Ruth Ellen Gruber's picture

Jewish Budapest

Holocaust memorial Budapest - Weeping Willow
Holocaust memorial Budapest - Weeping Willow


An Overview


When I lived in Vienna years ago, I would often take off for Budapest for a weekend, just to have fun. I'd usually make the three-hour trip by train or by car, but on occasion I would cruise down the Danube by boat, a marvelous trip through the very heart of central Europe that still constitutes one of the most delightful introductions to the landscape and architecture of the region. From the vantage point of the water, Budapest's domed castle, the quirky Fisherman's bastion and the spire of St. Matyas church loomed even more dramatically from the craggy Buda side of the river. The neogothic Parliament rose like an elaborate vision from the opposite bank. And the city's graceful bridges passed overhead one by one, forging splendid links between the two sides of the city.

That was back in the dark days of Communism. But even then, the Hungarian capital was a lively and inviting city full of cultural events, good food, thermal baths and fascinating people. Hungary back then was known as the "most comfortable barracks in the Soviet camp." It operated under a system dubbed "goulash communism," which clamped down on many freedoms - including the freedom to live a full and openly expressed Jewish life - but enabled Hungarians to experiment with at least some forms of private enterprise, partly as a means of encouraging tourism. In the late 1970s and the early 1980s there were already a number of privately run restaurants - and most of us western journalists made sure we reported on another early privatization effort: a privately run public toilet in a little plaza overlooking the river.

Budapest had a flourishing anti-communist dissident intellectual culture, some of whose activists have gone on to become leading figures in post-communist society: dissident Gabor Demszky is now Budapest's mayor. Laszlo Rajk, whom I first met 20 years ago, just as he was being arrested for selling underground samizdat publications, is one of Hungary's top architects.

Today, a dozen years since the fall of communism, Budapest is playing economic and social catch-up with the west as Hungary heads for anticipated entry into the European Union within the next few years - the country already is a member of NATO. Some inner city districts, however, including the former main Jewish quarter, remain partial slums, despite a few brave efforts at gentrification. But large parts of the city have been radically overhauled, and the ring of cellphones makes a shrill counterpoint to traffic noise. Soot-blackened facades of art nouveau buildings are being cleaned, and new pedestrian districts boast fancy boutiques, chic clubs, fine restaurants and internet cafes. The nouveau riches drive BMWs and build fancy villas on Buda's hills. American fast food outlets have taken over many street corners, and shiny new shopping malls with 12-screen multiplex cinemas have sprung up, too, like mushrooms - poison or benign, depending on your taste.

General elections this spring showed a country sharply polarized between right and left. The Socialists and their allies defeated the center-right coalition that had ruled Hungary for the past four years, but only by the slimmest of margins, auguring tense political wrangling ahead.

Budapest, in short, is a city in transition. But then, it has been almost from its birth. The city was formed officially in 1873 when what were then three separate towns - hilly Buda, on the western side of the Danube, flat Pest on the eastern bank, and Obuda, to the north - were joined together. Today, its more than 2 million people make up about one-fifth of Hungary's population. It is figuratively and literally the hub of the nation -- just take a look at a map: all roads lead to Budapest.

Budapest's Jews are also at a crossroads. Its 80,000 Jews (minimum estimate) make Budapest the biggest Jewish city in Central Europe. But only a small minority of Budapest Jews have any active Jewish affiliation. Pre-World War II assimilation, followed by the physical devastation of the Holocaust and the systematic stifling of Jewish life under communism have left deep scars that shadow the dramatic revival of Jewish life since the fall of communism.


The Tour: What to see and how to see it

Millions of tourists visit Hungary each year, and Budapest is rich in attractions. Foremost is the medieval quarter on Buda hill, along with the Castle, St. Mattyas church and the fanciful Fisherman's Bastion overlooking a breathtaking view of the Danube, Pest and the elegant Chain Bridge.

Most of Pest was built in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its inner sections are laid out within concentric ring boulevards, studded by ornate edifices such as the neo-Gothic Parliament, the domed Basilica, and the Opera House on elegant Andrassy boulevard leading to Heroes Square and the city park. The vast and lively central market hall on the bank of the Danube across offers a dazzling array of produce and specialty foods, and there is a lovely promenade along the Danube - at night, the views of illuminated city monuments are spectacular.

