Hungary has a long – and sometimes fraught – relationship with Jews. Living in the Carpathian Valley centuries before Magyars formed a nation, Jews have been an important part of Hungarian culture, arts, science, business, and politics. The Dohańy Street Synagogue in Budapest is the largest synagogue in Europe (second-largest in the world) and the temple and museum tell the story of Judaism in Hungary.
Budapest was originally two cities, Buda and Pest, split by the Danube River and further divided into districts (there are currently 23). A core part of District VII on the Pest side is where the city’s Jewish population congregated. Residential property on Dohańy Street, owned by the Herzl family, became the site of the synagogue. A son, Theodor Herzl, would go on to be mentioned in the Israeli Constitution as the father of modern political Zionism.
Construction of the synagogue began in 1854 and was completed in 1859. Designed by a Viennese architect Ludwig Förster, the building is a blend of styles – Moorish, Byzantine, Gothic, and Romantic. Förster was not a Jew, but he designed a number of synagogues. At nearly 250 feet long and 90 feet wide, the temple can hold almost 3,000 worshippers. In 1859 Hungarian composer Franz Liszt and French composer Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns played the synagogue’s 5,000-piece pipe organ at the temple’s consecration on September 6. It was a proud time for Budapest and the temple’s faithful.
Prior to World War I approximately 5 percent of the population of Hungary was Jewish and in Budapest about 23 percent of the population called themselves Jews. (In 1910 Hungary had a population of more than 18 million people.) But rising anti-Semitism in Hungary at the end of World War I marked a dark turning point.
The losers in World War I – Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Ottoman Empire – were forced to sign treaties filled with crushing penalties and brutal consequences. Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles, the Austro-Hungarian Empire put their signatures to the Treaty of Trianon, and the Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of Sévres. As examples, each of the losers lost huge parts of their territory and millions in population. These were not treaties of peace, but rather punishment, and they sowed many of the seeds that lead to World War II.
Hungary (like Germany), had its own fascist party, the Iron Cross Party, and in early February of 1939 Iron Cross thugs bombed the synagogue. It was one of many indignities and assaults that befell the temple before and during World War II. The German Nazi army used the synagogue as a radio broadcast center and a horse stable during part of the war. (The Arrow Cross Party committed their own atrocities upon Hungarian Jews as part of the horrors of World War II.)
The end of World War II brought in the smothering hand of Communism, and the synagogue, like Budapest, and all of Hungary, suffered terribly. The temple desperately needed repair and restoration. But it was not until the Soviet Union fell apart in the late 1980s and Hungary turned toward democracy, that a climate of hope created an opportunity to return the Dohány Synagogue to its former stature. The three-year renovation cost $25 million and was funded by $5 million from the United States, substantial donations by Hungarian-Americans such as cosmetics entrepreneur Estee Lauder and acting legend Tony Curtis, and other generous donors.
The restored synagogue, related structures, accumulation of relics, artifacts, and records tell a marvelous story of faith and perseverance. Inside the temple, colorful frescoes, lighting, and stained-glass windows have been brought back to their earlier grandeur. Included within the complex is the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives that holds religious relics, a Holocaust Room, and other memorable objects of the Hungarian Jewish community. Hero’s Temple, with room for approximately 250 worshippers, is the place for weekday and winter religious services, and it also serves as the memorial site for Jews who lost their lives during World War I.
The Dohány Synagogue is unique among the world’s Jewish temples in that there is a cemetery on the temple grounds. Talmudic law and tradition say Jews are to be buried outside the city limits. But German Nazis and Hungarian Arrow Cross goons tortured and murdered thousands of Jews on the grounds of Dohány Synagogue. In 1944 nearly 70,000 Jews were squeezed into Budapest’s Jewish ghetto, and of that number, 8,000 to 10,000 perished, and 2,000 were buried in a makeshift cemetery on the grounds. To honor the dead and remember the atrocity, Hungarian sculptor and artist Imre Varga created a dramatic stainless steel weeping willow with the names and tattoo numbers of those murdered at the site inscribed on the leaves.
As many as 600,000 Hungarian Jews are part of the death toll of the Holocaust. And their memory is kept fresh as part of the Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park. Wallenberg, a Swedish architect, diplomat, and businessman went to extraordinary lengths during World War II to save many tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust. In addition to the weeping willow that is part of the memorial park, the story is told of the notable humanitarian efforts by Europeans, Catholics, and other brave people of conscience whose escamotage saved the lives of thousands more by issuing phony documents, travel papers, and concocted identities.
Currently less than 0.2 percent of the 9.8 million Hungarians claim Jewish faith. The current Hungarian Constitution proclaims itself a “Christian nation” and the dominant political party, Fidesz, is a right-wing ultra-nationalist movement that uses a heavy hand to promote an “illiberal democracy.”
The struggle of Judaism in Hungary continues, but as is the strength of faith, the Dohány Synagogue in Budapest will continue to serve as a beacon of hope and source of pride for the Jewish faithful in Hungary and around the world.
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