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."

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
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
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
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

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little