Budapest is considered the most sophisticated of Central European capitals and is often referred to as the "Paris of the East". Its wide boulevards and impressive architecture convey a sense of affluence from years gone by. It is home to some 90,000 Jews, once of the biggest communities in Europe. When we planned a weekend in Budapest we knew we had to explore its Jewish life.
Budapest also has a long and illustrious Jewish history and knowing this, we arranged a full day tour with Andrea Medgyesi of the Jewish Visitors Service (www.jewishvisitorsservice.com ).
Andrea has lived in Budapest most of her adult life, and has a wealth of knowledge about Hungary, its general and its Jewish history. She works with all types of clients, from traditional Jewish tourists to the Ultra-Orthodox who make visits to the graves of rebbes and tzadikim. Growing up under Communist rule has made her very proactive in protecting and furthering Jewish life in Budapest and Hungary.
Andrea collected us from our hotel, the Palazzo Zichy (which we later found out was belong to the same Zichy Family who were particularly kind to the Jews in 18thcentury.) and drove us the short distance to the Jewish Quarter. From there we walking through some of the old, narrow streets where Andrea pointed out the multitude of Jewish markings on the buildings – magen david’s and menorah’s carved into the brickwork – which immediately gave us a sense of the centuries of Jewish life here. Andrea explained that in Budapest the Jewish people live in the "Jewish Quarter", as opposed to the "Jewish Ghetto" and that buildings and not walls marked the areas perimeter. Only after 1944 when the Nazi’s occupied Hungary did the Ghetto come into existence and some walls were built.
We made our way to the Orthodox Kazinczy Synagogue – one of the 3 main ones in Budapest – with its beautiful Art Noveau interior. Once inside, we took a seat and Andrea gave us a fascinating talk on the history of Jews in Hungary and Budapest, covering centuries, complete with maps and pictures. Her enthusiasm is spell binding, and she answered all our questions with ease and knowledge.
From there, we continued walking, making a quick stop at the kosher bakery. Andrea then surprised us with another a detour into a Sunday "farmers market" at a rundown courtyard where traditional Hungarian food, drink, and entertainment was on offer. This offered another glimpse of Hungary you do not see from the modern day international shops lining the streets.
Five minutes later we arrived at the impressive Dohany Street Synagogue. Built in the "Moorish" style, this cathedral -like synagogue is the most well known Jewish site in Budapest. Seating 3,000 people in total, it is the 3rd largest synagogue in the world, after Belz in Jerusalem and the 5TH Ave shul in New York. The Dohany was built for the "Neolog" movement – akin to modern day Conservatism – and has its Bimah at the front of the shul, alongside a huge organ. The synagogue was actually built before such other impressive Budapest landmarks like the Opera House, which again went to show that Jewish influence and life in Budapest was burgeoning and important well before the golden age of the Austria – Hungary union and the Hapsberg monarchy. One little known fact is that Theodore Herzl was born in Budapest.
Within the grounds of the Dohany Synagogue is a mass grave of some 2,000 Jewish souls – all from the time of the Second World War. There is also a fascinating silver weeping willow tree, commissioned by Tony Curtis, the Jewish Hollywood actor, in memory of his parents, and where people can make a donation and inscribe the names of family members lost in the Holocaust.
The Jewish museum is also located within the complex, and has a sad and fascinating exhibition on Hungary during the World War 2. There are features on some of the famous gentiles who saved thousands of Jews, such as Raoul Wallenberg and Carl Lutz. Andrea tells a very moving story of children who were saved or hidden by the Church during the war so that they could convert them later on. After the war, Rabbis asked for permission to visit orphanages at bedtime, and went into the dormitories and starting saying the "Shema". Immediately many children, whose memories were triggered by this universal Jewish bedtime prayer, started crying. The Rabbis then knew which children were Jewish and removed them to Jewish homes. Incredible!
From the Dohany we made the short walk to the "Modern Orthodox" Synagogue, now sadly derelict. Also built in the style of the Moors, and despite its sad condition, the shul conveys a sense of the grandeur of Budapest Jewry from an age ago.
Leaving the Jewish quarter, we then starting driving to the "Glass House", whilst all the while being given a running commentary on Budapest in general, including a spine chilling view of the Hotel Astoria which was home and Headquarters to Eichmann and the Nazis when they occupied Hungary in 1944.
The "Glass House" is an amazing place, Located in a quiet back street, you could walk by it and never have the slightest idea what went on there. It was from here that Carl Lutz, a Swiss diplomat, protected and issued Swiss papers to tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews, saving their lives. Working from a non-descript glass factory owned by a Jewish family, Lutz became of one the true "Righteous Gentiles" – those who risked their lives to save Jews. After Oct. 15, 1944, when the Hungarian Arrow Smith Party came into power, the Glass House was the only fragile island of some relative safety during the raging terror for the persecuted in Budapest. The exhibit is open from 1pm to 4pm every day.
The final stop was the moving exhibit Shoes on the Danube Promenade is a memorial created by Gyula Pauer and Can Togay on the bank of the Danube River in Budapest. It honours the Jews who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during World War II. They were ordered to take off their shoes, and were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. It represents their shoes left behind on the bank.
We felt we had learnt a huge amount about the history of our Hungarian Jewish brothers and sister, and felt proud of what they had accomplished for themselves over centuries of life there.
Anyone visiting Budapest can – and should! – Contact:
Phone: +36 309428-215
Fax: +36 1326-24-72