Thursday, 12 September 2019

The Jewish District of Budapest

More than 500,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in the Holocaust and thousands of survivors left the country immediately after World War II, and later, during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. However, with an estimated population of 80,000, Budapest is still home to by far the largest Jewish community in Central and Eastern Europe. Jews live in all parts of the city, but many of them are still in the former Jewish Quarter, Budapest's District 7 today, where Jewish people first settled in the late 18th century. It is a neighbourhood of a million stories, a tragic past and a buoyant present. With so much Jewish history to learn about, we made sure to visit the area during our recent holiday.
We booked a tour of the Jewish Quarter, starting at the Dohány Street Synagogue, also known as the Great Synagogue or Tabakgasse Synagogue, the Yiddish translation of dohány (tobacco). The synagogue was built between 1854-1859 by the Neolog Jewish community of Pest according to the plans of the Viennese architect Ludwig Foerster. It is a huge synagogue, with a capacity of 2,964 seats (1,492 for men and 1,472 in the women's galleries) making it the largest in Europe and one of the largest in the world.
The synagogue was built in the Moorish Revival style, but its design also features a mixture of Byzantine, Romantic and Gothic elements. Two onion domes sit 43 metres high on the twin octagonal towers. On top of the synagogue you can see the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments. Above the main entrance gate there is a rose stained glass window and an inscription in Hebrew: "And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them" (Exodus 25,8).
The synagogue's interior has wall surfaces adorned with coloured and golden geometric shapes. The Holy Ark containing various Torah scrolls taken from other synagogues destroyed during the Holocaust is located on the eastern wall. During 1933 renovation works of the synagogue a mikveh was revealed under the Holy Ark.
Theodor Herzl, whose house of birth was located in the vicinity of the synagogue, celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in this synagogue.
The Dohány Street Synagogue was bombed by the Hungarian pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party on 3rd February 1939. Used as a base for German Radio and also as a stable during World War II, the building suffered severe damage from aerial raids during the Nazi Occupation but especially during the Siege of Budapest. In 1944 it served as a shelter for many hundreds of Jews living in the Budapest ghetto. Over two thousand of those who died in the ghetto from hunger and cold during the winter 1944-1945 are buried in the courtyard of the synagogue. Though it is not customary to have a cemetery next to a synagogue, the establishment of the 3,000 square metre cemetery was the result of historical circumstances. Around 8,000 to 10,000 people had died in the ghetto during the war but as there was no way to bury the bodies outside of the ghetto, there was no choice but to bury them there. After the war ended, some of the deceased were transferred to the Kozma Street Cemetery, the biggest Jewish cemetery of Budapest.
During the Communist era, the damaged structure became a prayer house for the much-diminished Jewish community once again but only in 1991, following the return of democracy to Hungary, could the renovation work start. It was completed in 1998 when the building was restored to its former beauty. Today the synagogue's complex includes the Great Synagogue, the Heroes' Temple, the cemetery, the Tree of Life Holocaust Memorial and a Jewish Museum.
The Heroes' Temple was added to the complex in 1931 as a memorial to the Hungarian Jews who lost their lives during World War I. The temple can seat about 250 people and is used for religious services during the winter time.
The Tree of Life, a memorial dedicated to the memory of the Hungarian Jews who perished in the Holocaust was installed in the rear courtyard of the synagogue, below, in a small park named for Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat stationed in Budapest who saved thousands of Jews from concentration camps. The memorial resembles a weeping willow whose metal leaves bear inscriptions with the names of some of the 565,000 Hungarian victims of the Holocaust. Upside down, the tree resembles a menorah. The open courtyard behind the memorial is dedicated to the Righteous Among the Nations who saved thousands of Jewish lives in wartime Budapest.
Leaving the Synagogue complex, we continued our tour of the Jewish district, passing the Rumbach Street Synagogue, currently closed inside due to interior renovations, and the Kazinczy Orthodox Synagogue, a stunning example of Hungarian Art Nouveau architecture from 1913. Our guide, András, pointed out just some of Budapest's Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks), of which there are thousands spread across the city. Each cobblestone-sized brass plates is engraved with Holocaust victim's name, date of birth, year of deportation, and cause of death. They are paved into the pavement outside the buildings where they once lived.
As I previously mentioned, towards the end of WWII, the Jews of Budapest were herded into a ghetto inside the Jewish Quarter. Several thousand people died here before the Soviet Army liberated the ghetto on 18th January 1945. A small section of the ghetto's wall, using some of the original material, still stands at 15 Király Street to serve as a constant reminder. It's inside the courtyard of a private apartment building but, with our guide, we were able to go in to see it.
Carl Lutz, Hungary's version of Schindler, was a Swiss diplomat who saved an estimated 60,000 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. As vice-consul at the Swiss embassy of Budapest, he issued protective documents and set up over 70 "protected houses" for which he claimed diplomatic immunity. He was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. A bronze memorial honouring Lutz at the entrance to the old Budapest ghetto, below, shows an angel descending to help a fallen victim. The caption reads "Whoever saves a life is considered to have saved an entire world."
Not many survived the Holocaust, and even fewer returned home to Hungary from the concentration camps. After the war the Budapest Jewish Quarter became rather run-down. The houses were in terrible condition, poor families were moved in, and the Communist regime did not help to renovate the buildings. When Communist rule in Hungary finally came to an end in 1989 and it became easier to buy apartments, a lot of young people discovered this central area and, as they started to move in, bars, restaurants, galleries and cool shops followed. Between the famous ruin bars of Budapest, hip food trucks and nightclubs, you can still find synagogues, kosher restaurants and shops. What used to be the epicentre of the Hungarian Jewish community is now the most lively district in Budapest, as well as a stronghold of the present Jewish community in the Hungarian capital. Perhaps the most symbolic sign of the neighbourhood's transformation is that Szimpla Kert, the world-famous ruin bar, is adjacent to Budapest's only functional mikveh (Jewish ritual bath ). To meet strict religious requirements, the bath uses rainwater collected on the roof, and spring water through wells drilled in the garden. The bath, built in 1928, was partially refurbished in 2004.

