'Yellow-Star Houses': Interview with Nigel Swann

Magyar utca, District V

On 14 November 2015, a small new photographic exhibition opened at the Architectural Association in London's Bedford Square. Entitled 'The Yellow-Star Houses of Budapest,' the exhibition highlighted a little-known aspect of the Holocaust in Budapest. Before being ghettoised, the Jews of the Hungarian capital were forced to live in designated 'yellow-star' houses. This history was at the risk of being largely forgotten until a recent research project began to look into the location of these buildings. It was then that photographer Nigel Swann, who has spent more than 10 years in the city, became involved in capturing images of the former 'yellow-star' houses. There were 1,944 houses integrated into this programme of forced relocation; Nigel photographed the doors of 310 of these buildings, with the challenging task of selecting only 33 for presentation at the exhibition.
The exhibition closed in December 2015, but these photographs will remain to tell a fascinating yet tragic history. I caught up with Nigel to ask about his motivations for getting involved in the project.

What was your knowledge of the Holocaust in Budapest like before you began your photographic project?

I had practically no knowledge of the Holocaust in Budapest prior to 2004. On buying a 9th district apartment in 2004, however, I began researching the area and soon discovered several local holding and execution sites used by the Arrow Cross, such as a derelict factory on Tuzoltó utca (see picture below).

This factory on Tuzoltó utca, District IX, was used as a holding place and execution site. It has now been transformed into an Aldi

My research was aided greatly by these two very informative books. The first was The Battle for Budapest by Krisztian Ungvary. Ungvary really personalised the Battle for Budapest - the third longest siege of World War II - for me by providing maps of the Soviet advance during January 1945. In one map, between the front lines of 11 January and 14 January sat my apartment. Built in 1913, it clearly would have been searched and ‘neutralised’ by the advancing Red Army...
The other book is Nine Suitcases by Béla Zsolt. Near the end of his marvellous book, Zsolt talks of coming into Budapest and seeing his first Yellow-Star House. That was the first time I’d ever heard of these houses, but it wasn't until late 2013 that I began to appreciate just how many had existed.

Where did you find the inspiration to photograph the former 'yellow-star houses' around Budapest?

I’ve been a great admirer of the work of the late 19th/early 20th century French ‘photographer' Eugene Atget. I would put 'photographer' in quotation marks because Atget called himself an author/producer and not a photographer; more of a documenter, if you like. Applying Atget’s methodical technique with my own interest in a location’s ‘Genius Loci' (the spirit of a place) I spent 10 years documenting the streets and architecture of Budapest. Not long into that process I began to fine-tune certain enquiries and questions that I had. I was particularly struck by evidence of violence still visible on the city’s buildings: traces of the Battle for Budapest alongside scars of the 1956 uprising.
These remaining traces of violence were the antithesis of my own experience growing up during the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ - all such traces (there were over 30,000 bomb attacks during the period) always seemed to me to be removed and cleaned up very quickly, in contrast to the buildings in Budapest.

Bullet holes from the 1945 Battle for Budapest still mark the facade of this building in District VIII

On meeting Dr Gwen Jones, an academic working for the Open Society Archive in Budapest, in the autumn of 2013 I turned my enquiries to the Yellow-Star Houses. Gwen was instrumental in the development of the Yellow-Star Houses website. This exceptional site is dedicated to listing, mapping and gathering testimonies of these 1,944 apartment blocks allocated the Yellow Star.
During our initial conversation it became clear that, unbeknownst to me, I had been photographing Yellow-Star Houses over the last 10 years. With the publication of the addresses of the former Yellow-Star Houses in February 2014 I returned to the streets I’d walked and photographed for over a decade to document these significant locations.

How did you feel when you took these photographs, given the history behind them?

On a technical level, I tried to keep the making of the images a methodical, simple process, working only in the early mornings and without flash or tripod.
I was aware which apartment blocks Gwen had translated testimonies for, but I hadn’t gone into all the details at that stage. There was, however, one statement by an ex-Yellow-Star House resident that stuck in my mind while photographing; they talked about the fact they believed in the concept of Sunt Lacrimae Rerum, a Latin phrase from the Aeneid, the epic poem written by the Roman poet Virgil between 29 and 19 BC. It simply means 'there are tears for things'.

What sort of message or feeling do you hope your photographs of the doorways might convey to others?

The photographs speak of both a darker and, until recently, a hidden history. I hope they’ll encourage people to reflect on this culture of forgetting and to explore the Yellow-Star Houses website.

Akácfa utca, District VII

At the opening of the exhibition, there was a woman present who had once been a resident of a Yellow-Star House. How did it feel to have her there?

The very fact that wonderful woman came along to bear witness made the project all worthwhile.
I was speaking to Gwen recently and she told me that as a result of the exhibition there has been a new burst of interest in the Open Society Archive Yellow-Star Houses project and she had received a number of emails from ex-Yellow-Star Houses residents now living in the UK. I couldn’t have asked for a better result.

All text and photographs are published with kind permission from Nigel Swann. To see more of Nigel's work, please visit www.swannproduction.com.