October 2012 - Budapest Hungary
The tour starts at Budapest Great Synagogue (Dohany utcai Zsinagoga). Our guide is very informative. Kate mentions that as a child growing up under communism she had no idea that she was Jewish, there was no history lessons in school about Nazis or World War II. She said she was 20 before she began reading about the atrocities and she learned about her religion when her children went to school.
Jews were banned from the city in the 18th century so they established a Jewish quarter just outside the old city boundary. Remains of the old Pest city walls run on the opposite side of the road.
The Jews built their main synagogue in a residential area. Theodore Herzl, founder of modern Zionism was born in one of the buildings. This stunning temple was constructed between 1844-59 according to Ludwig Förster's plans. The second largest synagogue (the largest stands in New York although some Hungarians would disagree) in the world can hold 3,000 people. Two onion-shaped domes sit on the twin towers at 43 m height. The towers symbolize the two columns of Solomon's Temple.
The spacious interior has equally rich decorations. A single-span cast iron supports the 12-m wide nave. The seats on the ground-floor are for men, while the upper gallery has seats for women. Surprisingly the synagogue has an organ, pulpits and kneeing benches though these features are normally found in Christian churches,not synagogues.
According to our guide, the elders couldn't agree on an architect so they hired a Christian hence some of the Christian elements. It was built between 1854 and 1859 by Ludwig Forster, a German-born Austrian architect. The original was bombed by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party in 1939, also mentioned in my past post..
The organ was played by Franz Liszt during the synagogue's inauguration.
The synagogue avoided serious damage during the war, likely because the Nazis protected it for their own uses: they put radio antennas on the two towers, stabled their horses in the nave, and according to some sources may have had a Gestapo base in the balcony.
During the Communist period, many windows were broken and the Jews boarded up the synagogue. An ambitious restoration was completed, funded in large part by famous Americans Tony Curtis and Estée Lauder, who are of Hungarian-Jewish descent. The building's original splendor is now fully apparent.
Its ark contains 25 torah scrolls taken from other synagogues destroyed during the Holocaust. The torahs were saved by Christian priests and ministers who entered the ghetto and rescued the torahs and buried them in Christian graveyards until they were returned after the war.
The second part of the tour, and the most heart wrenching is the memorial garden and the remembrance garden.
Budapest's great synagogue witnessed many tragic events in WW II.
In March 1944, Adolf Eichmann arrived in Budapest with the occupying Nazi forces to supervise the establishment of the Jewish ghetto and the subsequent deportations. For a time, Eichman had an office behind the rose window in the women's balcony.
Up to 20,000 Jews took refuge inside the synagogue complex during the war, but 7,000 people perished during the bleak winter of 1944-45. These victims are buried in the courtyard, where you can also see a piece of the original brick ghetto wall.
Next to the main building is the Jewish Heroes' Mausoleum and Temple in memory of the thousands of Jews who died during the Second World War. The Memorial Garden contains monuments to Jews who died in the Holocaust and to non-Jews who protected their Jewish neighbors.
Like many of the Nazi occupied territories, the Jews were driven into a ghetto surrounding this synagogue. Sadly, many of these people froze and starved to death, and their bodies were left in piles within the synagogue walls. The Soviets, after liberating Budapest, devised a system of mass graves in which to place all 2,228 bodies that were in the ghetto, at the time. It looks like a peaceful place, but in 1945, this was a very different matter.
The inscription reads "is there a bigger pain than mine?". It resembles an upside down menorah.
At the end of each branch is a Roman numeral to assist families in locating their leaf.
The small stones are typical of Jewish cemeteries evoking the age-old tradition of placing pebbles over desert graves to cover the body and prevent animals from disturbing it.
The best known Righteous Gentile honoured by Jews around the world is Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat and businessman who rescued around 60,000 Hungarian Jews during World War 2.
The memorial is also etched with the names of other Righteous Gentiles who helped save Jews. According to the Talmud "whoever saves one life, saves the world entire".