Shine again, Star of David

Today is the Jewish Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year. Nowhere in the world will it be more special than in Budapest where the magnificently restored synagogue reflects a miraculous rebirth. Adrian Bridge reports
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The Independent Online
Laszlo Quitt first began to suspect that he might be Jewish when he was 10. There had been all sorts of little clues. His parents had never really explained how his two grandfathers died in the Second World War; growing up, he had always been denied toy guns; whenever there was any mention of Israel on television the whole family seemed to become more attentive; and then there was the famous letter that arrived one day from a certain "uncle Slajmi" in Tel Aviv.

The thing that really clinched it though was being patted on the head by a cleaner at his school shortly after his 10th birthday and being told: "What a nice Jewish boy!"

It was a traumatic moment, and when he later confronted his parents with it, they confirmed it was true. "Although we never talked about it at home, I had always intuitively known that being a Jew was not a happy thing," he recalled. "I felt as though a huge stone had been placed on me. `OK, so I am Jewish,' I said to my parents. But please tell me that you and grandma are not.' "

Now an adult, Laszlo Quitt is today one of the growing number of younger Hungarian Jews for whom being Jewish is no longer considered a source of shame but, instead, one of pride. In a broader context, he is part of a new generation of east European Jews seeking to reconnect with a religion and a culture that was almost extinguished in the horrors of the Holocaust and the decades of Communist oppression that followed.

Sitting drinking espresso coffee in one of the many turn-of-the-century cafes that evoke Budapest's rich Jewish heritage, he explains that having initially felt despair, he became curious about his long-denied Jewishness. "After the nightmares of Nazism and communism, my parents belonged to the generation of Hungarian Jews that tried to suppress their Judaism," he says. "But I gradually realised that even if I wanted to forget the fact that I was Jewish, others would always remind me of it. So I decided to try and find out what being Jewish really meant, and then to live by it."

Ten days ago, Laszlo, who now never goes anywhere without his skull cap, joined thousands of fellow Hungarian Jews commemorating Rosh Hashanah, the Feast of Trumpets which heralds the start of the Jewish New Year. Today he will join them again for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most solemn of all the Jewish holy days.

Although both religious festivals were observed in Hungary during the Communist era, they have been drawing ever bigger crowds since 1989, and signal the beginning of a new era of religious freedom and experimentation. This year, moreover, they have been given an added poignancy with the reopening in Budapest earlier this month of the majestic Dohany Street synagogue, the largest in Europe, seen by many as a dazzling symbol of the city's Jewish past - and future.

For Rosh Hashanah, the synagogue, a Moorish-style building topped with onion-domed towers, was packed, as Jews of all ages gathered to reflect on the year past. For those who remembered the synagogue in its pre-war glory, it was a powerful moment, drawing tears to many eyes. Others there simply marvelled at the perfectly restored ceiling panelling and the gold leaf gilding on the 26ft-high facade of the Ark of the Covenant. In the courtyard outside, younger, well-dressed members of the community, many sporting Stars of David, smiled and exchanged cheerful greetings.

It was not a picture of a community in terminal decline, the tail-end of the pitifully small band who survived the Nazi death camps. Instead, here was the new generation: confident, successful, no longer living in shame and fear.

"If only all those who perished in the Holocaust could somehow see this now," said Pal Acs, a retired teacher enjoying the buzz in the courtyard. "If only they could know that, here, despite it all, 50 years later we are back."

Although the fall of Communism has led to a revival of interest in Judaism throughout central and eastern Europe, Hungary is undoubtedly its focal point. The reason is obvious. While 600,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz, almost 300,000 remained and survived, a far higher proportion than anywhere else in the region.

Waves of emigration to Israel and the West since the war have whittled Hungary's Jewish population down to just over 100,000, most of whom are concentrated in Budapest. With many of these having felt the need to deny their Jewishness under Communism, the city's Jewish community today clearly cannot compare with its pre-war predecessor. But in comparison to Poland, with a Jewish population of about 10,000, the Czech Republic, with 3,000 and even Romania, with 18,000, it remains by far the most substantial.

Traces of the city's Jewish heritage abound. Budapest - referred to as "Judapest" in anti-Semitic circles earlier this century - boasts 20 synagogues, a quarter of which cater for the Orthodox community. It is the only city in eastern Europe with a rabbinical seminary which somehow remained in operation (albeit it sometimes with a very meagre intake) throughout the Communist era.

