Budapest is the 25th most-visited city in the world, and it’s easy to understand why, with its amazing architecture, its enormous World Heritage Site, and its therapeutic hot springs. But Jewish travelers also have a captivating Jewish story beckoning them to Budapest.
When I visited with my family, I was determined to get the inside track on that Jewish story. The guidebooks only tell you so much, so I wanted somebody who could help us to really feel the place, as well as see it.
Growing up under Communist rule has made Andrea Medgyesi very proactive in protecting and furthering Jewish life in Budapest and across Hungary. She helps visitors of all Jewish backgrounds, from secular to ultra-Orthodox, to appreciate the city.
Andrea collected us from our hotel, the Palazzo Zichy, and her insights started there. The hotel, she said, belonged to the same Zichy family that was particularly kind to the Jews in 18th century.
We drove to the Jewish Quarter and walked through some of the old, narrow streets where Andrea pointed out the multitude of Jewish markings on the buildings—Stars of David and menorah’s carved into the brickwork. They immediately gave us a sense of the centuries of Jewish life here.
Andrea explained that in Budapest the Jewish people live in the “Jewish Quarter,” as opposed to the “Jewish Ghetto” and that buildings and not walls marked the areas perimeter. The Ghetto only came into existence and walls were only built when the Nazi occupation began.
We made our way to one of three main synagogues in Budapest, the Kazinczy, and marveled at its beautiful art nouveau. As we sat on the pews Andrea gave us a fascinating talk on the history of Jews in Hungary and Budapest, covering centuries and complete with maps and pictures. Her enthusiasm is spellbinding, and she answered all our questions with ease and knowledge.
From there, we continued walking, making a quick stop at the kosher bakery. Andrea then surprised us with a stop at a rundown courtyard where there was a farmers’ market with traditional Hungarian food, drink, and entertainment. This gave a glimpse of Hungary you do not see from the modern day international shops lining the streets.
Next was the Dohany Street Synagogue. Built in mid 19th century in the Moorish style, this cathedral-like synagogue is the most well known Jewish site in Budapest. Seating 3,000 people in total, it is the third largest synagogue in the world. The Dohany was built for the Neolog movement—an early non-Orthodox movement. Two of the most obvious deviations from Orthodox synagogues of its time are that the bimah is at the front of the synagogue instead of the center, and there is a huge organ.
The synagogue was actually built before such other impressive Budapest landmarks like the Opera House, which underscores the fact that Jewish influence and life in Budapest burgeoned even before the heyday of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
In the grounds of the Dohany Synagogue is a mass grave of some 2,000 Jewish souls from the time of the Second World War. There is also a silver weeping willow tree commissioned by Tony Curtis, the Jewish Hollywood actor, in memory of his parents. By the tree people can make a donation and inscribe the names of family members lost in the Holocaust.
The Hungarian Jewish Museum is located in the synagogue complex. It has a sad and fascinating exhibition on Hungary during the World War Two, and features on some of the famous gentiles such as Raoul Wallenberg who saved thousands of Jews.
Andrea told us a very moving story of children who were saved or hidden by the church during the war so that they could convert them later on. After the war, rabbis asked for permission to visit orphanages at bedtime, and went into the dormitories and starting saying the Shema prayer. Immediately many children, whose memories were triggered by this universal Jewish bedtime prayer, started crying. The rabbis then knew which children were Jewish and removed them to Jewish homes.
From the Dohany we walked to the city’s historic modern-Orthodox synagogue, the Rumbach, which is now sadly derelict. Despite its sad condition, the synagogue, another Moorish building, conveys a sense of the grandeur of Budapest Jewry from a past age.
I found the next site particularly moving. Located in a quiet back street, you could walk by the Glass House and never have the slightest idea what went on there. Carl Lutz, a Swiss diplomat, protected and issued Swiss papers to tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from there, saving their lives. Working from a non-descript glass factory owned by a Jewish family, Lutz became of one the true righteous among the nations—non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews. We all know about Wallenberg, but here was a true un-sung hero who saved thousands of our brothers and sisters. How many tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Jewish people are alive today because of his selfless acts?
After mid-October 1944, when the Hungarian Arrow Smith Party came into power, the Glass House was the only fragile island of some relative safety during the raging terror for the persecuted in Budapest. The exhibition tells its story.
Our final stop was the Danube River, where we saw the Shoes on the Danube Promenade, a memorial to Jews who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during World War II. They were ordered to take off their shoes, and were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. Shoes on the Danube represents their shoes left behind on the bank. The tour left us with a huge amount of knowledge about the history of our Hungarian Jewish brothers and sisters, and a feeling of pride at what they had accomplished for themselves over centuries of life there.
By Raphi Bloom
Andrea Medgyesi’s website is www.jewishvisitorsservice.com
Raphi Bloom is co-publisher of Jewish.Travel