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Around the Jewish World: Largest Synagogue in Europe Reopens in Hungarian Capital

September 10, 1996
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A former Israeli prime minister, the president of Hungary and a host of foreign dignitaries joined thousands of Jews here last week for the reopening of Europe’s largest synagogue.

“This is the symbol of the rebirth of Hungarian Jewry,” said Peter Feldmayer, the president of Hungary’s 80,000-member Jewish community.

The Sept. 5 reopening of the Dohany Street Synagogue came days before another reinauguration — of Bulgaria’s Sofia Synagogue, the largest in that country and one of Europe’s most ornate.

The 137-year-old Dohany Street Synagogue is also renowned for its architectural beauty. The impressive Moorish-style building with its two high towers is one of Budapest’s landmarks.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who conveyed the greetings of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke of “this magnificent building, which could tell stories of so much tears, fear and sorrow.”

Of Hungary’s prewar Jewish community of 800,000, some 600,000 perished in the Holocaust. The Jewish ghetto was built around the Dohany Street Synagogue during World War II.

The synagogue, which served as a wartime shelter for thousands of Jews, was hit by 27 bombs.

After the war, a mass grave with more than 2,000 Jewish victims was found in the synagogue’s courtyard.

“We have to remember to cherish the memory of Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands of Jews,” Shamir said, referring to the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from the death camps. After the war, Wallenberg was arrested by the Soviets and disappeared into their prison system.

“We also have to pay homage to all those Hungarians who saved Jewish lives, risking their own lives,” the former Israeli leader added.

Shamir also mentioned the many Hungarian Jews who contributed to building the State of Israel, including Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism. The synagogue was built on the site of his birthplace.

The synagogue, which seats about 3,000, required some $10 million in restorations because of its age.

The Hungarian government contributed about $8 million to repairing the synagogue, whose construction was begun in 1854 and completed in 1859.

The Jewish community in Hungary and abroad is contributing some $2 million toward the renovations, which are expected to be completed next year.

In his speech, Hungarian President Arpad Goncz proclaimed his country’s tolerance, saying, “Today, the Jewish community can feel at home within the borders of this country.”

Among the estimated 7,000 people attending the reinauguration was Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), a Budapest native. The only Holocaust survivor elected to Congress, he became a Bar Mitzvah in the synagogue in 1941. He was one of the thousands of Hungarian Jews rescued by Wallenberg’s efforts.

The synagogue’s reopening reflected “the commitment of the Hungarian government and Hungarian people to religious freedom and the respect for all religions,” Lantos said in an interview after the ceremony.

“We cannot undo the past, we cannot revive the martyrs who lost their lives because of their religion,” he added. “But we can rededicate ourselves to the concept of religious freedom.”

Also attending the ceremony were Hungarian Cabinet ministers, members of the diplomatic corps and a representative of the Vatican.

In Bulgaria on Sunday, more than 1,000 Jews gathered for the reopening of the Sofia Synagogue.

The speaker of the Knesset, Dan Tichon, spoke at the ceremony along with Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev.

“The dark days of Nazism did not pass through this land,” Tichon said. “We, the Jews, will not forget that we were saved by the Bulgarian people, who prevented the sending of thousands of Jews to the gas chambers.”

Although it had a military alliance with Germany, the wartime government of Bulgaria refused to hand over its 50,000 Jews to the Nazis in 1943.

Most of Bulgaria’s Jews left for Israel after the war.

First inaugurated in 1909, the copper-domed, Moorish-style Sofia Synagogue was hit by a bomb during World War II. Restoration was forbidden by the country’s Communist government until its fall in 1989.

The restoration, which has not yet been completed, has so far cost nearly $400,000, most of it contributed by the international Jewish community.

For years, services were held in a small room adjoining the synagogue’s main hall.

The reinauguration ceremony included the blowing of the shofar and the replacement of Torah scrolls in the synagogue’s 15-foot-tall, gilded marble ark.

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