by Steven J. Riekes
Note: This is a continuation of a description of the Jewish Heritage trip that Margo and I, Nate and Hannah Schwalb, and Bernard and Naomi Bloom took with Professor Stephen Berk of Union College last summer. Incidentally, after the publication of my articles about Jewish sites in Poland, Professor Berk gave an outstanding lecture at the UNO Schwalb Center.
After leaving Poland and traveling through Slovakia, we arrived on a Friday afternoon at Budapest, capital of Hungary, a city with a substantial Jewish population, of 50,000 to 100,000. This beautiful city is a combination of the cities of Buda and Pest. Our base was the Grand Kempinski Hotel in Pest, which more than deserved the name “Grand.”
We walked from there to have Kabbalat Shabbat services at the Dohany Street Synagogue, also known as the Great Synagogue.
The synagogue is a world heritage site. It is the largest synagogue in Europe, with a capacity of 3,000. Built between 1854 and 1859, its design is “Moorish Revival,” based on Islamic models. The architect, Ludwig Forster, created this style on forms used by “Oriental peoples,” because they were related to the “Israelite people.” It is a memorable design, later copied by synagogues elsewhere in the world, including Central Synagogue in New York.
The style and the size of the synagogue are not the only unusual aspects. The synagogue has a huge pipe organ which accompanies the service along with the choir. We were quite surprised by this musical accompaniment, because the service was basically an Orthodox one with separate seating for men and women.
All this was the result of a uniquely Hungarian form of Judaism, known as Neology, developed as part of the emancipation efforts of Hungarian Jews in the mid-19th Century. While some wanted to follow the Reform Movement as developed in Germany, the majority of Hungarian Jews wished to remain more traditional.
To the casual observer, there are only two visible differences between present-day Neology and Orthodoxy. One is the organ music during services. The other is that the sermon in the Dohany Synagogue was traditionally given not from the bimah, but from a pulpit high above the congregation, reached by a winding staircase as one might find in some churches. In the case of the Dohany Synagogue, there are two of them. Why two? If we Jews did not have enough to argue about, German-speaking rabbis would preach from one and Hungarian-speaking rabbis would preach from the other.
Also, to its credit, the Neology movement has been able to maintain a rabbinical seminary in Budapest even through the harsh, anti-religious Communist period which ended in the collapse of the Soviet Empire.
After Shabbat morning services at the Dohany, where we were graciously given Alyot, we went on a walking tour. Among the items of interest was a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Center. The Center houses a beautiful synagogue, a museum and courtyard with a glass memorial wall dedicated to the over 500,000 Jewish Hungarian victims whose names have been inscribed. It was most impressive and moving.
That evening, we had dinner on the banks of the Danube River to the accompaniment of Hungarian and Gypsy music. We took a river cruise where the city’s beautiful edifices were lit up. Particularly impressive was the magnificent Hungarian Parliament building, a unique architectural structure.
The history of the Jews of Hungary is long and rich. During more than 1,000 years, Jews were sometimes accepted and sometimes repressed. For example, Hungary was ruled for a long time by the Austrian Hapsburgs. Queen Maria Theresa (1740-1780) did not like Jews, expelled them from the City of Buda and imposed an exceptionally heavy “toleration-tax” on the rest of the Jewish community. On the other hand, her son Joseph II (1780-1790) alleviated the condition of the Jews by wiping out many oppressive laws. Jews were given rights to attend universities and engage in a number of different occupations from which they had been barred. After a constant back and forth, Jews were finally emancipated by the Hungarian Parliament in 1867.
Jews were phenomenally successful. After World War I, Jews represented one-fourth of all university students, 60% of Hungarian doctors, 51% of lawyers, 39% of employed engineers and chemists and so forth.
Nevertheless, after a failed communist revolution, which unfortunately included some Jews as its leaders, the Hungarian government became very right-wing. It was led by a former admiral, Miklos Horthy, who resented the success of Hungarian Jews. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Hungarian government enacted various restrictions on Jews.
Hungary became a German ally in World War II. Despite Horthy’s anti-Semitism, he resisted German demands that the Jews of Hungary be deported to the death camps. One motive for this resistance, perhaps, was that the Hungarian government wanted to hedge its bets, particularly when the allied armies were on the move. This resistance led to German occupation in the spring of 1944.
In May, June, and July, 1944, transports of Hungarian Jews to the death camps began. But news of this situation spread. In a letter, Winston Churchill noted: “There is no doubt that this persecution of Jews in Hungary and their expulsion from enemy territory is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world…” The Pope, the King of Sweden, and President Franklin Roosevelt urged a halt to the deportations, and Admiral Horthy complied.
However, an extreme Fascist party, the Arrow Cross, in a coup, took over in October, and the persecution of Jews resumed. During this fateful period, a number of heroic individuals intervened to save as many Jews as possible. Most notable among them was the Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, who issued tens of thousands of protective passports and sheltered Jews in buildings he claimed was Swedish Territory.
In January, 1945, the Soviet Army liberated Budapest, and saved the remaining Jews of Hungary. However, for inexplicable reasons, the Soviet Army detained Mr. Wallenberg and sent him to prison in the Soviet Union, where he died. The Soviet government never fully gave an accounting of what happened to this courageous man or why.
We visited a very impressive monument to Mr. Wallenberg, which is in a park-like setting. In 1981, the late United States Congressman, Tom Lantos, who was himself saved by Wallenberg, sponsored a bill making him an honorary citizen of the United States.
With a decline in Hungary’s economy in recent years, there has been an ascendancy of right-wing parties, particularly one known as Jobbik. It is the third largest party in Parliament. This fall, one of its members, Marton Gyongyosi, called for Parliament to classify Hungarian Jews as potential national security risks. The American Embassy in Budapest issued a powerful denunciation of these statements and demanded the Hungarian government immediately condemn Gyongyosi’s words. Finally, the center-right government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban issued a condemnation.
On our walking tour, our guide confided that her husband had been recently dismissed from a state-run television station because of his liberal politics. She also pointed out a number of cars that had bumper stickers indicating that their owners supported the right-wing party that yearns for a “greater Hungary,” something that Hungary’s neighbors undoubtedly would oppose.
Notwithstanding these unfortunate developments, we thoroughly enjoyed this magnificent city and did not sense a pervasive aura of either anti-Semitism or Fascism. On Sunday, we returned again to the Dohany Synagogue because that complex also houses an interesting Jewish museum, shops selling Jewish souvenirs, and a courtyard, named after Raoul Wallenberg, in which there are magnificent modern sculptures commemorating the Holocaust. There is a particularly famous metal sculpture in the shape of a weeping willow, by Imre Varga.
Perhaps as an antidote to the anti-Semitism that exists in Hungary, thousands of visitors from all over the world come to the Dohany complex. Busload after busload arrived in the few hours we were there.
Thus, I have hope that the Hungarian Jewish community that survived Fascism and Communism will continue to flourish in the future, despite occasional set-backs. Budapest is a wonderful city and well worth a visit.