The Great Synagogue is full of symbolism. A guided tour is the best way to understand it, as much may go over your head!
Budapest’s Great Synagogue is the largest synagogue in Europe, capable of seating 3,000 people, and is the heart of Hungary’s once much more populous Jewish community. It is also the centre of Neolog Judaism, a conservative part of the Jewish faith.
It was built in five years from 1854 in the Moorish Revival style, but also features Byzantine, Romantic and Gothic elements, reflecting the great range of the Jewish diaspora. Inside, there is a beautiful rose window standing over the main entrance and an extraordinary organ which dates back to 1902. It is also contains the Hungarian Jewish Museum which includes 3rd century Jewish headstones from Roman Pannonia, along side a wealth of ritualistic silver.
Battered, but not broken
The Great Synagogue has been in the wars: it was bombed by pro-Nazi Hungarians in 1939, used as a radio base and stable by the Germans during World War II, suffered huge damage during the Siege of Budapest, and only started to be used again as a place of worship during the Communist era by the then greatly diminished Jewish community. Its restoration was only completed in 1998.
The Great Synagogue was part of the Jewish Ghetto during World War II. On the synagogue’s north side there is a Holocaust memorial which looks over the mass graves of those murdered by the Nazis. Over 2,000 of the Jews confined to the Ghetto died of starvation and cold during the winter or 1944-45 and are buried here — which was atypical, as cemeteries are not usually found near synagogues. There is also a metal ‘tree of life’, designed by Imre Varga in 1991, on whose leaves you will find the names of some of the many thousands of victims. It is a beautiful tribute.
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