The city is famed for its distinctive art nouveau architecture incorporating colorful Hungarian folk motifs. Some of the outstanding examples of this style are the Applied Arts museum on Ulloi ut; the Greshem Palace on the Pest side of the Chain Bridge - now being converted into a deluxe hotel, the buildings on and around Szabadsag square, including the Postal Bank on Hold St., and the Theater on Paulay Edy street.

Budapest is also famed for its hot springs and mineral baths. You can enjoy both fascinating architecture and the steamy baths experience at the Gellert Baths and Szechenyi baths.

A Jewish itinerary of the city takes the visitor on a constant and colorful journey back and forth between vestiges of the past and vital centers of contemporary Jewish life.

\Several areas of Budapest boast important Jewish sites ranging from the site of the first Jewish settlement in the picturesque medieval quarter in the Castle Hill district, to the vast Kozma street cemetery at the far edge of town.

The main concentration of sights, however, is in the downtown Seventh district, whose synagogues, shops, Jewish offices and kosher facilities are still today a focal point for the lively local community.

The Seventh District was the first and most important Jewish quarter in Pest, the flat part of Budapest that spreads out on the eastern bank of the Danube.

Today's downtown Deak Square and the massive red brick Madach apartment complex occupy the site of Orczy House, a vast structure built in the 1700s that was a central focus of Jewish life in Budapest throughout the 19th century.

Orczy House was demolished as part of an urban renewal project in the 1930s. Before that, it served as a sort of "metropolitan shtetl," a self-contained warren of synagogues, study houses, apartments, baths, restaurants, cafes, shops, warehouses, and workshops: the place where many Jews from the provinces first found a home when they moved into the big city.

The broader Jewish quarter eventually spread out from here, with Kiraly street, at the edge of the Seventh, becoming its major commercial avenue, a heavily trafficked thoroughfare lined by many fine neoclassical buildings.

The back streets branching off Kiraly street into the Seventh comprised a dense network of shops, artisans' workshops, and tenements built around connecting courtyards encircled by balconies and tiny flats. At the heart of the district was what is now called Klauzal square, an open space fronting one of the city's district market halls that became the center of the World War II ghetto.

Today the Seventh District as a whole is one of the city's poorest inner districts. Although there are some signs of gentrification, World War II bullet holes pock many crumbling facades, and vacant lots yawn.

Younger, more affluent Budapest Jews tend to live in more salubrious neighborhoods, but elderly Holocaust survivors make up a good part of the Seventh District's population, and much Jewish infrastructure remains. The Seventh is, in many respects, Budapest's version of New York's Lower East Side. And as on the Lower East side, a rich aura of the past prevails.

The inner part of the Seventh is often referred to as a "Jewish Triangle," because it is anchored by three large synagogues: The monumental Neolog Dohany street synagogue, the distinctive Orthodox synagogue on Kazinczy street, and the Moorish style Status Quo synagogue on Rumbach street.The Dohany St. synagogue is a good place to start a walking tour of the district.

This magnificent, twin-towered synagogue, inaugurated in 1859, is the largest active synagogue in Europe and a major landmark in downtown Budapest. The Moorish-style design by Vienna architect Ludwig von Forster influenced the design of other Hungarian synagogues.

The Dohany St. synagogue seats about 3,000 people, and on the High Holidays every seat is usually filled - mainly by so-called "four day" Jews who never go near the synagogue at any other time throughout the year. The object is to see and be seen - and maybe, at least once a year, to assert some sort of Jewish identity. This held true even under communism. I remember attending Yom Kippur services there in 1983. The synagogue was in deplorable condition. Its ceiling sagged badly and was held up somehow by plastic sheeting; its opulent Moorish style ornamentation was dim and disfigured. The towering women's galleries were unsafe. Yet, every seat in the synagogue seemed full. No one, though, was paying any attention to the service - the sound arising from the congregation was the tumult and gossip of a busy marketplace.

