Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Linda’s desire to see Budapest’s Great Synagogue propelled us out of the tourist zone and into a former Jewish quarter in Pest, staring up at the second largest synagogue in the world, with its two towers resembling a giant Torah: the Dohany Synagogue. Named for the street it is located on, “Dohany” means nothing more esoteric than "tobacco."
The synagogue was built in 1859, and served 23,000 Jews, a significant community for the city. Interestingly, the synagogue was designed by a non-Jew, and has elements of Moorish design and a decidedly Christian fixture: an organ.
A series of photographs lines the arcade leading from the synagogue past the garden, towards the cultural center, museum and library. The series traces the history of the property: leaders of the Pest Jewish Community gave a plot of land to the city in perpetuity, to be developed as a park, cultural center and synagogue; later, the garden would become a cemetery during World War II.

In spite of their collaboration as a country, the Hungarians were only temporarily spared from the evil of Nazism. The Gestapo set up headquarters in the synagogue and deportation of Hungarian Jews began late in the war (1944), when Jews were shot or deported to the death camps. After the reign of terror by the the Arrow Cross
(Hungarian fascists), and the starvation following the siege, over 2000 victims were buried in 24 mass graves in the garden of the synagogue. One of Budapest’s bridges has a sculpture depicting those who were shot on the bridge, falling into the Danube. Of the 800,000 Jews living in Hungary during World War II, 600,000 were killed in five months.

The synagogue was badly damaged during World War II, and liberated on January 8, 1945 by the Soviet Red Army. Restoration began after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and now includes a cultural center, the synagogue, a museum and library.
No one knows the present population of the Jewish community in Hungary; a post-war law forbade the counting of population groups. Estimates are that Hungary is home to the 3rd largest population of Jews in Europe, after France and the UK.

A memorial tree, resembling a willow, was commissioned by Tony Curtis, of Hungarian Jewish origin. Made of metal and having names of victims on its leaves, it stands in the Raoul Wallenberg Park, as does a gravestone of this Righteous Gentile. Patrons can buy a willow leaf and have it engraved with the name(s) of loved ones. In the same courtyard, memorials stand to the Jews who died surround the courtyard, and a special marker honors
Raoul Wallenberg.
You can take a virtual tour of the synagogue here.

This unanticipated visit, following our introduction in Baja to the history of Hungarian Jewry, was a sobering precursor to another visit I was to take in 4 days: to Auschwitz.

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