A Synagogue in Budapest

Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary.
Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary.

In October 2018, I had the privilege of visiting Budapest to attend the World Zionist Organization’s iVision Conference 2018: ‘Asking, Challenging and Dreaming‘. iVision is an annual conference in Europe that is organised and run by the WZO’s Department for Diaspora Activities. It is an important meeting place for Zionists of the Diaspora, as well as representatives from Israel, to gather together and talk about Zionism, Israel and the Jewish People. I met participants and Zionist federations from Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, Germany, Hungary and of course Israel.

It was symbolic and meaningful that the conference took place a few meters away from the Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest Synagogue in Europe, and the second largest in the world, and its adjoining Jewish Museum was built on the very spot where Theodor Herzl, the founder and visionary of modern political Zionism, was born. A simple plaque outside the Synagogue commemorates the startling fact of Herzl’s birth on this spot that led to the revitalisation of the Jewish People and the establishment of the Jewish State. Max Nordau, another prominent Zionist intellectual and co-founder with Herzl of the World Zionist Organization, was born not too far away.

The house to the left of the Synagogue where Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, was born in 1860. The Jewish Museum now stands in its place.

The Great Synagogue, as it is otherwise known, was built in a Moorish architectural style in the exterior, and includes an organ (on which Franz Liszt played), naves and a pulpit, and reflects the assimilationist tendencies of Austro-Hungarian Jewry of the era. This desire to integrate and assimilate unfortunately did not prevent the terrible persecution of the Hungarian Jews in the twentieth century (nor the ten centuries of persecution beforehand) which led to the quarter being turned into a ghetto in late 1944, the Synagogue defining its border. One casually strolls past what was once the Synagogue’s gardens, but now constitutes a cemetery of 2 000 mostly unmarked Jewish graves of people who starved or froze to death in the ghetto. This, mixed with the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, is too tragic to describe.

The Jewish Cemetery, once a garden, at the Great Synagogue in Budapest where thousands of Jews who died during the Ghetto of 1944-1945 are buried in mostly unmarked graves

Herzl fondly reminisced about this Synagogue of his youth in a later speech. He references it as one of the awakenings in his being and consciousness that moved him to write about the ‘Situation of the Jews‘, which ultimately lead to his vision for a Jewish State. How prophetic were his vision and his words, which enacted sooner may have prevented the later tragedies on the doorsteps of this very Synagogue and throughout Europe. Herzl famously said almost exactly 50 years prior that, “it may not come in my lifetime, but 50 years from now, there will be a Jewish state”. We should continually remind ourselves of the miracle of this State as a safe haven for Jews, and now also as a means for the fulfillment of Jewish life, genius and ethics, alongside our obligation and responsibility to promote Zionism in the Diaspora.

About the Author
Rowan Polovin is the 2016 recipient of the World Zionist Organization’s Herzl Award. He is the Chairman of the South African Zionist Federation (Cape Council) and is an ex officio member of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. Rowan regularly speaks to Jewish and Christian groups about Israel, and writes on the topics of being proudly Zionist, developing a Zionist identity in the diaspora, and on Israel as the startup nation.
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