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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appeal
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly finalists Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge
tvLive: Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge face-off in the final
Sport
Ched Evans in action for Sheffield United in 2012
footballRonnie Moore says 'he's served his time and the boy wants to play football'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
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

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture