolution of 1956, but you have been coming back to Budapest every year since 1961. Were you not afraid to return during Communist Hungary?
In 1961, I only had a green card, no American passport yet. I was on vacation in Rome, and I went to the American Embassy and asked them what they thought about visiting Hungary. They said that Hungary was trying to be friendly with the West, so if they gave me a visa, then I wouldn’t have to be afraid that they won’t let me out.
Where did you stay?
I stayed in what was the most famous hotel in Budapest, the Royal. On Lenin körút (today: Erzsébet körút). The staff was excellent. You give money to them, they do the maximum. Then they built the Marriott, it was called InterContinental then, and took the best workers from everywhere. My boys in the hotel said “come over to us.” So, for the next twenty years, I rented the same room there, a suite. It was cheap.
Everything was cheap for a tourist. Especially if you changed your dollar on the black market, but it was a criminal thing to do. You had to have a paper showing where you changed. My boys in the hotel gave me a slip that got me covered. So I could change my money on the black market. The exchange rate was 16 forint for a dollar. In the black market it was 45.
When did you move your “headquarters” to what’s the InterContinental today?
They started renovating the hotel when Marriott bought it. There was a lot of noise. Many of my boys moved again. They said, “come to us, you will get the same service.” So I did. This was 20-30 years ago. I get the same room here, too.
So people know you here?
Everybody knows me here. You get the royal treatment for your money. I give them tips. I do it for myself, because I get the service.
How do you think Budapest has changed over time?
It changed a lot. Now everything is private. I used to go to Gellért Baths. Every day. I took a massage, I lay down after the massage to rest. Now it’s co-ed. So I don’t go anymore. And the service isn’t the same. Old-timers died out. With the new ones, you have to buy the tickets, strictly 30 minutes or whatever. Back then, I signaled from the swimming pool that I wanted a massage. So now, I just take the massage here in the hotel.
What else do you do during the day?
Nothing. Sometimes I visit my grandmother's tomb. She is buried here in Budapest. In the orthodox cemetery. I think it’s called Kozma Cemetery. She lived in Király utca 14.
Where do you eat?
I eat at Hanna every day. It’s not great, but whatever. Kosher and clean. I’m not a big eater. Sometimes I need a warm soup with a little bread for the whole day. Last Friday, they had stuffed peppers (töltött paprika). It was good for a change. I also have some fruit in my room.
Many awful things happened to you in this country. During the Holocaust, you were deported from Makó as a seven-year-old boy. Why do you keep coming back?
I hate the memory. But I started coming back because of my health. The baths helped me. That was my main goal. And a change of scenery. Everybody in Budapest was around the old InterContinental then. Every Hungarian who came back as a tourist. Why, should I go to Florida instead? It’s better here.
And also the memory. I go down to Makó. I stop the car and I walk the streets, where I used to walk as a child. I remember everything that happened. I visit our house, my grandparents’ house, the synagogue, the cheder (the elementary school). It’s like a film rolling in my head. Certain houses don’t exist anymore. And no Jewish community. I don’t know one soul.
Do you have any friends here?
Only two people now. Everyone else left or died.
When are you coming again?
In the winter, I think. My wife says she's lonely now in Brooklyn, because everyone is on vacation. She can't travel anymore. It's better if I leave when more people are around her.