Let’s Talk Tobacco Street Synagogue

tobacco street synagogue
Budapest historical must see site

I have been coming to Budapest my whole life, and had never been inside The Dohány Street Synagogue. We walk by it each and everyday, sometimes twice a day, and I always thought you had to be in the Jewish faith to enter.

When I heard about the Jewish Summer Festival, I kindly asked at the door what it was. And the girl said it was for everyone, and a great way to meet and understand the Jewish community. Each day and night, from August 26 -Sept 6th, different Jewish musical talent would sing or play within it’s walls. Acoustically correct, the place was designed by a German architecture to have the Rabbi’s voice carry with little effort up and around the 3000 people, making it the perfect place to hear a concert.

Located in Elizabeth City, in the 7th district, The Great Synagogue or The Dohány Street Synagogue (Dohány translates to tobacco) or Tabakgasse Synagogue is the largest Synagogue in Europe and Asia and only second to New York’s temple Emanu-El. This one has more airspace than any other synagogue. It also has an exact duplicate in Manhattan, New York.

It was built by Ludwig Förster in 1854-59, and decorated partly by Frigyes Feszl. The intricate designs, gold and colored frescoes, the tiled floors and wall, with the star of David throughout the walls and roof but never on the floor, makes this a must see in Budapest no matter your denomination.

On first impression the inside of the building looks like the Basilica with its cathedral shaped dome, open airspace, 3 rows of seats, and two side balconies. The front of the worship hall has a beautiful decorated archway home to the Torah-scrolls saved from other synagogues destroyed during the war. The balcony spaces have seats way in the back for the women. So far back that the people below can not see them. This is done on purpose so the women do not distract the men on the floor during their time of worship. We are distracting!

There is also a Museum, where the Jewish Historical and Religious collections are kept, and is in the spot where Theodore Herzi, the founder of Zionism, was born.

The original structures were bombed in 1939, then used as Nazi headquarters, later as a stable during WWII and then slowly during the communist era the dwindling Jewish community of Budapest started to use it again as a place of worship. After communism finally ended in 1990, the government started renovations on the beautiful structure at once and a huge donation came from Estee Lauder, whose parents were Hungarian-Jewish immigrants as well as Tony Curtis who donated to have a monument placed by the cemetery.

During the winter months, the synagogue is far too big too heat, and the Jews of Budapest either worship at home or they go to the smaller, Hero’s Temple, a far more modest synagogue on the property.

A cemetery is located between Hero’s Temple and the Museum, although it is not tradition to have the dead so close to their place of worship, they had no choice. The Synagogue backed on to the Jewish ghettos, and provided shelter for their community during WWII. Over 2000 Jews died and were buried in the courtyard during the winter between 1944-1945.

The apartment house we live in, is the same one as my grandparents moved into in 1948 after they were married. It was probably a Jewish family’s home before as it is smack in the middle of the former Jewish Ghettos. It is sad to think who may have lived there, and the story attached to them, what may have happened to them or if they are still in this world.

630,000 Jewish Hungarians lived in Budapest before the war. 12,000 per day were sent to Auschwitz Birkenau German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp. Only 10’s of thousands were saved by phenomenal and heroic acts of courage, like Raoul Wallenberg. I can only pray more got out in time.

The Raoul Wallenberg memorial park, made in honor of the Swedish humanitarian that saved 10 thousand Jews during the holocaust by forging passports and stowing the people in 24 Swedish protected buildings in Budapest. Raoul made official looking signs for these buildings, and handed out his passports often boldly in front of Hungarian officials. Like the story I read where he climbed a board a Auschwitz bond train and handed out 30 passports to the hands reaching out, as the train station attendants just watched. He then asked the people with the passports to come with him, and they opened the doors and filled his passenger bus waiting there. The documentation on this story stated, that he was so bold the officials didn’t question his authority. I like to think that most people didn’t want to participate in the trains and any excuse to let as many out as they could would have been human nature. Especially when, by the time this happened, there was no question where the trains were going. I read stories of people taking in the children of the Jewish people as their own, and Hungarians hiding them in the countrysides of Hungary with family and raising them as their own.

After Raoul was caught, he disappeared which was thought heading towards Russian prison. Even the facts around his death are controversial and his living family today are still hoping to reveal exactly details. One day the information will be made public.

Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs, in near the rear of the property before you leave. It is a huge weeping willow tree made of steel with the names of victims killed by the Nazi’s inscribed on each leaf. It looks like a Menorah that is bending from pain, weeping from the tragedy that occurred on the grounds. It is a moving monument, and shows the heartbreak the Nazi’s inflicted in Budapest.

Looking over old pictures and footage while visiting the Synagogue the  magnitude of what happened to the Jewish Hungarians hit me. I had a hard time reading the different stories, and wondered how the survivors Jewish or not, carried on. People were being killed in the streets right out front of this apartment. People stolen from their homes in this very building. Horrifying!

I left feeling grateful to have a family, a warm bed and simple freedoms we take for granted.

I spent the next few days reading as much as I could on the subject, and had a hard time posting this. It doesn’t feel like enough said. What can anyone say? War is a horrible thing. Children die, armies full of children barely 16 with weapons die and no one really wins. Why can’t the leaders of the world go into a room with weapons and fight it out, and leave the citizens in peace.


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  1. SO many wonderful reasons to go visit Budapest and all around Hungary. History, food, beauty and adventure are why we keep going back each year, more often when we can. I hope the economy changes in Hungary allowing the people to prosper and not just the rich. This is my wish.

  2. Downunder here in OZ we’re fortunate enough to have been spared much of the horror of war, starvation, torture and invasion. Thanx for the reminder that life isn’t so easy for much of the world – if we don’t remember, we’ll repeat past mistakes. Or worse, do nothing to prevent them.

    Happy travels!!

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