Budapest greeted me with a gorgeous sunset as I woke up, ready to explore the beautiful Hungarian capital and its historical Jewish Quarter.
I began my trip first focused on exploring the city’s major attractions such as the Szechenyi Thermal Baths, where I was gladly able to relieve my sore back after a cramped bus ride. Then I visited the classical zoo first created in the 1866. It was teeming with adorable baby animals. The zoo was followed by a tour of the Hungarian National Gallery, displaying the rich history of Hungary’s past and present artistic masterpieces.
After a few days of visiting all Budapest had to offer, I made my way over to the beautiful Dohány Street Synagogue, also known as The Great Synagogue or Tabakgasse Synagogue. Having purchased my entrance ticket in the early morning, I realized I had time to spare and found a delectable way to spend it. Across the street from the synagogue was an authentic Jewish New York-style delicatessen ready to serve me a delicious and classic pastrami sandwich. Feeling full and flush with happiness, I arrived at the magisterial synagogue.
Built in the Moorish-revival style, the synagogue is quite an intimidating sight, with its outer walls boasting artisan-crafted designs. The overall structure brought to my mind the image of an impervious citadel ready to withstand any foe. Yet, the Hebrew inscription above the entrance – And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25:8) – reminds visitors that the synagogue is a welcoming place of worship.
The 158-year-old Dohány Street Synagogue can hold more than 3,000 people and is always filled for the High Holidays. A guide with a thick Israeli accent began to outline the history of the largest synagogue in Europe as our group marveled at its interior. The synagogue is named after the street it sits on, which translates to tobacco. The inside of the synagogue shows rich shades of red, as well as beige covering the walls. The most beautiful altar I have ever seen is at the forefront, its edges ornamented in gold-plated designs. A large organ stands tall behind the bimah. The synagogue’s beauty requires minutes of intense observation to notice the intricacies of its design.
The synagogue was built between 1854 and 1859 by the Jewish community of Pest. In 1930, the Jewish Museum was built next to the synagogue and attached to the main building in 1931. That same year, the Heroes Temple was built to honor the Hungarian Jews who had died in World War I. The Dohány Street Synagogue has been a witness to many mitzvot, but sadly it has also stood as witness to atrocities.
In 1939, seven months before the official start of World War II in Europe, the Hungarian pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party bombed the synagogue. During the Nazi occupation, the synagogue was part of the Budapest Ghetto and was further damaged. In 1944, about 70,000 residents of the Budapest Ghetto were moved to the Ghetto of Pest by the Nazis. By the time the Budapest Ghetto was liberated in 1945 by the Soviet Red Army, upwards of 10,000 Jews had perished from cold and hunger. Of the dead, 2,000 were buried on the synagogue’s grounds, where the garden is today. The garden is lush with greenery, symbolizing the resilience of the Jews of Budapest and around the world.
After the war, the synagogue fell into further disrepair under Communist rule. It would not be until the fall of the Iron Curtain in the early 1990s that a full-scale renovation of the synagogue and its complex could begin. In 1991, the Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park, located in the synagogue’s courtyard, was dedicated. The park contains the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs, a metallic weeping willow with silver leaves hanging down, almost each bearing the name of a Hungarian Jewish Holocaust victim. Some leaves are blank to symbolize those victims whose fate is unknown. Yet, the tree also evokes hope for a brighter future, and the names on each leaf ensure no one is forgotten.
Rocks line the base of the memorial willow, which was perplexing for many of my fellow non-Jewish tourists. Of course, it is traditional for Jewish mourners to place rocks on memorials instead of more commonly used flowers. Flowers, as beautiful as they are, die soon after they are offered, whereas a rock remains at the memorial of the lost ones forever – as sturdy and everlasting as the Jewish people.
Graham Paul is a freelance writer.