Jewish Danube day 4: Budapest Hungary - 4 September 2015

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September 4th 2015
Published: December 29th 2015
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Our cruise route was changed as the river was very low. We were supposed to sail to Budapest but instead the boat diverted to Esztergom about 70km further north in Hungary, from where we continued onward to Budapest by bus. Our bus arrived together with Reuven our blind guide. Reuven is a young guy who was afflicted by Type 1 diabetes as a child and who suddenly went blind.

We drove to Budapest and en route we learnt the history of the city. Until the bridge was built the city was divided into two towns Buda and Pest. In 1020 the two towns were united. The Jews had an up and down relationship with the kings and queens of Hungary. For example all Jews were expelled from Buda by Queen Maria Theresa (1740 - 1780). The emancipation of the Jews was granted by the National Assembly in 1849.

The Jews became integrated into society and by the 20th century the Jews made up 5% of the total country population and 23% of the population of the capital. 8 out of 14 of the Hungarian Nobel winners have been Jews.

We visited the Dohany Street Synagogue which is the largest in Europe. It seats 1500 people downstairs and 1500 ladies in two upstairs galleries. There had been a cultural concert that week and there were still flat screens scattered around the synagogue. The synagogue was inaugurated in 1859. In 1869 there was a split between the Orthodox and the neologs. The neologs were Conservative (Masorti) Jews. They were too progressive and modern for the Orthodox. Conservative Jews now make up the majority of Jews in Hungary.

The synagogue is beautiful – the ornate chandeliers look like bouquets of flowers hanging from the ceiling. The Bimah is in the front of the synagogue and there is a pipe organ. The original organ had 4500 pipes. The Sifrei Torah are between 150 and 300 years old.

Today the organist is a non-Jew. The pipe organ and the keyboard are outside the shul. Although the shul was not bombed during the war the outside was damaged by the US and UK bombs and the inside was damaged by the Nazis. Fortunately the Nazis ran out of time to do more permanent damage to the shul.

In the 1920s and 1930s Jews emigrated because of anti-semitism. Before WW-II there were still over 800,000 Jews in Hungary with 200,000 living in Budapest. In March 1944 the Nazis came to Hungary because the leaders had changed sides for the final solution. Within 6 weeks between May and June 1944 almost 500,000 Jews had been deported. In July 1944 Admiral Horthy ordered the deportations to stop after receiving exhortations from the King of Sweden, the Pope and Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Nonetheless a further 45,000 were deported. Eichmann wanted the deportations to continue but although smaller numbers of Jews were deported the large scale deportations stopped.

In 1945 approximately 120,000 Jewish people were liberated. It is worth noting here that between 1944 and 1945 ghettos had been established and executions were frequently carried out within the ghetto walls.

In 1991 renovations to the synagogue were started and was financed by the State of Hungary by way of compensation for war crimes, along with members of the community and from a $5m gift made by Estee Lauder.

The cemetary was part of the ghetto and in 1945 many corpses were found buried there. All of those identified were listed on the walls surrounding the synagoge gardens and those who were not identified are remembered by an eternal flame. At the back of the synagogue is the Holocaust Memorial Garden. This was endowed by actor Tony Curtis who was born Bernie Schwartz in Hungary. The main feature of the garden is a metallic weeping willow and on its leaves are the names of those who perished. The leaves can be purchased and engraved with the names of loved ones. The trees are in the shape of upside-down Menorahs. 880 non-Jews saved the lives of 100,000 Jews and there is a mosaic which shows a fire and a rising sun. The fire represents death and the rising sun hope. The names of the non-Jews are engraved in the circle.

From there we walked around Jewish Budapest. We paused to admire a giant mural painted on the side of a building, depicting Hungary's 6-3 win over England at Wembley in 1953. Walking on, we passed several kosher restaurants and went into the Satmar shul. This became the Satmar shul in 1902. However, it was heavily bombed by the Nazis and by the allies during the war. In late 1989 restoration of the shul began. The benches are the original benches as are the aron kodesh and the bima. The sifrei torah survived too. The shul seats 375 men and 375 women.

As we continued our walk around the Jewish quarter we stopped in to look at various other shuls which are being restored.

Then back on the bus for a ride around Budapest. Hungary was conquered by the Magyars in the middle ages. In 1308 the first king, Stephen, was elected and from then on it was ruled by kings and queens. Part of Hungary lived under the Ottoman Empire and then Hungary allied with Austria to become the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of WW-I. It then became a democratic Republic.

Today there is a president, a prime minister and a parliament which is split into the upper house and the lower house. 65 MPs sit in the upper house. Hungarians earn on average between $650 and $900 per month and thousands of Hungarians have more than one job to make ends meet. Taxation is 27%.

Then we drove back to the dock in Budapest where the boat had managed to cruise during the course of the day. This was the day that the refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan had broken down the wall at the Hungarian border and they started walking the 108 km to Austria for what they hope will be a better life. However, we also saw the riot police out in full force and perhaps more scarily than the riot police, the fascists. These fierce looking men in their black shirts and shaven heads were gathering together for trouble. We couldn’t wait to get back on board the boat to prepare for Shabbat.

That evening we lit candles on the top deck and went downstairs to the lounge for Friday night service. Then to the dining room for a lovely shabbat meal. As we entered the dining room the mashgiach had taught all of the wait staff to sing Shabbat Shalom and they greeted us with this as we all came in. Our meal was preceded by a communal rendition of Shalom Aleichem and Ayshet Chayil and Kiddush. By this time we were beginning to get to know many of our passengers and it felt like one big family celebrating Shabbat together.

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