Friday, May 21, 2010

Of Synagogues and Shoes

Yesterday we decided to venture out to the Jewish quarter of the Pest side of Budapest where three synagogues cluster. There are approximately 20 synagogues in the area, but the three we went to see were the Doheny Street Synagogue, the Rumbach Street Synagogue and the main Orthodox Synagogue on Kazincy.

Of all of our destinations on this trip, Hungary is unique in having a thriving Jewish population ranging from 54,000 to 130,000 (depending on one's definition of “Jew”) with most living in Budapest. Pre-war the population was over 800,000. Germany invaded Hungary in 1944 and it was at that time that the liquidation of the Jews began. Budapest had been saved for last after the provinces were liquidated and the Nazis ran out of time. Thus Budapest is unique in having both surviving synagogues and a significant Jewish community. The population that survived was largely assimilated as the more Orthodox Jews often lived in the provinces.

We knew we were nearing the synagogue when we saw a rounded dome topped with a Star of David. A group of people surrounded a fence taking photographs of a Holocaust Memorial. This didn’t bode well. Was there a long line causing this?

We too paused to take photos of the memorial which was in the form of a broken weeping willow. Each leaf on the tree is inscribed with the name of a Hungarian Jew killed in the Holocaust. The actor Tony Curtis was a key driver behind this memorial as his father emigrated from Hungary.

We walked past the Holocaust Memorial to what is known as the Heroes’ Temple which was built in 1929-31 in memory of the Jews who died fighting for Hungary in WWI. Within its gates is the Martyrs’ Cemetery which became a graveyard during the time of the ghetto. There are twenty-four mass graves that fill the entire garden area. People have erected tombstones in memory of family members who are buried here, but many are unmarked.

As we rounded the Heroes’ Temple we saw the two octagonal towers of the Doheny Street Synagogue, a Moorish style synagogue. Above the doorway is the inscription from Exodus “and let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them”. Twelve of the letters are marked by stars and the numerical sum of the letters signifies the Hebrew year for 1859, the year the synagogue opened.

A sign noted that the synagogue was closed to tourists both that day and the following day. We couldn’t determine why as there was no Jewish holiday listed for those days. We saw several people behind the fence and several entering the building. When I inquired about entering I was told that it was closed. Upon asking about those who were entering, I was told that they were Jewish and going to pray. “I’m Jewish”, I retorted and was granted entrance along with my husband.

The Doheny synagogue seats 3000 people and is the largest active synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world. This is the synagogue where Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, celebrated his bar mitzvah and once lived next door, now the home of the Jewish Museum. While galleries were overhead, the women sat on either side on the main floor and the men sat in the middle. The synagogue is considered to be Neolog which is more akin to Reform Judaism, at least the European version. A large pipe organ filled the eastern wall surrounding the torah ark and a choir of both men and women sang the Hebrew prayers and songs. Franz Liszt is reported to have played the famous Doheny organ in 1865.

The ornate aron hakodesh, the torah ark, silently opened and presented a room filled with torahs. On the front was a golden sun with the name of God written upon it. On each side of the synagogue was a pulpit, apparently a vestige of a dispute between two rabbis from the 1920s who refused to share the same pulpit.

At the front of the synagogue stood Jews davening in their prayer shawls while at the back stood Jewish tourists with baseball caps covering their heads. Women stood in the aisle often commenting to their husbands on the proceedings. This was a far cry from the curtained off womens’ section that I witnessed in Vilnius.

The synagogue survived WWII because the Germans used its towers as a base for German Radio. The interior, like many other synagogues, was used as a stable by the Nazis.

After leaving the synagogue we walked to the other two nearby synagogues. We plan to return there when they are open to see the Jewish Museum and take a tour of the synagogues.

Later in the afternoon we walked down Andrassy Avenue, the main artery near our hotel, to the Danube. Along the way we passed the ornate Opera House and stopped in to purchase tickets to a performance of the Barber of Seville our last night in Budapest.
Proceeding to the Danube we arrived at the Chain Bridge, a massive span flanked by two lions at either end. Cottonwood seeds drifted in the air and coated the ground creating a snow-like appearance. We walked along the Danube towards the Parliament building which seemed quite cathedral-like with lofty spires piercing the sky. Our destination was a memorial to the Jews who were murdered by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross during WWII. They had lined Jews up by the Danube after first confiscating their shoes, shot them and pushed their bodies into the river. The memorial sculpture which was created in 2005 has a variety of bronzed shoes along the riverfront, mens’ shoes, womens’ pumps and baby shoes. Many are filled with flowers or memorial candles, creating a poignant memorial to the victims. The plaque spoke only of “people” who were murdered, not Jews. 

On the way back we stopped at a little grocery to pick up food for breakfast. The Hungarian language is not one which offers many reference points so shopping presented some challenges as we tried to decipher packaging. While most of the people in any tourist service speak fluent English, in our experience those in small shops have not.

We found our way to a charming restaurant for dinner called the Bock Bisztro which is affiliated with a winery. An accordion player set the mood and the food was unusual and appealing, definitely a find. The main dishes were all meat, but the tapas options offered a few vegetarian choices.

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