My last morning in Budapest had started on February 19, 2012 and I still had a few more things on my list to see before heading back to Austria from Keleti Station around noon. After my brief stroll through the Jewish Quarter yesterday, I had decided to visit the Dohany Street Synagogue which was just 5 minutes away from my hotel. I walked through the Astoria Metro Station underpass to cross the busy intersection and moments later I had arrived at Budapest’s Great Synagogue. At about 9 am it was still closed, so I decided to sit down in a little café across the road with some tea and a fresh croissant and have breakfast until the doors would open at 10:00 am.
Guided tours of the synagogue are available, but I chose a simple sightseeing ticket since I thought I might not have enough time for a guided tour. After a security check similar to the process that takes place at airports, I entered the building, passed by the gift shop and made my way into the main synagogue. The unusually Moorish-inspired beauty of the building took my breath away.
This magnificent structure was built between 1854 and 1859 and with more than 3,000 seats it is the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world. The synagogue is built on the site where Theodore Herzl’s house once stood. Dohany Street itself was the border of Budapest’s Jewish Ghetto during the Second World War. The outside is highlighted by two onion-shaped domes that crown octagonal towers and above the main entrance is a stained-glass rose window. Geometric ornamentation adorns the brick surround of the portal and horizontal bands of lighter and darker coloured ceramics make up the façade of the building.
Inside I was awestruck by the large nave which is surrounded on two sides by a women’s gallery. I was enchanted by the detailed ornamental ceilings and the colourfully painted cupola behind the torah ark. Detailed ornamentation was to be seen on every surface of the building, from the floors, to the wooden support beams, the brick arches and ceilings, metal railings and glass chandeliers. I stayed inside the Great Synagogue for more than half an hour to take in all the amazing architectural details. Today’s restored beauty is relatively recent: the Great Synagogue was severely damaged by a bomb attack by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party in 1939 and was also hit by aerial attacks during World War II. It underwent extensive renovations in the 1990s which were largely funded by a $5 million donation by Hungarian Jewish emigrant Estée Lauder.
Upon exiting the Great Synagogue I turned left to an arcaded walkway and went upstairs to the Jewish Museum which was built in a similar style to the main synagogue and attached to the main building in 1931. This museum holds a collection of religious relics of the Jewish Burial Society, ritual objects related to the Shabbat and other High Holidays. In the same building, the Dohany Street Synagogue is currently hosting a special exhibition by Dan Reisinger, a Serbian-born Israeli graphic artist whose brightly coloured posters advertise products and special events, but also convey strong political messages of peace. His most discussed piece, called “Again?”, was created in 1993 and features a swastika (facing the wrong way) breaking apart a 5-sided Soviet star, warning against the rise of neo-fascism in former Soviet republics.
Behind the Jewish Museum and to the side of the main synagogue is the Jewish Cemetery which holds more than 2000 victims who perished in Budapest’s Jewish Ghetto from cold and hunger during the winter of 1944 to 1945. At the back of the cemetery is the Heroes Temple which is used for religious services during the week.
At the back of the complex is the Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park which commemorates the Swedish diplomat whose efforts rescued somewhere around 100,000 Jewish citizens in Nazi-occupied Hungary. A weeping willow made of metal by artist Imre Varga, commemorates more than 400,000 Hungarian Jewish victims that were murdered by the Nazis. Each of the weeping willow’s leaves holds the inscription of a name of a Jewish victim. There is also a memorial to the Righteous Among the Nations, in memory of people who risked their own lives to save Jewish people during the Nazi occupation.
Last but not least I attended an exhibition in the last building that adjoins the Holocaust Memorial park which featured a multimedia exhibition about the Jewish Quarter. Original film material illustrated the busy life in this district before the calamities of the Second World War and an interactive photo exhibition showed images of the Jewish Quarter taken at different times over the last 150 years. In spite of the horrific events under Nazi occupation, Budapest today has an active Jewish community that centers around the Dohany Street Synagogue.
Now it was time to rush back to my hotel, take the metro for two stops and catch my train back to Austria at the Keleti train station. My three and a half day whirlwind tour of Budapest had exposed me to so many facets of the Hungarian capital and indeed confirmed the city’s status as one of the world’s most beautiful capital cities. I resolved to return another time in the warmer weather to experience the full beauty and charm that Budapest has to offer.