* This post has been shared on My Corner of the World, The Good. The Random. The Fun., Welcome To The Weekend, All Seasons, InSPIREd Sunday, Sharon's SouvenirsOur World TuesdayWordless Wednesday (on Tuesday) and Travel Tuesday.
Suitcases and Sandcastles


Unknown said...

I loved Budapest. Visited it for the first time last winter and I was so surprised by its beauty. We stayed in the Jewish quarter and liked it a lot. There are lots of good places to eat and drink. #Farawayfiles

Debbie said...

Hi Lisa, I never realised what history Budapest had. To see the Tree Of Life and the brass cobblestones, knowing what they represent must be quite sobering. Thank goodness for brave people like Carl Lutz and Oskar Schindler who put the lives of others before themselves.


Sharon said...

I missed visiting the Jewish Quarter when I went to Budapest last year. I hope to return and visit. The history of the synagogue is fascinating -- used as a stable by the Nazis! Also, it's interesting that renovation after WWII was put on hold through the Communist era. And some places are still not updated. I loved Budapest!

Carol @Comfort Spring Station said...

The synagogue is such a beautiful building and so huge!

Sammie @ The Annoyed Thyroid said...

We went to the Jewish Quarter when we were in Budapest but we didn't do a tour and now I wish we had! I got goosebumps reading about the history of the area but how wonderful that it's a thriving and vibrant cultural hotspot once again!

betty-NZ said...

Wow! Your post is soooo interesting and I enjoyed reading it to learn some history! The synagogue is just magnificent to see, inside and out. I'm so glad you shared with us.

Thanks for your link on 'My Corner of the World'! It's lovely to see you this week!

My Corner of the World

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing, it's really interesting post and such a touching part of history. I've seen a few of the brass plaques in the ground, in various countries we've visited, it's quite a reminder and really makes you stop and think. #farawayfiles

Jayne said...

I've learned so much from this post Lisa. The Tree Of Life is such a beautiful and touching memorial.
And I can't believe the size of the Great Synagogue, it's huge!

Have a lovely weekend. x

Clare (Suitcases and Sandcastles) said...

What a moving tour of Budapest. It must have been upsetting at times to read more about the history of the Jews here. It's a city I'd love to visit one day and finding out more about its tragic past is an important part of the visit. Thanks for sharing on #farawayfiles

philandgarth said...

We've been to Budapest it's a lovely city with so much history, thanks for the read about the history of Jewish people here, we only touched on the Jewish quarter as we were short on time, we did get to see the synagogue which is magnificent. Hopefully we will explore more of this area next time.

Jackie McGuinness said...

We visited all these spots on our trip to Budapest. The Tree of Life was stunning. Our guide explained that she didn't even know she was Jewish until her kids started asking questions.

Tom said...

...a gorgeous Synagogue! All of the one here are so modern. Thanks for sharing.

Billy Blue Eyes said...

Very nice synagogue don't get to see these offten

juniepr/jesh said...

Was twice in Budapest, but under Communistic regime, so we did not even know Jews were living in this city. Thank you so much for the historic facts. Had no idea so many died of "Hunger!" and not even that there was such a large Jewish community lived in Budapest. The Synagogue is absolutely beautiful, but not overdone. Love the bright chandeliers:) What a great tribute on that wall for all the fallen ones.
Many thanks Lisa for telling like it is! Am very sad to hear the difficult times they went through:( Many thanks for relating this to All Seasons: the truth!

Photo Cache said...

Beautiful architecture.

<a href=">Worth a Thousand Words</a>

judee said...

Thank you for all of the historical information . It's a sad history but a beautiful synagogue.

Rhonda Albom said...

The Moorish Revival style of the Dohány Street Synagogue reminds me of the Jubilee Synagogue in Prague. These temples are works of art. I am happy to see that they survived the world wars and have been restored to their greatness. I am at the same time sad to think about all those who have perished.

Fun60 said...

I enjoyed Budapest very much but sadly didn't get to see the Jewish quarter so thank you for your detailed post.

Stephanie 139a said...

No doubt a moving tour, but what stunning architecture. Budapest is definitely going on my to visit list, thanks for sharing with #PoCoLo