The synagogue was in even worse shape when the communists were ousted. It underwent a fullscale restoration during the first half of the 1990s and was rededicated just before Rosh Hashanah 1996. Most of the funding came from the newly democratic Hungarian government, with some contribution from the Emanuel Foundation, established by the actor Tony Curtis and named after his father, Emanuel Schwartz, who emigrated from Hungary after World War I. Today, the synagogue's interior is breathtaking in its opulence - though a bit too pink and garish for my taste. All attention is focused on the extremely elaborate Aron ha Kodesh - itself as big as a chapel - which is backed by a huge organ. The synagogue's cantor, Laszlo Fekete, has a rich booming voice, and he performs the service like an operatic star. (In his free time, he also sings with a local klezmer band!)

The synagogue can now be visited during a tour of the Jewish museum, which is located in the adjoining building, on the site of the house where Theodore Herzl was born. You must pass through an airport-style metal detector to get into the synagogue/museum complex, and in the high tourist season the line can be long.

The museum has an outstanding permanent collection of Judaica - ; silver, ceramics and textiles - as well as a section on the experience of Budapest Jews during the Holocaust. It also hosts ambitious temporary exhibitions that center around a single theme or artist. ?

The courtyard of the synagogue is a Holocaust cemetery for victims of the Budapest ghetto; small stone plaques lined up, crowded together like people in the ghetto. In a plaza behind the synagogue, off Wesselenyi street, stands a Holocaust memorial in the shape of a weeping willow tree, designed by the scupltor Imre Varga and erected in 1990. Construction of the memorial was spearheaded by the Emanuel Foundation. People were encouraged to purchase individual leaves for the tree, to commemorate family members who were killed during the Shoah, but the foliage has remained rather sparse.

Nearby is the so-called Heroes Synagogue, a domed structure built in the same style as the Dohany St. synagogue in 1929-31 as a memorial to the thousands of Jewish soldiers who died in World War I.??Continue walking up Wesselenyi street, crossing Sip street - the street on which, at number 12, is the building housing the headquarters of the Jewish community and federation. There is a well-stocked Judaica store on Wesselenyi street, featuring books, ritual objects, art and souvenirs.

Turn left on Kazinczy street, where, half a block ahead, you will see the angled facade of the main Orthodox synagogue, the second point of the Jewish Triangle.

This striking synagogue was built in 1913 by the architects Sandor and Lajos Loeffler and is an important example of turn of the century architecture, foreshadowing art deco. It has recently undergone a fullscale restoration, which is nearly complete.

With a flat façade set at an angle to the narrow, crooked street, the synagogue is the anchor of an self-contained Jewish complex centered around a courtyard, the seat of the city's small Orthodox community. 

Here one can dine at the Hanna kosher restaurant, a spartan eatery whose patrons range from bearded Hasids to visiting Israelis to local teenagers. The food is simple home cooking, with an emphasis on roast chicken and brisket. The Orthodox community's offices also open onto the courtyard, and behind the synagogue, there is the frame of an outdoor chuppah. Further along Kazinczy street, just across Dob street, is a kosher salami maker, and on Dob street itself is the Froelich Kosher pastry shop, a homey little café whose specialty is "flodni" - an ultra-caloric confection of honey, nuts, and pastry. Also on Dob street is the small Rothschild kosher grocery store (note the sign "Koser bolt").

From Kazinczy street, turn right on Dob street and walk one block to Klauzal square. This was the heart of the World War II ghetto, and the only ghetto park. It was used as a ghetto cemetery.

Don't miss having lunch at the square's tiny Kadar lunchroom, situated next to the market hall and the Budapest equivalent of a Lower East side deli. Every Saturday in particular, the plastic-covered tables are crowded with eager eaters digging into matzo-ball soup, boiled beef and pickles, and - the piece de resistance - solet (cholent), the slow-cooked bean and barley dish traditionally served on the Jewish shabbos. At Kadar, you can get sholet with boiled eggs, sholet with beef, sholet with roast goose leg - and the decidedly non-kosher sholet with pork. Siphons of seltzer water sit on each table. Kadar's is a legendary Budapest fixture where local pensioners and workmen rub shoulders with celebrities whose photographs decorate the walls. Many patrons make a lunch of solet at Kadar a Saturday ritual. One Saturday, on erev Simchas Torah, I shared a table with a short, startled looking man and his small daughter. That evening, when I attended services at the small, crowded synagogue attached to the Rabbinical Seminary, I discovered that my lunch partner was the synagogue's gabbai.

