Beauty and Horror: The Great Synagogue

The front facade of the Synagogue on Dohany Street 
 Last month, I was travelling Europe with a bunch of friends. Our days consisted of emergency laundry, beaches, and cheap cuisine. Our nights were long and based solely in clubs. So going to a Synagogue in the middle of Budapest was pretty different, but as teenage Jews it seemed like a necessary detour from our usual itinerary.

The Dohany Street Synagogue, also known as the Great Synagogue, is the largest Shul (the Yiddish word for the Jewish temple) in Europe, and the second largest in the world. Budapest is a blend of beautiful architecture from many styles, eras and movements, so the Synagogue is not a uniquely stunning building, as it is surrounded by many. However, its history is unique in the loss and spirit the  walls have witnessed.
The back garden of the synagogue

It was built in the Moorish Revival style in the 1850s, copying the architectural elements of many Islamic buildings across Europe at the time. It was the first synagogue built in this style, using features such as the onion shaped domes, and was so successful that it was adopted as the most popular style for synagogue architecture, built across the globe.

Upon entering the synagogue, I was struck with the phenomenal beauty and size of the Shul. I think any Jew who has been to a Shul before would feel an emotional connection to the place. It follows the same structure as any other Synagogue, with the seats for the congregation leading up to the altar and the ark where the Torah reading takes place, above which is the eternal light. But of course the Dohany Street Synagogue is far grander than any Shul I have ever stepped in. Whereas many Shul’s interiors are rather simple to cater for small Jewish communities, this one is unapologetic in its grandeur and scale. It communicates a time when the Hungarian Jewish community was huge and observant enough to warrant a building of this proportion.

The Ark where services would have taken place 

In direct contrast with the overpowering strength and majesty of the inside of the Synagogue, upon walking outside, visitors are met with a cemetery. I found one of the most tragic things about the courtyard is that it was created in the 1930s as a memorial for the Jewish soldiers who fought in the ranks of the Hungarian army in WW1. Yet, within 13 years, the area had been included in the Hungarian ghetto under Nazi occupation. By 1945, when the Russian forces liberated the area, corpses of Jews were left in the very courtyard in which I stood last month.  Today, the beautiful courtyard covers the graves of more than 2000 Hungarian Jews who were left to die in inhuman conditions under the shadow of their own synagogue.
The memorial to fallen Jews. The metal leaves are endurable and strong. Many do not have names to convey the many whose names are not known, but are not forgotten. 
People place stones on memorials instead of flowers to show solidarity and endurability

The history of this Shul has stuck with me. The spirit of the Hungarian Jewry who survived and rebuilt their community. The architecture which speaks of a time when thousands more Jews would have congregated within these beautiful walls. The courtyard which is now a memorial for two wars where millions lost their lives.

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