By Danielle Frum
A Jewish traveler will always experience mixed feelings when visiting Central Europe. Nations that once pulsed with Jewish life pre-WWII remain spookily empty of Jews today.
Any Jewish tour of this part of the world is inevitably a tour of absences. Where Jews used to live, one sees instead museums and memorials dedicated to the Jews brutally deported and killed.
It’s heartening that so many of these countries have overcome decades of terror and totalitarian rule to become modern societies in which a Jew can again feel secure not just as a visitor but as a citizen. On the other hand, these exhibits promote the idea of Jewishness as a vanished thing, a world swept away.
Sepia photographs depicting little girls with neatly plaited hair and families in bathing costumes give way to images of broken shop windows, forced marches and similarly braided little girls and families now dirty and hungry in urban ghettoes. Finally we are led to pictures of the vacant sunken eyes of living corpses in concentration camps –- and of the skeletal remains of actual corpses piled up like cordwood. Glass cases house faded yellow stars, shattered eyeglasses and smuggled prayer books, a battered suitcase or two — the detritus of mass-murder.
These memorials are of course important –- maybe as much for the countries that erect them as for the victims and descendants who visit. It’s their way of saying, We Will Never Forget. And one hopes that’s true. But wouldn’t it be amazing if the Jewish story didn’t end at the exit of the exhibit – that when you walked out into the sunlight, Jewish culture were again flourishing in the surrounding cobbled streets, alongside the Zaras and Starbucks?
I recently spent a week exploring “Jewish” Budapest. I was braced for the sad museums with their familiar storyline; the streets of houses now emptied of their Jews. But to my surprise, I found youthful Jewish culture that was renewing itself, like green shoots of grass poking resiliently through old paving stones.
Hungary now has the second largest Jewish community in the EU after France. In Budapest’s old Jewish Quarter –- an area lying just behind the famous and massive Doheny Synagogue –- Jewish-style restaurants and delis were now popular, even “trendy” according to my guide. Budapest is home to some of the most beautiful, surviving synagogues in Europe. Some are exotically built in Ottoman style, with Moorish towers, soaring interiors and wildly patterned tiles covering walls and ceilings; others more eclectically fuse 19th-century European architecture with Hungarian art nouveau (Magyar Szecessio Haza).
Details from interiors of Budapest synagogues. Clockwise from upper left: wall and upper balcony, ceiling details of Kazinczy Street Orthodox synagogue; wall and ceiling details of the Rumbuch synagogue. Photos by Danielle Frum.
Two of the most architecturally interesting – the Dohany (1859) and the much smaller Kazinczy Street Orthodox synagogue (1914) – have been spectacularly restored, down to the gilding on the columns and careful replication of tiles and ceiling murals. The magnificent Rumbuch synagogue – one of famed architect Otto Wagner’s first and only projects in Budapest – is slated to be restored in the coming year. Several more synagogues, in Budapest and other cities, will be fixed up as well. The question is, will there be Jews to fill them?
I put this question to Andras Heisler, President of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, the organization that oversees the majority of Jewish life in the country. The renovations are funded by special grants from the Hungarian government. These expensive restorations are seen in part as gestures of reparation for the losses Jews suffered during the war, even while the current government is seen to be increasingly tolerant of open anti-Semitism on the far right.
“There are 16 working synagogues in Budapest, and maybe another 16 throughout the countryside,” Heisler tells me. “There are about 100,000 Jewish people in Hungary – but only 10-15% practice their religion.”
So not enough Jews to truly revive the congregations – or at least not at the level they once populated these magnificent sanctuaries. The grand synagogues are monuments to a golden age when the Jewish community of Budapest were regarded as the most integrated in Europe, more so even than their counterparts in pre-war Berlin. That makes their history all the more poignant: More than 400,000 were deported to camps after the German occupation in 1944. Thousands more were murdered or worked to death between 1941-45. Almost half of the Jewish death toll at Auschwitz was Hungarian.
When the Dohany synagogue opened its monumental doors in 1859, it was the biggest synagogue in Europe (and is still referred to as the “Great Synagogue” — despite its architectural imitator in New York, the Park Avenue Synangogue.) Entering the Dohany is like entering a basilica – which in fact is what its architecture is based upon, down to side the carved wooden pews, pulpits, and a bima which could be mistaken for a full-scale Catholic altar (in lieu of crosses, gilded Stars of David flank the ark). There is even an organ, located just outside the main sanctuary.
“It’s a big ‘wow!’” the synagogue’s rabbi, Dr. Robert Frolich, acknowledged, as we stood absorbing its astonishing, cathedral-like beauty. The Rabbi smiled and said, “It looks like a church because it was built like a church.” Until the Dohany, there were no blueprints for building a synagogue of this size. The community hired a non-Jewish architect from Vienna, by the name of Ludwig Forster. He designed the exterior in a “Moorish Revival” style: Forster reasoned that since there were no Jewish templates for such a structure, he would take inspiration from “oriental ethnic groups that are related to the Israelite people, and in particular the Arabs” – which explains why the Dohany has two onion-domed turrets like a mosque. The interior, as Frolich described it, is “very goyish.”
I asked the rabbi how he felt about conducting services in such an unusual environment. He shrugged, saying it was not up to him to render judgment on the aesthetics of the historic shul, but to keep the services going and the atmosphere welcoming.
Rabbi Frolich with the author in front of the “goyish” bima.
“I open the doors. I try to explain what’s inside. I invite everyone,” he said. “I have three minyans a day. I’m satisfied.”
