Copyright Maciej Podstolski
The Great Synagogue of Dohány Utca in Budapest is Europe’s largest synagogue, and one of the largest in the world. It seats 3,000 people, split about evenly between the women’s galleries and the ground floor. Its denomination is Neolog, a unique Hungarian denomination often misleadingly described as similar to Reform Judaism. It’s more like liberal Modern Orthodoxy.
The synagogue is in District VII (Erzsébetváros [Elizabeth Town]), the historic Jewish quarter. It was built from 1854–59, in Moorish Revival style, by Viennese architect Ludwig Förster. The decoration was based upon the Islamic Moorish style of Medieval Spain and North Africa. It also was inspired by Byzantine, Gothic, and Romantic style.
The interior was designed by Frigyes Feszl, the fifth of fourteen children in a family of German origin. Many Budapesti buildings were designed by him, though his name is all but unknown in the West. Geometric frescoes prominently feature among the interior design. Originally, the synagogue had a 5,000-pipe organ which was played by the great Franz Liszt.
From 1930–31, the Jewish Museum was created in a new adjoining building, on a piece of land where Theodor Herzl’s house used to stand. The museum has a lot of Judaica on display, as well as historical exhibitions and travelling artwork. Its architectural style matches the synagogue.
Another 1931 addition was the Heroes’ Temple, which seats 250 and is today used for services in winter and on weekdays. It was designed by László Vágó and Ferenc Faragó, as a memorial to those Hungarian Jews who gave their lives in the First World War.
Jewish Museum, Copyright Thaler
Heroes’ Temple, Copyright Varius
Under the German occupation of 1944–45, the synagogue was part of the Budapest Ghetto. It was located within the large ghetto, for people without protective papers enabling them to live in the Yellow Star Houses. Since so many people died during those brutal final months of the occupation, there was no choice but to bury them in the synagogue courtyard. It’s very unusual for a synagogue to have a cemetery right on the property.
After the war, a number of the bodies were transferred to Kozma Utca Cemetery, but about 2,000 people remained buried in the courtyard of the Great Synagogue. Architect Imre Varga created a weeping willow sculpture to commemorate all the dead, in the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park behind the synagogue.
On 3 February 1939, the fascist Arrow Cross bombed the synagogue. During the ensuing war, it was used as a stable and a base for German Radio. More aerial raids followed, this time from the Germans. During the Siege and Battle of Budapest, it particularly suffered, but wasn’t entirely destroyed.
Before the deportations stopped in early July 1944, Eichmann had his office in the women’s gallery, right behind the rose window. He requested reassignment, and in late August was assigned head of a commando squad rescuing Volksdeutsche on the Hungarian–Romanian border, in the way of the approaching Red Army. He returned to Budapest in the autumn, and arranged for brutal forced labour marches to Vienna. On Christmas Eve, he fled before the Soviets had completed their encirclement of the city.
Copyright Osendi Cadenas
After the war, Budapest became the centre of Jewish life in Hungary (though there were also several thousand people in next-largest city Debrecen). Many of the survivors who were repatriated found no one and nothing in their hometowns, and so moved to Budapest. Though all the major synagogues had suffered damages, the community nevertheless used them for services.
Not too many years later, when the Soviets had completely taken over, it was boarded up and abandoned. Only in 1990 was it reopened for worship and restored.
Copyright Neer Ildikó
Weeping willow sculpture, Copyright Ian Pitchford
My characters spend the 1945 High Holidays by Dohány Utca Synagogue, since the native Hungarians among them all come from Neolog backgrounds. It’s also not a far walk from the survivors’ house they’re living in. After they move across the Danube to the Buda side in October, they begin going to the Óbuda Synagogue.
Copyright Gabor Dvornik