Friday, April 13, 2012

Budapest: Great Synagogue (1859, 1996)

In Budapest, near the center of the city, there is a synagogue on Dohány Street. It is called the Great Synagogue for good reasons. It is the largest synagogue in Europe. Almost 3,000 people can sit comfortably in it. It is also one of the most beautiful.

Beginning in 1839, politicians in Pest thought of treating Jews as citizens with equal rights if they would abandon Yiddish and speak Hungarian like everyone else. More and more Jews did so. As they did so, more and more Jews became successful business leaders, doctors, engineers, and teachers. The Jewish community grew in wealth.

This community decided it needed a new synagogue to meet its needs and express its hopes. This new synagogue was built over a period of five years and finished in 1859. It stands 246 feet (75 meters) long and 89 feet (27 meters) wide. The ceiling inside is 39 feet (12 meters) high. Its two towers are 141 feet (43 meters) high.

An organ was built in the synagogue. Both Franz Liszt and Camille Saint-Saëns performed on it.

In 1860 Theodore Herzl was born. For the next 18 years he lived in a house next to the synagogue. Even so, he had little to do with the prayer taking place there. Nonetheless, later in life he become the founder of Zionism. As a movement, Zionism would lead to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

In February 1939, some pro-Nazi Hungarians bombed the synagogue.

The Nazi occupation of Budapest started in March 1944. In November the Nazis made the synagogue the center of a very small ghetto in which they forced a very large number of Jews to live—or die—as they waited to be sent to Auschwitz. The synagogue was badly damaged during the siege of Budapest by the Soviet army between December 1944 to February 1945.

After the war, surviving Jews again used the building for prayer. The building could not be properly repaired, however, until after the fall of the Communist government. Restoration began in 1993 and was completed in 1996. It was paid for primarily by a $5 million donation from the Hungarian Jewish immigrant Estée Lauder.

Today the synagogue continues to be used as a place of prayer by Jews in Budapest.

Copyright © 2012 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.