Jewish Heritage in Hungary
By Candyce H. Stapen
As we strolled through the town of Tarcal in Hungary’s Tokaj region, and onto the dirt paths through the vineyards, we searched for the Jewish cemetery our Butterfield & Robinson guide mentioned. We found the burial grounds at the edge of a vineyard. Peering over the wall at the rows of headstones, we saw many aged tombs, but some relatively new ones. Unlike the villages near Auschwitz and Birkenau, Tarcal, much to our surprise, still had a Jewish community, although a small and aging one.
Not everything and everyone, after all, were lost, something that gladdened my husband David and I. For us the week-long walking trip through Poland, the Slovak Republic and Hungary with Butterfield & Robinson turned into a pilgrimage to significant sites in our Jewish history.
Tokaj, unlike the urban landscapes and mountain forests my husband David and I had already traversed, gave us new terrain: vineyards. A rich agricultural area, Tokaj claims fame for its wine, particularly Aszú, a sweet dessert wine.
Although our group trip ended in Budapest, David and I stayed to explore the vibrant city split by the Danube River. The majestic Dohány utca Synagogue, also known as the Great Synagogue, proved fascinating. Europe’s largest synagogue, the structure seats 3,000 and anchors the Jewish Quarter in Pest. Rising up in an otherwise pedestrian section of the city, the temple, especially after the destruction of Jewish sites we saw in other regions, seemed almost fairy-tale like.
Constructed in a Byzantine-Moorish style between 1854-1859, the building is adorned with rows of cream and red brick, stained glass windows as well as onion dome towers. The ornate interior, with its elaborately painted ceilings, carved moldings, polished wood prayer galleries (separate ones for men and women), gilt decorated altar and a 5,000-pipe organ, bears witness to Budapest’s thriving 19th century Jewish community.
Before W. W. II, more than 200,000 Jews lived in Budapest. In 1944 the synagogue became part of a military district from which Adolph Eichmann, who established an office in the synagogue, sent thousands of Jews to their deaths at internment camps. A remnant of the original ghetto wall is still visible in a side courtyard where headstones commemorate the mass grave of nearly 3,000 Jews who died of starvation in the ghetto. Nearby is the Heroes Temple, used for daily services and dedicated to the 10,000 Jewish soldiers who died fighting for Hungary in WW I.
More than 100,000 of Budapest’s Jews were killed in the Holocaust and although the synagogue was bombed, it wasn’t destroyed. With funds from the Hungarian government as well as money from Tony Curtis and Estee Lauder’s foundations, the Great Synagogue was restored between 1991 and 1996. A weeping willow sculpture in the rear courtyard, commissioned by Curtis, bears leaves with names of Jews who perished.
Despite the forced marches, gas chambers and horrendous ghetto conditions, Budapest still has a thriving Jewish community of about 90,000. Touring the impressive synagogue was a sweet way to end our pilgrimage. During a dinner serenaded by violinists, David and I toasted the survivors with some of Tokaj best wine.