Hungary's Jews marvel at their golden future

Adrian Bridge reports on the $9m restoration of Budapest's synagogue

Budapest - As a boy, Gusztav Zoltai kept a careful eye on what was going on above him whenever he attended services in Budapest's vast central synagogue. Hit by 27 bombs during the war, the building was in a perilous state and bits of loose plaster and slates were prone to come crashing down, albeit into an improvised safety netting.

"It was immensely sad to see such a magnificent building in such terrible condition," recalled Mr Zoltai, one of some 80,000 Hungarian Jews who survived the Holocaust. "Here was an important part of not only Hungarian, but world heritage and it was crumbling before our very eyes."

This afternoon, Mr Zoltai, head of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, will join thousands of people expected to pack the synagogue - the largest in Europe - to mark its official reopening after five years of renovation.

This time when he looks above him he will marvel at the giant chandeliers and the painstakingly restored ceiling panels. When he looks to the front, he will be dazzled by the gold leaf on the 26ft high facade of the Ark of the Covenant in which will be placed the synagogue's original Torah scrolls.

"This building symbolises the survival and continuity of the Jewish people," said Mr Zoltai, whose period of office has coincided with the fall of Communism and a revival of Jewish culture. "It symbolises that Hitler came, but the Jewish people cannot be destroyed."

As a mark of the significance attached to the synagogue, both within and beyond Hungary, the ceremony will be attended by the former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and his wife, the Hungarian-born US Congressman Tom Lantos and Arpad Goncz, the Hungarian President. In addition to the 3,000 seated participants, the occasion could attract a further 5,000 onlookers. "This may be a time of economic hardship in Hungary, but the restoration of this building sends out a positive signal of renewal," said Mr Zoltai. "It should enrich everyone's lives."

Originally opened in 1859, the synagogue was the focal point of Hungary's thriving pre-war Jewish community. As a result of its size - 53m long by 26m wide and 26m high - it could hardly be missed.

During the war, the synagogue served as a place of refuge for Jews trying to escape forced labour and, later, concentration camps. When the Budapest ghetto was set up in late 1944, the building ran along one of its boundaries. After the war, although damaged, it continued to be used by the Jewish community, but under the Communists was left to rot.

Of Hungary's pre-war Jewish population of 800,000, only 80,000 survived the war, some 20 per cent of these as a direct result of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who established a number of safe houses for Jews in Budapest and who disappeared mysteriously after the conflict.

Despite such losses, Hungary still boasted a relatively large Jewish community in comparison to those left elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe. But while not persecuted for under Hungary's post-war Communist rulers, Jews preferred to keep a low profile.

The decision to restore the Dohany Street synagogue was taken two years after the fall of Communism in 1989 when the Hungarian government agreed to pay 80 per cent of the estimated 1.35bn forint ($9m) cost, with the remainder coming from the Hungarian Jewish community and international Jewish organisations.

The project has coincided with a steady revival of the Jewish community in Hungary.With it, though, has come a return of more overt signs of anti-Semitism.

"To some extent anti-Semitism was suppressed during the Communist era and its expression now can be seen as a natural part of the transition to democracy," said Rabbi Robert Frohlich. "But it has not deterred our community. On the contrary, younger Jews are once again interested in exploring their Jewishness and in coming back to the fold."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, Security Cleared

£100 - £110 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Ham...

Senior Digital Marketing Executive

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based i...

Junior Developer- CSS, HMTL, Bootstrap

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading company within the healthcare ...

Junior Web Developer- CSS, HMTL

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading company within the healthcare ...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz