Hungary's Jews marvel at their golden future

Adrian Bridge reports on the $9m restoration of Budapest's synagogue
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The Independent Online
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."