Budapest's one "kosher hotel," King's Hotel, is located off Klauzal square on Nagy Diofa street. It has a kosher restaurant whose ambiance is a bit more upscale than the Hanna.

From Klauzal square, retrace your steps back along Dob street to Rumbach street. Here on the corner you will find a memorial to Charles Lutz, a Swiss diplomat who worked with the better known Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg to save thousands of Jews during the Holocaust by providing them safe houses and false papers. Erected in 1991, the rather strange-looking monument by Tamas Szabo depicts a golden angel of hope.

Turn right on Rumbach street and walk to the Rumbach st. synagogue in the middle of the block, the third point of the Jewish Triangle. Built between 1869 and 1872, this synagogue was the home of the Status Quo community and is an early work by the famed Vienna architect Otto Wagner. Its striped, Moorish-style façade is broken by tall, arched windows and topped by two slim turrets resembling minarets, and the once-ornate sanctuary has an unusual octagonal shape. The synagogue breaks my heart. Severely damaged during World War II, when it was used as a barracks for refugees, it was sold to the state by the Jewish community in the 1980s and partially restored in the early 1990s. Work was halted, however, when money ran out. Today is once again, alas, abandoned and in very bad condition. It is not usually possible to get in to see the interior, but if you ring the bell on the left side of the door, a caretaker of sorts sometimes emerges - if he does, and if you do manage to get in, remember to slip him 1000 forints or so.

Continue down Rumbach street to Kiraly street, once the principal commercial avenue of the district, whose intersection with Deak Square is more or less the site of Orczy House.

Kiraly street, which runs more or less parallel to elegant Andrassy Boulevard, is still a colorful thoroughfare with many interesting shops, ranging from upscale imported Italian furniture showrooms to cheesy, secondhand clothing emporia. It has many second hand or discount electronics shops - and many shops on Kiraly street still close all day on Saturday, in a lingering vestige of pre-war Jewish tradition.

The extraordinary Gozsdu Udvar (Gozdu Court) is a unique series of interconnecting buildings and courtyards that cuts all the way through from Kiraly St.to Dob St. Today, the century-old complex is like a ghost town, a place out of another dimension. Most tenants were moved out in the 1990s ahead of what was expected to be a renovation of the complex into an upscale shopping mall. But as of this writing, work has not yet begun.

Just off Kiraly street on Vasvari Pal street, a few steps away from the ornate Opera House, is the Shas Chevrah synagogue, a century-old synagogue hidden in a courtyard which has been taken over by Chabad Lubavitch. Chabad Rabbi Baruch Oberlander uses services there as teaching experiences, and Friday night services are followed by a kiddush or Shabbat dinner to which all members of the congregation are invited. Students from the Chabad yeshiva explain prayers and rituals during the meal and welcome visitors.

From here, it is an easy walk across the Andrassy boulevard to the Balint House Jewish Community Center, just around the corner from the Opera at Revay street 16. Balint House is a full service JCC with a café, clubs, computer room, auditorium and other activity space. It hosts many activities, performances, exhibits, concerts and other events that are open to the public. Its schedule is listed in newspapers and "what's on" guides.


A Little History

Jews lived in the Budapest region in ancient times, but their earliest documented presence is from the 12th century, when they settled in Buda. There they flourished, particularly after the Turkish conquest of the city in the mid-1500s. The Jewish community in Buda eventually became one of the most important in the Ottoman Empire.

Jews suffered greatly after the Habsburgs drove out the Turks in 1686. Expelled from both Buda and Pest, many Jews settled in Obuda, which was located on the private estate of Count Peter Zichy. Jews were only allowed to return to Buda and Pest after reforms introduced by Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II in the 1780s. ?After emancipation in the mid-19th century, Hungary's Jews rapidly embarked on a process of acculturation and assimilation. Many changed their names to more Hungarian-sounding ones -- "Cohen" becoming "Kovacs," for example -- and many converted to Christianity. Many became so highly successful in the arts, professions, industry and commerce that the Ha psburg rulers raised nearly 350 Jewish - or formerly Jewish - families to the nobility.

In 1869, two years after full Jewish emancipation, Hungarian Jewry formally split into three streams, Neology, Orthodoxy and a small third group, Status Quo, which followed orthodox practice but rejected formal affiliation with the official orthodox community. Neology, the Hungarian version of reform Judaism, is by far the dominant stream today.

Budapest had about 220,000 Jews before World War II, and there were about 125 synagogues and prayer rooms scattered around the city. The Nazis set up a large ghetto in June 1944, after they had already deported most of the Jews in the rest of Hungary to Auschwitz. Preparations to deport Budapest's Jews were being made when Soviet troops reached the outskirts of the city in November. The Soviet conquest of the city two months later prevented mass deportations, enabling about half of Budapest's Jews to survive the war.

The question of Jewish identity in its Hungarian matrix has arisen again and again over the past 150 years. Most Hungarian Jews were deeply patriotic - tombs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, bear epitaphs extolling the deceased as a "pioneer of the Magyarization of the Jewish people." Local anti-Semitism and the Nazi deportations of most Hungarian Jews proved pre-war assimilation a failed model for many, but many Hungarian Jews continued to seek assimilation after the war by embracing communism.

Some synagogues functioned under communism, but most fell into disrepair, and Jewish religious and cultural life was suppressed.

As in other post-Communist countries, Hungary has seen a dramatic revival of Jewish communal activities and individual reclamation of Jewish identity over the past dozen years. Budapest today boasts a full infrastructure for Jewish life: synagogues, schools, a Jewish community center, kosher shops, and cultural programs and institutions.??Some statistics tell the story: Only about two dozen pupils attended the one Jewish day school that existed in the mid-1980s, for example. Today, there are three Jewish day schools with a total enrollment of about 2,000. Not only that, Budapest has a Jewish University incorporating a teacher training college and Rabbinical Seminary.

Each summer, some 2,000 youngsters from all over Eastern Europe attend the Jewish summer camp at Szarvas, in southern Hungary, run by the Joint Distribution Committee and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation - about half of these youngsters are Hungarian. In Budapest, the Balint Haz operates as a full service JCC, with a wide roster of clubs, courses, cultural events and a café.

The JDC supports numerous programs ranging from social welfare for the poor, sick and elderly, to training programs for younger communal leaders. Outreach is another focus. Despite the dramatic efforts at revival, only 6,000 or so people are formally registered with the Jewish religious community and only about 20,000 have some sort of affiliation with Jewish organizations or institutions.

An in-depth survey of Hungary's Jewish community carried out in 1999 showed Budapest Jews to be well-educated, well-off and well-integrated into the social mainstream but highly ambivalent about their Jewish identity and highly detached from Jewish communal life. The results showed that though young Jews are trying to reconnect with Jewish traditions, memory of the Holocaust and concern about anti-Semitism were the most important factors overall in Hungarian Jews' sense of Jewish belonging.

Jews, in fact, have raised the alarm at a creeping, if ambiguous, form of political anti-Semitism that is openly expressed in the media. Last October, the Budapest branch of B'nai B'rith published a book documenting sharply anti-Semitic writings in the print and broadcast media, much of it linked to the far-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP) and its outspoken leader, Istvan Csurka.


Cemeteries: A guide to monuments, memorials and graves of the rich and famous

Two of Budapest's Jewish cemeteries are well worth visiting, both for the architectural and sculptural importance of their tombs as well as for their powerful evocation of the size, prestige and prosperity of the pre-war Jewish community. Here you can see the enormous mausolea of barons, politicians and the industrial and commercial elite, as well as the graves of ordinary citizens. Some epitaphs proudly refer to the deceased as a "pioneer in the Magyarization of the Jews."

The main Jewish cemetery, on Kozma street at the southeastern edge of the city, and the Kerepesi cemetery, not far from the Keleti train station, can both be reached by taking the 37 tram from Blaha Lujza square.

The 37 takes you through the Eighth District, a rundown section that before World War II was heavily populated by mainly working class and poorer Jews. Writers Giorgio and Nicola Pressburger grew up in the district and presented a wonderful evocation of the neighborhood and the Jews who lived there in their book Homage to the Eighth District.

The Kerepesi cemetery, on Salgotarjani street, was opened in 1874 and is the Jewish part of the vast municipal Kerepesi cemetery - the monumental cemetery (also well worth visiting) where Hungary's great artists, politicians and national heroes are buried, many of them in enormous sculptural tombs.

The gateway and ceremonial hall of the Jewish cemetery, now partly ruined, were designed by Bela Lajta, one of the most important turn of the century architects and a disciple of Odon Lechner, the founder of Hungary's vivid art nouveau style. Lajta (whose original name was Leitersdorfer) also designed more than half a dozen magnificent tombs here, some of them extraordinary sculptures in black marble featuring animal motifs.

Toward the front of the cemetery are elaborate mausolea of leading economic and political figures; you can see the baronial coats of arms of Jewish families that had been raised to the nobility. Many of these huge tombs are crumbling or totally overgrown with brush. Also near the front of the cemetery is the tomb of the poet Jozsef Kiss.

In the rear of the cemetery, almost buried in weeds and other undergrowth, are the simple graves of people who died in the wartime Budapest ghetto.

The Kozma street cemetery is near the end of the 37 line, next to other cemeteries.

It is a vast graveyard, with hundreds of thousands of tombs and a large, oriental style ceremonial hall.

Along the perimeter are numerous enormous and often ornate family mausolea. The most striking is that of the Schmidl family - a gem of art nouveau design, designed by Odon Lechner and Bela Lajta. Built in 1903, it is a remarkable, turquoise-colored structure featuring sinuous lines and gilded mosaics. The Schmidl tomb has undergone a fullscale restoration, but many of the other once-grand tombs are in poor repair: no descendants survived to keep them maintained.

One part of the cemetery comprises a huge and evocative Holocaust memorial. On a series of upright, intersecting, walls surrounding a symbolic tomb are carved the names of thousands and thousands of Budapest Jews who were killed. Poignantly, friends and family members have used pen and pencil to add by hand the names of loved ones who also perished but whose names were left out.




NOTE: If you visit Kozma street cemetery by car or taxi, it's worth it to make a slight detour and stop to see the former synagogue in the Kobanya district, at Czerkesz street 7-9. The striking building featuring a distinctive low, wide dome and decorative cupolas was designed by Richard Schontheil and built in 1909-1912. Today it is owned by a Christian community, which uses it for a church. The interior has been fully restored and retains much of its original Jewish decoration - but it is somewhat disconcerting to see a baptismal font at the bimah.

MONUMENTS TO RESCUERS: There are monuments in Budapest to three Gentiles who worked to save Jews during the Nazi occupation by providing them with false papers.

The main Raoul Wallenberg memorial, honoring the Swedish diplomat, is a large sculpture dedicated in 1987 on Szilagi Erzsebet Fasor in Buda. Wallenberg worked closely with other diplomats from neutral countries issued foreign identity papers to Jews. They set up "protected" houses for Jews with such papers, saving some 30,000 people.

In addition to the memorial to Swiss diplomat Charles Lutz on Dob street, near the Dohany St. Synagogue, a memorial to Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian businessman who masqueraded as a Spanish diplomat in order to issue false papers to Jews, stands in the Danube-side St. Istvan Park.


Synagogues: From the magnificent to the forlorn

Further Afield There are a number of places of Jewish interest in Budapest that are well beyond the confines of the "Jewish Triangle" and its immediate environs in the Seventh District but are also worth visiting.



The oldest Jewish settlement in what is today Budapest was in the Castle Hill district of Buda, where Jews developed a community in early medieval times. From then until the late 17th century, this area was the city's main, if not the only, Jewish quarter. The District is a charming complex of pastel colored buildings that retains a medieval character. It is a totally different world from the hustle and bustle of downtown Pest.

The original Jewish Street existed on the site of today's Szent Gyorgy street, near the Castle. Jews were expelled from Buda for several years in 1360, and after they returned to the city, they settled on what is today Tancsics Mihaly street. After the Turkish conquest of the city in 1541, the Jewish community here was expanded by Sephardic immigrants from the Balkans and Turkey and became one of the strongest Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire.??Here are found the remains of two medieval synagogues - one which can be visited and the other - one of the most important Jewish medieval relics in Europe - buried deep under ground.

