The Golden Age of Budapest Jewry: Today’s Excursion with Kosher River Cruises

When the Hungarians purchased their alphabet, vowels were on sale (also plastic sofa coverings and chandeliers). By the time the Poles came around, all that was left were the consonants. This helps explain why we anglophones are so challenged by both languages: in the case of Hungarian, there are just way too many umlauts and diphthongs for even a seasoned polyglot. The Dohany Synagogue in Budapest is a small case in point: it’s pronounced Do-han (rhymes with Roman), concluding with a (basically) silent “y.” Seating over 3000 worshippers, it remains the largest synagogue in Europe a century and a half after its construction, a testament to the size and glory of the Golden Age of Budapest Jewry.

The magnificent facade of the Dohany Street Synagogue. The Hebrew verse (Exodus 25:8) reads “and they will make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.” Asterisks over certain letters generate the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew year of its consecration: in the secular calendar, 1859.

The Dohany Synagogue was a physical demonstration of the might of Budapest Jewry. Jewish migration from surrounding regions would swell the population to 200,000 by the turn of the century, as Jews were attracted by the educational and economic opportunities afforded them by the growing liberalism of Austro-Hungarian policies in the city. After 1867, when Jews were allowed to attend local universities and pursue a variety of educational options, Budapest became a boom city for Jews, who rapidly climbed the various ladders of Hungarian society, hundreds of them even admitted to the nobility for their contributions to the arts, culture, sciences and especially commercial activity.

Together with my wife and 140 Jewish history enthusiasts I toured Budapest for the first time, getting a first-hand glimpse of this remarkable chapter of Hungarian-Jewish history. The Dohany Synagogue is simply astounding.

Historian David Kraus inside the Dohany Synagogue.

The synagogue is truly magnificent, representing the most advanced architectural techniques available in the mid-19th century such as the use of thin iron tubing for pillars, combining strength and grace to preserve the airy interior. Denominationally it was part of the Neolog movement, inspired by social and intellectual goals of people like Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh in Frankfurt and, from another perspective, Zacharias Frankel, considered the father of the Conservative movement in America. The Neologs wanted to make Jewish worship conform to the gentile sensibilities of the day, without doing violence to Halachah (particularly given the opposition of powerful institutions like Rabbi Moshe Sofer’s Pressburg Yeshiva, which insisted on strict adherence to traditional norms). Note for example the pipe organ in the back of the synagogue, symbolically separated from the synagogue interior by a low fence and played on the Sabbath only by a non-Jew (sketchy loopholes that would never fly in Pressburg) Even the parochet hiding the Torah scrolls was lifted with the press of a button that activated an ingenious mechanical clockwork machine.

Elegant, personalized nameplates adorn the pews of the Dohany synagogue.

The size and elegance of the Dohany synagogue contrasts starkly with the tragic, ignominious end of the Jews who sought shelter there during the war, two thousand of whom were massacred and tossed like trash into the adjoining courtyard in the last days of Nazi rule in Budapest. Attempts to identify the bodies were overwhelmed by the colossal nature of the task, and most were simply interred in a mass grave on the spot. Later, families who were fortunate enough to determine the remains of their murdered loved ones erected headstones in the courtyard. It is hard to look upon all these uniform black stones with dates that all end in 1945.

The mass grave in the courtyard of the Dohany synagogue, with a historical photograph documenting the difficult process of identifying the remains of the Jews murdered here.

The Budapest Jewish community is thriving, particularly the Hasidic community–at several points in my journey, from the airport to the streets of the reawakening Jewish quarter, I encountered Jews dressed like my brothers and sisters in Boro Park and Crown Heights. Nevertheless, the markers of what has been lost are everywhere in this city. One of the most moving monuments is a series of brass shoes lined up by the Danube River, marking the spot where the Arrow Cross–the indigenous Hungarian fascist party–removed Jewish men, women and children from the protected so-called “International Ghetto” and shot them, tossing their bodies into the blue Danube. In some cases, the sadistic imitators of the Nazis tied three Jews together, shot the middle Jew threw them all into the river, saving bullets and entertaining themselves by watching the two living Jews struggle hopelessly to take one last breath of sweet air.

In a manner reminiscent of the Soviet habit of submerging Jewish suffering into the general “victims of fascism,” the plaques commemorating the horrific murders (erected in 2005, long after the fall of the Soviet Union) do not explicitly mention the Jewish character of the massacre (although the memorial plaque is translated into Hebrew). The precise number of Jews killed in this manner, and their proportion of the total, is still under scholarly investigation, although the remains of victims have been discovered downriver even 60 years later. Visitors to this moving memorial often add their own Jewish markers of mourning–Israeli flags and memorial candles line the bank alongside the silent, ownerless shoes.

We concluded the day with a visit to the castle area in Buda, with its Disney-like architecture and phenomenal views across the Danube. An amazing day–looking forward to sharing my experience with audiences in Brooklyn next month and on the internet.

The day ended on a high note, with the incomparable Howie Kahn performing solo for us when we returned to the ship for the night. I literally can’t say enough good things about this talented performer, whose art and humor elevates us all.

Turrets along the promenade around the castle area of Buda

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