Since 1989, though, a host of new institutions has opened up, financed with the help of the Hungarian government, wealthy Hungarian emigres and American-Jewish organisations such as the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Ronald (son of Estee) Lauder Foundation.

There are now three schools catering for more than 1,000 Jewish pupils (up from 40 attending the one Jewish secondary school open under communism). There are kindergartens and kosher restaurants, clubs for Jewish singles and gays and summer camps attracting 2,000 children. A bustling community centre offers disco dances and Hebrew classes, bridge nights and bible studies. Traditional Yiddish klezmer bands abound, and there is now a plethora of Jewish publications.

"At last we can explore who we are and debate things with a freedom previously unimaginable," says Gabor Szanto, editor of Szombat, a Jewish cultural magazine. "After decades of suppressing our own identities, we have to learn anew that it is not a dirty thing to be a Jew."

If the Jewish revival in Budapest is a surprising development, the fact that it is being echoed elsewhere in the region - including Germany and Poland - is little short of miraculous.

In Berlin, the city in which the Final Solution was devised, an influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union has more than doubled the city's pre-1989 Jewish population of 6,000 and helped to generate a surge of interest in Jewish and Yiddish culture and traditions. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the freshly-renovated gold-plated dome of the "New Synagogue" has become one of the city's more stunning landmarks in a neighbourhood which now boasts several kosher cafes, restaurants and shops selling menorahs, Israeli wine and Passover Matzos.

An even more remarkable picture emerges in Poland, where most of the Holocaust killings were actually carried out, and a country with a notorious track record of anti-Semitism. Over the past seven years, the official size of the Jewish population - which before the war was 3.5 million - has risen from 5,000 to 10,000, while Warsaw has witnessed its first Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs for decades.

In Cracow, the southern Polish city just an hour's drive away from Auschwitz, the old Jewish district of Kazimierz has undergone a facelift and a host of kosher restaurants are now serving up Jewish specialities such as matzo ball soup and "Purim chicken", accompanied by "kosher vodka" served from bottles with labels showing bearded rabbis in prayer shawls.

For some Jews there is something distasteful about the renaissance of Jewish communities so close to the mass graveyards of the Holocaust and, worse still, in Germany itself. Others find it healthy. As Serge Klarsfeld, the French Nazi-hunter, puts it: "To live in Cracow, in Prague or in Budapest is not to live with assassins. It is to live with the memory of Jewish life that once flourished there."

For all the signs of revival, though, nobody seriously believes that the old Jewish communities of central and eastern Europe - which at their peak numbered some 5 million - are about to recreate themselves. "The pre-Second World War communities are gone and erased for ever," says Amir Shaviv of the Joint Distribution Committee's New York office. "They are not coming back, and nor is an orthodox Jewish lifestyle."

Numerically, even in Hungary, the Jewish community is only just over a tenth of what it was and, as such, it could never again have the same impact on the professions and the country's social and cultural life. The new generation of returning Jews, moreover, is a genuinely different breed. Having been brought up by parents who largely turned their backs on Judaism, many have lost the living link to its traditions. Uncircumcised and ignorant of the laws of the Sabbath, many of the younger Jews now declaring themselves as such display little interest in the religious component of Judaism and tend to avoid synagogues except for the really important religious festivals such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Gabor Szanto of Szombat magazine refers to them rather disparagingly as people who see Judaism as a "fashion accessory rather than a way of life". Rabbi Jozsef Schweitzer, the head of the Budapest Rabbinical Seminary, describes them more kindly as "club Jews".

"A lot of them think it's just about meeting for coffee and a chat," he says. "They want to be Jewish without the religion. But it is our job to transform some of these club Jews into synagogue Jews."

Maybe in time, Rabbi Schweitzer will succeed. But whether or not the new Jews pray or keep kosher, the mere fact that thousands of them have come out of the woodwork in the very countries where they have been most persecuted this century is something that still fills many with awe.

"Hitler and the Communists tried to destroy this community completely and they were very successful," says Yossi Erez, the head of the Joint Distribution Committee's Warsaw operation. "We Americans and Israelis were convinced there was no more Jewish community here, just a few old people ... But now I see grass coming up from the ashes."

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