Budapest’s Landmark Central Synagogue: A Tower of Strength, A Symbol of Unity

Historically, Budapest’s Central Synagogue, also known as the Dohány Street temple, is arguably the most intriguing of all the buildings in Hungary’s capital. Its history, architecture and design are the focal points for visitors who have made this particular building one of the top ten places to visit in modern day Budapest. Take some time during your Grand European river cruise to admire this jewel, the second largest synagogue in the world after New York’s Temple Emanu-el, accommodates 2,964 with men seated in the extravagant main section and women seated in the galleries above. Today, the neighborhood where this ode to basilica architecture stands has enjoyed a renaissance, with a scene just right for hipsters, with shops, cafes, and restaurants — both Kosher and non Kosher. But as anyone familiar with Jewish history will know, it was not always so….

A Unique Statement

Back in1854, this dominant structure was erected in the main Jewish area of a rather remote Pest. It was built to serve mainly Neolog Jews, who were quite assimilated into Hungarian society and whose reformist approach to Judaism was considered quite modern. The Viennese architects Ludwig Forster and Frigyes Feszl felt that there was no truly identifiable Jewish style of architecture, and instead drew upon influences from the many cultures that had been “related to the Israelite people.” Although the main style statement sprung from Moorish revivalist beginnings, the Central Synagogue also is masked in Byzantine, Romantic, and Gothic components.

When you go, walk around the outside of Forster’s massive structure for a bit to take in the gilded domes shaped like onions until your eyes eventually gravitate to the many details of this mesmerizing religious outpost. You’ll notice that the main entrance is graced by a rose window made of stained glass while the entry features a pair of polygonal towers embellished with geometric stone carvings and massive clocks. At the top of the structure you’ll spot the Tablets of Covenant. After that initial inspection and as you walk inside while donning yarmulkes you’ll be given, expect even more splendor like a 5,000 tube organ built in 1859 and on which Franz Liszt once played.

Struggle and Endurance

The exuberance of the temple belies the tragedies it has endured. Dohanyi Street was the border of the WWII Jewish Ghetto, and as such remains a powerful symbol of the Holocaust. In 1939 the temple was bombed by the Hungarian pro-Nazi Arrow Cross party. In 1944, Adolf Eichmann, one of the major Holocaust organizers, took up residence at Central Synagogue for a bit, making his office behind the rose window in the women’s balcony. Eichmann used the synagogue as a holding place until he eventually sent literally thousands of Hungarian Jews to face extermination. Many died from disease or starvation before even leaving the synagogue’s grounds where more than 2,000 have been buried in a small cemetery. The temple was further damaged when the Russians liberated the city from the Nazis. Soviet occupation after the fall of Nazi Germany meant Hungary became a country where religion was repressed, and as that happened, the splendor of the Dohány Street Synagogue vanished.

This just meant there was another fight to win after Communism was ultimately eliminated in the 1990s. Donors, among them Estee Lauder and Tony Curtis, paid to restore what was left of the temple. Today, the Dohány Street Synagogue has been returned to its original splendor thanks to those who cared about this magnificent place with its rich history — some good and some bad but all remembered by anyone who visits. In addition to the temple itself, the grounds house the Jewish Museum, built right on the site of the home of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism.

Also adjoining the central synagogue is the Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial, where a sculpture of a weeping willow, found outside in a courtyard, is an especially poignant memorial to the 400,000 Hungarian Jews who perished in the Holocaust. This work of art possesses unique metal branches that form a menorah turned upside down, a stunning way to symbolize the roots of hope, and the greater good that flourishes now on this very spot.