The congregation today, as it was in its beginnings, is what Hungarians call “neolog” – or what we would tag modern Orthodox. Frolich said that “there has always been a rabbi here.” The synagogue managed to operate during the war and throughout the decades of Communism that followed. During the post-war years, “Jewish life didn’t disappear,” Frolich continued, “there were services, there were kosher markets, there were Jewish schools and a hospital, etc. Judaism was not forbidden, if not recommended. At the time it was a little bit ‘against the system’ to be a Jew.”
Most services are held in an adjoining, much smaller space which has the benefit of modern heating. The main Dohany sanctuary functions from Passover through Sukkot. It can hold as many as 6,000 people – but as the congregation numbers only 300 families, most of the impressive balconies remain empty even during holidays. And it is getting old: according to Frolich, the average age of members of the Dohany congregation is 50-60.
The fact that Jewish culture is reasserting itself youthfully in the nearby streets is of little consolation to Frolich and others, including Heisler, who bemoan its lack of religious connection. “They are not getting closer to Judaism, but expressing a new identity, a new kind of Jewishness,” Frolich said, “one that is Israeli-influenced.”
The Israel-influence is the result of Israelis who have come to Hungary to invest, as well as Hungarians who have traveled to Israel – and in some cases lived there many years before returning. Indeed one of the new popular restaurants, Mazel Tov, serves Israeli-style cuisine.
My Jewish walking tour guide, David Merker, spent the morning retracing 19th-century Jewish Budapest with me. He pointed out the site of Theodore Herzl’s birthplace, on the grounds where now stands Budapest’s Jewish museum (adjoining the Dohany). We wandered through a huge tenement building, Orczy House, which had served as the central ground of Jewish life through to the 1930s. Above narrow adjoining streets, David drew my eye to Jugendstil wrought iron balconies patterned subtly with menorahs. I’d never seen Jewish symbols integrated so naturally and beautifully into domestic architecture.
Merker, 32, took a more positive view of the Israeli influence on Budapest’s Jewish renewal. “The idea is that you can be a Jew without this past, without these old institutions. Jewish culture here has been a cemetery. But this new Jewish identity says, ‘We are not victims.’ It’s a model for being proud Jews. It’s about re-establishing the spirit of Budapest.”
As Merker spoke, we were standing in a vacant lot where a few workers were painting café chairs in bright colors and constructing some sort of bar. This was a “ruined pub,” Merker explained. The idea dates back to the 2008 financial crisis, which hit Hungary in the middle of a building boom. Communist-era structures had been pulled down – but funds ran out before replacements could be erected. The resulting vacant lots in some of the liveliest neighborhoods of Budapest are now often rented out as party spaces. Merker said it was an Israeli-idea. I agreed the clubs seemed very similar to pop-up places I’d seen in Tel Aviv. Budapest is now known for, among other things, its ruined pub scene.
Lunch at Kadar on Klauzal Square. Truly delicious chicken noodle soup with a dollop of spicy paprika sauce.
It may not be as religious an identity as the rabbis like. But we have to remember the early Zionists shared exactly these same feelings. They shtetl life and discrimination and sought to be independent of the past.
Merker’s talk summoned the images of groups of Israeli students I’d seen at Auschwitz a few years ago. They were on their spring break. They carried the Israeli flag and sang Haktikvah as they marched over the grassy train tracks that once led to the death chambers. At the latter site I saw more students grouped together, chanting the Mourner’s Kaddish and the Sh’ma. My eyes began to water. What would those who suffered think of this scene, could they have known? That one day there would be this proud and unapologetic gathering of youthful mourners, circled around the place where human ashes fluttered to earth, asserting Never Again … and This Time We Mean It. …
I’m not sure it’s a bad model for the future. And you can glimpse it now in Budapest.
Fig Tree & Vine Travel Suggestions for Budapest:
Stunningly situated in a restored Jugendstil arcade, the FS is centrally located at the end of the Chain Bridge, with panoramic vistas of the Danube and the hills of Buda. Book a river-view room and take your selfie from the balcony, just like Hugh Jackman did.
Jewish Walking Tour https://hosszulepes.org/hu/english
“Hosszulepes” means “long step” and is the name of a local walking tour group run by young guides that approach Budapest from different themes and historical periods. I greatly enjoyed my tour with guide David Merker.
Much of Budapest’s restaurant scene remains unrepentantly Hungarian, meaning deep-fried everything and a heavy emphasis (underscore heavy) on goulashes and ham hocks. Read my review of Bakara — a new, upscale international-based cuisine restaurant run by a Jewish couple (him from New York, her from Israel) where you will find local ingredients taken to the next level (including a fois gras to die for).
Rosenstein is a family-run, classical Jewish Hungarian restaurant in elegant surroundings. A thick menu with formal waiters. Nothing nouvelle here but the food is traditional and good.
I did not have time to visit the hauntingly beautiful Kozma Street Jewish Cemetery but if you do, I’m told it’s magical. I did tour the Holocaust Memorial Museum, which was small and felt somewhat outdated, but presents valuable information. More popular (and controversial) is the House of Terror, which is a memorial and museum dedicated to the history of the victims of Nazism and Communism. It’s situated in what was the headquarters of headquarters of the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian Fascist Party, and the Communist Secret Police. Sadly, a long-planned “Ya Vashem”-style museum of the Holocaust, called the House of Fates, has been currently derailed by disagreements between the Jewish community and the museum’s director, Maria Schmidt, who was appointed by the government of Prime Minister Victor Orban.