A tale of two synagogues

The dome of the Great Synagogue in Sofia, which a co-chair of its centenary celebration says "awed me with its magnificence each time I stepped inside." (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

The dome of the Great Synagogue in Sofia, which a co-chair of its centenary celebration says “awed me with its magnificence each time I stepped inside.” (Ruth Ellen Gruber)


BUDAPEST, Hungary (JTA) — This year marks a number of momentous anniversaries: the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II; the 40th anniversary of Woodstock; the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism.

We use anniversaries like these to stop, step back and evaluate not just the event that’s being commemorated, but also the passage of time since it happened and the changes wrought with that passage.

In this context, two significant Jewish anniversaries are taking place in September.

The Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest — the largest synagogue in Europe — turns 150 years old. And the Great Synagogue in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia turns 100.

OK, they are buildings, not earth-shaking events. But given the impact that some of the other “big” anniversaries had on these synagogues and on what they represent, it’s only fitting to highlight their birthdays on the roster of celebrations.

For one, both are magnificent buildings that stand out architecturally as important city landmarks. Partly because of this, both have undergone recent renovations that  restored them to opulent glory after decades of postwar neglect.

Both also are flagships of faith, or at least of Jewish identity, and are survivors, too. Witnesses to the pendulum swing of tragedy and triumph that has marked Jewish history in the region, they are potent physical symbols of a proud and enduring Jewish presence.

“The Dohany Synagogue is still the main synagogue of all the Jews of Hungary, the main identity place where we gather, whether we are religious or not,” said architectural historian Rudolf Klein, author of the 2008 book about the synagogue, “The Great Synagogue of Budapest.”

As many as 90,000 Jews are believed to live in Budapest, but most are unaffiliated or totally secular.

With its red-and-yellow striped facade, sumptuous decor and two tall spires topped by gilded onion domes, the Dohany is, in fact, one of the most distinctive buildings in the city and was recognized as such from the outset.

Designed by the Viennese architect Ludwig von Forster, it was inaugurated on Sept. 6, 1859. Old engravings show dignitaries in shiny top hats gathered in front of its enormous ark, a domed and gilded structure that itself is the size of a small chapel.

At the time, Jews had not yet achieved full civil rights in Austro-Hungary. Yet the synagogue was the largest house of worship in Budapest and probably the biggest synagogue in the world. One local newspaper called it “a gorgeous piece of architecture.”

“I like it as a Jew and as an architect,” Klein told JTA. “In both areas it was a breakthrough.”

The synagogue’s Moorish style launched a genre and set the pattern for hundreds of synagogues built in later years throughout Central Europe and beyond.

The building’s monumental scale, its prominent location and its opulent ornamentation, Klein said, epitomized “the optimism of 19th-century Jewry and the tolerant attitude of the gentile world which prevailed in the capital” at the time.

Things, of course, changed later. During World War II the synagogue was used as a concentration camp, where Jews were massed before their deportation to Auschwitz. The graves of Holocaust victims fill the courtyard.

After the war, under communism, the building languished for decades in a sorry state of disrepair. I vividly remember how its ceiling, held up by cables and plastic sheeting, sagged perilously over the congregation that would pack the sanctuary on Yom Kippur simply to make a statement of identity in the face of the regime’s religious suppression.

In 1996, it was officially reopened following a five-year restoration that was financed largely by the newly democratic Hungarian state.

“This building symbolizes the survival and the continuity of the Jewish people,” Gusztav Zoltai, chairman of the Association of Hungarian Jewish Communities, declared at the time.

The Sofia synagogue was inaugurated in September 1909, nearly 50 years to the day after the Dohany, and fulfilled a similar role.

Czar Ferdinand himself cut a ribbon to formally inaugurate the building, whose huge dome, slim turrets and lavish, Byzantine-Moorish style fit in with many other grand buildings in downtown Sofia. The prime minister, other government VIPs and local bishops were in the crowd, too, and a procession of rabbis bore Torah scrolls into the sanctuary and placed them in the ark.

“This synagogue will connect us with the past generations and will tell of us to the future ones,” the chief rabbi proudly told the congregation 100 years ago. “May God bless this land which we love dearly, for the good of all Bulgarians, in whose sufferings and joys we take an active part.”

Bulgaria’s 50,000 Jews were saved during World War II by the heroic action of some of the country’s leaders, and most of them moved to Israel.

The Great Synagogue, damaged in 1944 by Allied bombing, stood neglected for decades, as Communist authorities unsuccessfully tried to turn it into a concert hall.

Still, recalled Robert Djerassi, one of the chairmen of the synagogue centenary celebrations, “It was an enormous domed building that awed me with its magnificence each time I stepped inside. Such a huge void: fearsome, lofty, dark and mysterious!”

Only a few thousand Jews live in Bulgaria today, but as in Budapest, restoration of the synagogue was a priority after the fall of communism as a public demonstration of both Jewish renewal and Jewish presence in the city.

The first stage of work was completed in 1996, the final one this year, just in time for September’s five-day birthday bash.

Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov served as honorary chairman of the gala events, echoing the high-profile participation in the synagogue’s original dedication a century ago. I’m not sure if I found this moving or ironic, but I’m rather glad he chose to do so.

(Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe,” “Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere),” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com.)

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