The so-called small synagogue, at Tancsics Mihaly street 26, was discovered and identified in the mid-1960s. The synagogue was established in the 16th century as the prayer house for Buda's Sephardic Jews. Just inside the entrance is displayed a collection of medieval tombstones from Jewish cemeteries destroyed over the centuries.

The Great Synagogue across the street, at what is Tancsics Mihaly street 23, was the main Jewish house of worship from the mid-15th century until 1686, when it was destroyed and burned during the bloody Austrian reconquest of the city from the Ottoman rulers.

Buried deep beneath the surface for 300 years, it was almost totally forgotten until it was rediscovered during archaeological excavations in the mid-1960s.

The excavations bore witness to the onetime magnificence of the gothic structure, and also to its horrible fate: the archaeologists found shot, cannonballs and other evidence of the fiery battle, including the skeletons of Jews who had sought refuge in the synagogue but were killed by Hapsburg forces.

Obuda Synagogues, Lajos street 163
This handsome, neoclassical synagogue, standing today on the river bank near the Hotel Aquincum in northern Budapest, was built in 1820-21 and designed by Andras Landherr. Today it is owned by Hungarian television and only the elegant exterior, with its six Corinthian columns and Hebrew inscription on the portico, remain intact.

Synagogues designed by LIPóT BAUMHORN

I have long had an interest in Lipót Baumhorn (1860-1932), modern Europe's most prolific designer of synagogues. Between 1888 and 1932 he designed or remodeled more than two dozen synagogues in central Europe, most of them in Hungary. Baumhorn was based in Budapest and for a time lived and worked on Kiraly St. Several of his synagogues still stand in or near the city, and I find that visiting them provides a fascinating means of glimpsing both the pride, prosperity and optimism of Hungarian Jews in the early 20th century as well as the horrific impact of the Shoah.

The first synagogue Baumhorn designed can be seen in Esztergom, not far from Budapest. Built in 1888, it is a red and orange striped, Moorish style building which has been turned into offices. It is the only Baumhorn synagogue of this type and scarcely foreshadows the opulent synagogues he went on to build. There is a small Holocaust memorial in front of it.

Four of Baumhorn's synagogues still stand in Budapest itself. His large synagogue at Dozsa Gyorgy ut 55 was built in 1908 on a main city avenue. It displays typical Baumhorn features, including ribbed ornamentation. It was turned into a sports hall years ago, but still retains a huge dome whose inner surface is beautifully decorated. It found it very disconcerting to watch fencing students perform their practice there, obviously oblivious both to the painting dome above them and to the original function of the building.

The synagogue at Pava street 39 is still owned by the Jewish community, but it has not been used for many years and is in bad condition. It was built in 1924 and has ornate interior decoration, much of which is faded and water-damaged, but still intact. A Holocaust research center is supposed to be set up in the synagogue.

The small synagogue at Hegedus Gyula street 55 was built in 1927 and is located inside an apartment building in the heart of the 13th district, a traditional Jewish neighborhood which still has a large Jewish population. It is still in regular use as a synagogue. There is also a small synagogue, still in use, incorporated into a large school building at Istvan street 17 (Betlen square). It was the last synagogue Baumhorn designed.

Baumhorn's tomb, designed by his son-in-law, who was also his architectural associate in later years, is in the Kozma street Jewish cemetery. It displays a list of more than 20 synagogues Baumhorn worked on and also a carving of the great dome of his masterpiece, the 1903 synagogue in the southern city of Szeged. Baumhorn also designed a monumental domed tomb for the Ujhely family in the Kozma street cemetery.


Dining: Restaurants, coffee houses and snacks


Hungarian cuisine is legendary, and there are restaurants for all tastes and all price ranges, in all parts of the city. Peruse the English-language Budapest Sun for up to date restaurant reviews. Don't expect to eat light. Do expect to form a new relationship with pastries.

The following are a few of my favorite places to eat, in or near the 7th district Jewish quarter.

