Tobacco Synagogue

Trip Start Oct 02, 2011
Trip End Oct 27, 2011

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Flag of Hungary  ,
Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Well we covered a lot of territory today, but I want to concentrate on our visit to the Jewish Quarter.  However, before I do, check out the photo below of the zither seller in the big market.  And here's a link to a video of him playing his instrument:  Copy it and past it into your browser; sorry I don't know a more elegant way to get you there.

The Dohany synagogue, the main synagogue of Budapest, is the second largest in the world in size, and the world's largest [note the World's superlative] in the number of people accommodated.  It has a seating capacity of about 3,000!  On a typical sabbath about 50 or 100 people attend. It is called the Dohany Synagogue because it sits on Dohany Street, which means Tobacco Street.  Thus, curiously, it's name is Tobacco Synagogue. 

It was commissioned by the then-thriving Jewish community of Budapest in the early 1850s.  Apparently no suitable Jewish architects could be found, so two prominent Christian architects got the assignment. Since they knew nothing about synagogue design, what they came up with is laid out like a Catholic church.  But for variety, the interior decoration is based on Islamic motifs from North Africa and medieval Spain, with of bit of the Byzantine thrown in.  It's impressive, slightly jarring, and decidedly un-Jewish looking.

The Hungarian Jewish community was decimated relatively late in WWII, but the few survivors and their children have refurbished the synagogue, with lots of help from the international Jewish community.  The most prominent contributor was Tony Curtis, nee Bernie Schwartz, who as you may know was the son of Hungarian Jews.  His mother was Helen Klein, so perhaps Tony is my great uncle. 

Our tour was led by one of the children of the pre-WW II community.  When Annie talked to her after the tour she said that she didn't even know she was Jewish until she was fifteen--the Holocaust was so deeply traumatic that most survivors didn't want to talk about it, and tried to shield their children from any associations with it.  But she said that now things are different.  In fact, in an adjacent building was a genealogical service available to relatives of Hungarian Jews to get information about their ancestors.  A light bulb went off!

So we skipped over to the office of the genealogical service and were greeted by a woman of about 25.  She invited us in to a modern conference room, where we were invited to sit around a long table.  The walls were lined with bookcases filled with decrepit old volumes of records from decrepit old synagogues.  I told her what we knew about grandpa Klein.  His village, I said, was about 50 km from Muchachevo.  She corrected me: "That's Ukrainian," she said; "In Hungarian we say 'Muncach'."  Hopes of help quickly faded, however.  She said that they keep records only for the current Hungary.  Since my grandfather's Hungarian village of Shalanki is now part of Ukraine, the records would be held by the Ukrainian government, probably in Kiev.

That was quite disappointing, but undoubtedly won't be the last false start on this roots quest.  But to make the best of our incredible opportunity to learn more about the Hungarian Jewish community I asked the woman if she might have time to show us one or two of the synagogue record books.  "Certainly," she said, "that's why I'm here."  She picked up an old volume held together with red tape [see photo] and flipped through the pages.  I asked her to translate the column headings: Name, birthday, parents, whether married, death date, cause of death.  Then I asked her if she'd read some of the causes of death.  "Weakness," she said, "oh dear, the baby was just seven days old."  There was pneumonia in an 11 year-old, "swelling" in a thirty-two year old woman, and some causes of death she didn't know how to translate.  Then she said, "oh my God, a suicide!"  How old was the person?  "He was a 17 year-old boy.  He shot himself with a gun."  Thus we began to vividly understand that these old  dusty pages held the lives of real people and their stories, which were often filled with tragedy.

She opened another book.  "This is a little more cheery," she said, "it's a record of marriages."  It included the names of the groom and the bride, their parents (in one case, that entry was "?"), the date and place of the wedding, and the officiating rabbi.  See the photo that shows the marriage of Gabor Klein. 

After she closed the book Annie asked her what it was like to be Jewish in Hungary.  She said she wasn't Jewish.  When pressed, however, she said that her grandfather in fact was Jewish but converted to Christianity and didn't like to talk about his Jewish roots.  So she didn't consider herself Jewish at all.  So we backed up and asked her how Jews were regarded in Hungary, if there was still prejudice, if all the memories of the Holocaust and the terrible sufferings at the hands of the Communists still weighed on the national psyche, etc, etc.  Her answers were interesting and polite. 

Then suddenly it dawned on me to ask, "Are these questions making you uncomfortable?  Would you rather we not ask them?"  She smiled demurely and said, "Well, my mother warned me when I was five years old not to talk to strangers." 

We all laughed, then she assured us she hadn't been offended. But she said she felt a little strange answering all those questions since no one had ever asked her anything like that.  I said that we didn't want to make her violate her mother's instructions, so we talked about less intimate things, then said warm goodbyes. 

Note the World's superlative of the day--the last photograph of this set.
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Dianne on

It's getting interesting now....I love the old synagogue....and all those amazing pastries! Can't wait til you get to Muncachev!

Julie on

Looking forward to Muncach.

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