Hungarian Jewry: in a Town South of Budapest, a Most Beautiful Synagogue

The road that leads south from Budapest is flat and dusty, with nary a promise that anything will arise to catch the traveler’s eye. But there is a feeling, like a magnet, of being pulled to Szeged.

Arriving in this city on the river Tisza, one pulls into an old square with graceful, variously colored municipal buildings and large outdoor cafes shaped neatly around a park.

As one waits for a cold drink, usually Schweppes, a casual question is thrown to the waiter. “Is there a Jewish synagogue here?”

“Oh, yes,” the waiter shoots back immediately, “the biggest Jewish church in Europe, with a large basilica.”

The reporter doesn’t tell the waiter that Jewish synagogues aren’t called churches, and that they don’t have basilicas.

We leave and walk around the corner, where something so tall and so magnificent looms that one has to catch one’s breath. It is a basilica, and on top, high in the sky, is a Magen David.

There are few sights in this world that bring forth instant gasps and tears. The synagogue at Szeged is one of these, a blend of the outstandingly beautiful and the overwhelmingly sad.

In Budapest, they say the Dohany Street Synagogue is the biggest. Let them argue. The synagogue in Szeged is perhaps the most beautiful synagogue in the world.

This synagogue on Josika Street has gables, buttresses, fleur-de-lis and trefoil stained-glass windows that rival those of any grand cathedral.

Its lofty dome, topped by a crown, a minaret and a Star of David, is repeated at nearly every peak and corner, like a tree gone wild, sending duplicate shoots in every direction.

OVERGROWN WEEDS

This masterpiece sits silently now, surrounded by a forlorn yard a full city block long and wide. It is removed from the street by a high fence of iron poles, through which can be seen overgrown weeds amidst apple and almond trees, and the broken window panes of the synagogue itself, a desolate, deserted bride.

The Hungarian interpreter, Andrea, and the taxi driver, Laci, both non-Jews, stand transfixed, tears welling in their eyes. In all their years in Budapest, they have never seen the synagogue, nor have they heard of it.

Around the corner, at the entrance, an old man in a hat waits on the steps of the synagogue’s portico to greet visitors. Within the enclosed court, the walls are marble, and on these walls, all around, are engraved in gold the names of the nearly 5,000 Jews who left and never returned.

The man, Marton Klein, sells postcards with a beautiful picture of the synagogue. He asks six forints for each card, but, seeing the tears, he waves his hand gently and says “put your money away.” He fills the six hands with cards while answering the questions.

The synagogue was built between the years 1900 and 1903, designed by Lipot Baumhorn, who designed five synagogues: in Mako, Szolnok, Vasarhely, Szabadka and here in Szeged. This is the grandest of all.

The synagogue in Mako was similar, but smaller, Klein says, and made of red bricks. It was demolished in 1969.

The 5,000 Jews who once lived in this town engaged in “all kinds of work,” before the Nazis took them away. Only 300 returned.

But wouldn’t we like to see the inside now? Klein asks. Not quite sure we are ready yet, we nod hesitantly and enter.

THE INTERIOR SILENCES

Although the lofty exterior moves one to tears, the interior silences. In the front, at the bimah, before the ark, the exterior has been duplicated and reduplicated, like an Escher print. It was designed under the direction of Immanuel Loew.

Face-front, the full facade of the synagogue is redone in gold, up to its cupola-basilica, this time like open lace, capped, as outside, with a crown, and then a tall minaret topped with the Jewish star.

On the bimah are six seven-branch candelabras on three steps. The ceiling above the bimah is arched, embossed in gold on green, with the words, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” written in Hebrew and Hungarian. On each side are David’s psalms.

On the back ceiling, by the entrance, is a frieze of the Creation, a copy of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.

And above all this is the coup de grace, the interior of the basilica, a sky-blue dome filled with gold stars. The dome is divided evenly by 24 columns, one for each hour of the day.

Inside the dome, a dove who had found its way in flies around.

Klein asks if we want to hear the acoustics, then proceeds to the exact center, beneath the dome, and sings, a cappella, two pieces from the Rosh Hashanah service. His voice is unfaltering, like that of a young man. Klein is 76.

He remembers the 5,000 Jews who used to attend the Szeged synagogue. Now 15 men and 15 women come every Shabbat, but for such small numbers they don’t open the synagogue, Klein says, they pray “somewhere else.”

FROM SHUL TO CONCERT HALL

Klein says the city has bought the synagogue and will turn it into a concert hall. Later, we learn something kinder, that a Jew from Szeged now living in Florida has donated $100,000 to the synagogue, to be given through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The JDC has made a “deal” with the government. They may hold concerts there, so that people can come to see the beautiful synagogue, on condition that it remain a synagogue in perpetuity.

Klein was in two labor camps during the war. Although he does not know about the ceremony to be held in Budapest for the new Holocaust memorial, Klein says he’s “not angry or hurt that (he’s) not invited to these places,” that he loves his religion and he loves to sing.

Klein also remembers his mother and sister, who went to the gas chamber in Mako, Hungary. His wife and son died three years ago. He has a daughter in Szeged.

If he could have one wish, the reporter asks Klein, what would it be?

“I wish that they would have demolished the synagogue and left the people.”

(Next: A Reporter’s Notebook)

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