The Dohany Street Synagogue, one of the top tourist attractions in Budapest, is minutes away from the heart of the city, a comfortable walk from the Danube, Chain Bridge and other popular landmarks across the inner city of Pesh.
Remarkably, the shul isn’t showing her age, even as the Jewish community here observes the sesquicentennial of this exquisite facility. It’s been over a decade since the building received a multi-million dollar face lift and was restored to its original glory after near destruction during World War II and years of neglect by the communists.
Hidden from view by shops and apartments, the shul is slowly revealed, bits of its exotic features and intricate masonry coming into view once you make your way into the Jewish quarter.
At first glance the building is a euphonic blend of towers and stained glass, arches and onion-shaped domes, all wrapped together neatly in a Byzantine-Moorish style. Design details — an eclectic blend of whirls and swirls and painted brick — add richness and depth to the structure.
The other-worldly, decidedly Middle-Eastern feel of the place is balanced and enhanced with religious iconography, including Jewish stars and a large mosaic of a menorah spilling across a gathering spot in front of the synagogue. For those still uncertain what they have stumbled upon, the entrance is topped with a phrase in Hebrew taken from the book of Exodus: “And let them make Me a sanctuary so I may dwell among them.”
The richly-ornamented interior borders on the surreal, an over-the-top blend of colors, shapes and architectural styles. The expansive space — it’s one of the largest synagogues in the world and can hold nearly 3,000 people — has a warm, golden glow about it, filled with light that’s filtered through yellow-tinted, stained-glass windows.
Rows of wooden pews, well-worn with age and use, rest heavily on a simple floor. An aisle of mosaic tiles in an intricate star-like pattern runs the length of the shul, about half the size of a football field, from a set of stained-glass doors at the entrance to the impressive, ornately-decorated bimah.
A pair of massive chandeliers comprised of a series of glass globes dangle high overhead while dozens of other fixtures, all mimicking the same look, hang from the ceiling, the upper railing of a second-floor balcony and atop the third-floor balcony’s balustrade. While the entire space is magnificent, the bimah — the artistic and spiritual focus of the synagogue — demands attention. It’s set off by an ornate, intricately-designed gate, two towering menorahs and an arch, soaring three stories high.
A dome of heroic proportion, covered in abstract frescoes, hovers above the ark, mirroring the shape of the golden crown that tops the Aron Kodesh. The ark is immense, the size of a small house with its own arches and columns, adorned with architectural detail in gold relief. It holds sefer torahs, many taken from synagogues across Eastern Europe destroyed during the Holocaust.
The Dohany Street Synagogue almost suffered the same fate as those other houses of prayer. What exists here today is all the more remarkable given the shul’s history, especially over the last seven decades.
Signs of a Jewish presence in the region first appeared nearly 1,000 years ago when Roman emperors still ruled the area. For the next eight centuries, Jews here, as across the rest of Europe, lived through periods of persecution, benign neglect and, occasionally, enlightened acceptance.
In the middle of the 19th Century, during the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph, Jews were not allowed to live in the city of Pest — it, and the neighboring communities of Buda and Obuda, would consolidate in 1873 as one city, Budapest. Despite the housing ban, anti-Semitic outbreaks quieted and, interestingly, talk of full emancipation was in the air.
It was during this period, when all seemed possible, that the Jewish community of Pest decided to build a new synagogue in the heart of their community on, Dohany Street. They hired a Viennese architect, Ludwig Foerster, and made it clear they wanted something grand — beautiful, large, exotic and, perhaps, a bit like their neighbor’s churches. Foerster got the message.
He created a Jewish basilica — a long-aisled hall ending in a dome-covered aspe, featuring ornamental frescoes, arched windows and stained-glass doors and windows. He even managed to include a 5,000-tubed organ. Foerster then filled the cavernous space with ritualistic bits of judaica — the ark, menorahs, eternal light and stars.
The Jewish community flourished and the Dohany Street Synagogue became an integral and impressive part of the city for decades. Anti-Semitism, unfortunately, also remained part of Budapest and the region. But it wasn’t until the rise of National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s, that Jews were openly persecuted once again and the Dohany Street shul entered its darkest hours.
As the world moved toward war, Hungary aligned itself with Germany and Italy. In the late ’30s and early ’40s, the country enacted a series of anti-Jewish laws that set limits on the jobs Jews could hold, schools they could attend, where they could live and who they could marry. Despite such draconian measures, Jews in Hungary remained relatively free. All that would soon change.
Over a period of eight weeks in the spring of 1944, Jews across the region were rounded up and forced into ghettos — one of the largest centered around Dohany Street in Budapest. Only weeks later the first transports began. Even as Soviet troops neared the Hungarian border and freedom loomed precariously on the horizon, the trains continued to roll. By mid-summer, over half the Jews in Hungary — about 500,000 men, women and children — had been deported. Most were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in southern Poland.
It was during this period that the Dohany shul became part of a Nazi military district, then an internment camp, then a deportation center. For a time, Adolph Eichman planned the “Final Solution” from an office in the synagogue. Nearby, nearly 100,000 Jews in the city continued to cling to life. It was a daily struggle and thousands died of disease, starvation and abuse. By the war’s end less than a third of the Jews of Hungary, about 255,000 people, remained alive.
The Jewish community briefly rallied following the war, but once the communists took hold of the country in 1949 the number of Jews decreased sharply. The area around Dohany Street remained a center of Jewish life in the country, but the synagogue was, quite literally, only a shell of its former self. Its roof was open in spots, windows shattered and bordered up, grounds filled with debris. Decades of neglect followed.
In the late 1960s there were about 85,000 Jews in Hungary, a decade later only about 60,000, most living in Budapest. And then the world changed.
In 1989, across Central and Eastern Europe, communist states began to topple. It all began in Poland, followed quickly by Hungary, the first Warsaw Pact country to break free of Soviet domination. Only a year later, much of the region was toying with democracy and capitalism, opening its borders to investors and tourists.
Money poured in and among the first projects to be planned and funded by sources outside the country was the restoration of the Dohany Street Synagogue. A number of philanthropic organizations, mostly Jewish and mostly American, provided cash to repair and restore the shul. The three-year project was finished in 1996.
The Jewish community also made a comeback. There are now over 100,000 Jews in the region, enough to support a day school, university, community center and 20 synagogues. The Dohany Street shul attracts thousands of tourists each year and once again finds itself at the spiritual heart of the Jewish quarter. And why not? Its founders planned a shul for the ages and today it remains as beautiful and magnificent as ever.