Kadar Lunch Room. Klauzal square. The closest Budapest equivalent to a Lower East Side deli. Serves inexpensive lunches with seltzer water and Jewish style cuisine. Saturday cholent is a must.

Kispipa Akacfa street : A classic, serving well cooked Hungarian fare in an intimate setting in the heart of the 7th district. Long been a favorite of the literary set.??Muzeum Kavehaz

Corner of Brody Sandor street and Jozsef korut. An upscale Budapest favorite, featuring fine Hungarian cuisine. Around the corner from Budapest radio, journalists and writers make this a regular.

Articsoka, Zichy J. utca 17. 1066 Budapest :Upscale restaurant and café serving creative light dishes. Long a favorite of the yuppie set, this is a great see and be seen haunt for young expats.

"M" Kertesz utca, just off Kiraly utca: A small, cozy bistro almost just across the street from the Academy of Music on Liszt Ferenc square.

Coffee Houses

Budapest is famous for its coffee houses and cafes. The most famous is Gerbeaud, on Vorosmarty Square a few steps from the river in Pest - but I find it so popular with tourists that it is easy to be ignored.

Liszt Ferenc square, between Andrassy Boulevard and Kiraly street, is lined by half a dozen trendy new cafes, many of which have outdoor seating in the summer. The Café Central, in the 5th district, was recently full restored to provide an old-fashioned ambience. Vista, on Edy Paulay St. near Deak square is also popular and is run by a large and friendly travel agency with offices on the same street.

Don't miss the Café New York on Erzebet korut, 9-11. The building is in frightful repair due to a long running ownership dispute, the coffee house inside is a riot of neo-baroque. Food is so so at best.


The main shopping street in Budapest is pedestrians-only Vaci St. in Pest, lined with everything from elegant fashion boutiques to antique stores and souvenir shops. Numerous kiosks and stands also sell handicrafts and ceramics, embroidered textiles, and other typical folk art. There is also the occasional pickpocket, who is also out shopping.

If you have an interest in antiques, you've come to the right city. Take a stroll down Falk Miksa and you'll find everything from Biedermeier pomp to 1970s kitch.

Hungarian food products from paprika to apricot palinka, or brandy, are favorite souvenirs, and there are numerous specialty shops around town. The main market hall, just across the Danube from the old Gellert Hotel, is also a wonderful place to shop as well as simply to visit.

Recommended reading

There are many books dealing with Budapest and Hungarian Jews. The following is just a brief sample.

Jewish Budapest: Monuments, Rites, History, edited by Geza Komoroczy, is an exhaustive illustrative compendium of information.

The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe, by Eli Valley. There is a lengthy chapter on Budapest.

From the Doorposts of The House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today, by Ruth Ellen Gruber.

Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to East-Central Europe, by Ruth Ellen Gruber.

Homage to the Eighth District, by Giorgio and Nicola Pressburger. Short stories about Jewish life in Budapest's 8th district before, during and after the Shoah.

A Memoir of Hungary, by Sandor Marai.

Budapest Diary, By Susan Suleiman. A Budapest-born professor searches for her Jewish roots in today's Budapest.

When the World Was Whole, by Charles Fenyvesi. Highly readable family memoir.

Jewish Nobles and Geniuses in Modern Hungary, by William O. McCagg, Jr. Fascinating study of Hungarian Jewish assimilation.

A History of the Habsburg Jews 1670-1918, by William O. McCagg, Jr.

Gray Dawn: the Jews of Eastern Europe in the Post-Communist Era, By Charles Hoffman

A Hole in the Heart of the World: Being Jewish in Eastern Europe, by Jonathan Kaufman.

The film Sunshine, by Istvan Szabo, tells the generational saga of a Hungarian Jewish family, from its roots in the shtetl, to its assimilation into Hungarian society and its destruction in the Shoah.

Hungarian Jewish novelists are quite well known. Some of their writing may be a bit thick, but you'll find it rewarding if you stick with it. Best known among them is György Konrád. Not all of his fiction is in print, but keep an eye out for it.

Peter Nadas is another well known novelist. His Book of Memory was lauded by the European press.

Imre Kertesz wrote a compelling, haunting tale of a young boy caught up in the Holocaust called Fateless.






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Gyorgy Preisz
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