13 January 2023

Dohány Street Synagogue
in Budapest is the largest
synagogue in Europe

Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest is the largest synagogue in Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

During my working visit to Budapest last week and this week, there was an intense programme visiting projects working with Ukrainian families and refugees.

But before leaving Budapest this week I took time to visit Dohány Street Synagogue, also known as the Great Synagogue. This is the largest synagogue in Europe, with a seating capacity for 3,000 people, and it is one of the principle centres of Neolog Judaism.

Dohány Street is a leafy street in the centre of the Hungarian capital, and once marked the border of the Budapest Ghetto during World War II and the Holocaust. Dohány means tobacco in Hungarian, and Theodor Herzl referred to the Dohány Street Synagogue as the Tabakgasse Synagogue. It is also known in Yiddish as the Tabak-Shul.

Inside Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The synagogue complex on Dohány Street includes the Great Synagogue, the Heroes’ Temple, the graveyard, the Holocaust Memorial, the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs, the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park which I wrote about on Wednesday (HERE), and the Jewish Museum, which was built on the site of the house where Theodor Herzl was born.

This monumental synagogue has a seating capacity of 2,964 – 1,492 men and 1,472 women – and it is the largest in Europe and one of the largest working synagogues in the world, following the Beit Midrash of Ger in Jerusalem, and the Belz Great Synagogue and Temple Emanu-el in New York City.

Neolog Judaism is a mild reform movement within Judaism, mainly in Hungarian-speaking regions of Europe, and began in the late 19th century. The reforms were comparable to the more traditional forms of Conservative Judaism in the US.

Dohány Street Synagogue has a seating capacity for 3,000 people (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Dohány Street Synagogue was built between 1854 and 1859 in the Oriental-Bynzantine or Moorish Revival style, drawing inspiration from North Africa and the Alhambra in mediaeval Spain.

The synagogue was designed by the Viennese architect, Ludwig Förster (1797-1863), who is known for building Jewish synagogues and churches. His most important works include the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest, the Leopoldstädter Tempel and the Synagogue of Miskolc. Förster argued no distinctively Jewish architecture could be identified, and so he chose ‘architectural forms that have been used by oriental ethnic groups that are related to the Israelite people, and in particular the Arabs.’

The building is 75 metres (246 ft) long and 27 metres (89 ft) wide. The style of the Dohány Street Synagogue is Moorish but its also features a mixture of Byzantine, Romantic and Gothic elements. Two onion domes sit on the twin octagonal towers at 43 metres (141 ft) height. A rose stained-glass window sits over the main entrance.

Theodore Herzl was born on Dohány Street on the site of the Hungarian Jewish Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Inside, the synagogue is shaped like a basilica, with three spacious richly decorated aisles, two balconies, two pulpits an organ. The Aron haKodesh or Holy Ark and the internal frescoes are made of coloured and the golden geometric shapes are the works of the famous Hungarian romantic architect Frigyes Feszl (1821-1884).

A single-span cast iron supports the 12-metre-wide (39 ft) nave. The seats on the ground-floor are for men, while the upper galleries, supported by steel ornamented poles, has seats for women.

The Aron haKodesh or Holy Ark also holds various Torah scrolls from other synagogues destroyed during the Holocaust.

The synagogue has a unique pipe organ. Franz Liszt and Camille Saint-Saëns played the original 5,000-pipe organ built in 1859. The synagogue was consecrated on 6 September 1859.

The Aron haKodesh and organ in Dohány Street Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The synagogue complex includes the Hungarian Jewish Museum, built on the site of Theodor Herzl’s home stood. The Jewish Museum was built in 1930 in accordance with the synagogue’s architectural style and attached in 1931 to the main building. It holds the Jewish Religious and Historical Collection, a collection of religious relics of the Pest Hevrah Kaddishah or Jewish Burial Society, ritual objects associated with Shabbat and the High Holidays and a Holocaust room.

The arcade and the Heroes’ Temple, which seats 250 people and is used for religious services on weekdays and during winter, was added to the synagogue complex in 1931. The Heroes’ Temple was designed by Lázlo Vágó and Ferenc Faragó and was designed as a memorial to Hungarian Jews who died during World War I.

The synagogue was bombed by the Hungarian pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party on 3 February 1939. The building was used as a base for German Radio during World War II, and suffered severe damage during aerial raids and during the Siege of Budapest.

Over 2,000 people who died in the ghetto in winter 1944-1945 are buried in the synagogue courtyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Dohány Street Synagogue was part of the Jewish Ghetto and sheltered hundreds of people. Over 2,000 people who died in the ghetto from hunger and cold during the winter 1944-1945 are buried in the courtyard of the synagogue.

It is contrary to Jewish custom to have a cemetery beside a synagogue, but the 3,000 sq metre cemetery is the result of historical circumstances.

As part of Eichmann’s plan, 70,000 Jews were forcibly moved into the Ghetto of Pest in 1944. Until the Russians liberated the ghetto on 18 January 1945, 8,000 to 10,000 people had died, although. Some of the dead were transferred to the Kozma Street Cemetery, but 2,000 people were buried in the makeshift cemetery beside the synagogue.

The arcade and the Heroes’ Temple were added to the synagogue complex in 1931 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

During the Communist era, the damaged synagogue served once again as a prayer house for the Jewish community which was greatly reduced in size. The restoration and renovation of the Dohány Street Synagogue began in 1991, financed by the state and by private donations.

The three-year programme was initially funded by a $5 million donation from the Hungarian government. Jewish Americans, including Estée Lauder and Tony Curtis, contributed to the additional $20 million needed for the restoration.

A new organ with 63 voices and four manuals was built in 1996 by the German firm Jehmlich Orgelbau Dresden GmbH. The restoration of the synagogue was completed in 1998.

One of the most important concerts in the synagogue’s history was in 2002, by the organ virtuoso Xaver Varnus. A crowd of 7,200 filled sanctuary seats and standing space four hours before the concert to hear the concert.

The Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs by Imre Varga in rear courtyard of the synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

In the courtyard behind the synagogue, the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park includes the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs by the sculptor Imre Varga. At least 400,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Imre Varga’s sculpture it resembles a weeping willow whose leaves bear the names and tattoo numbers of the dead and disappeared.

The park also has memorials to Raoul Wallenberg and other Righteous Among the Nations, which I described earlier this week.

The Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest remains the most important centre of Neolog Judaism in Hungary. The restored synagogue celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2009. The Central Synagogue in Manhattan, New York, is a near-exact copy of the Dohány Street Synagogue.

Shabbat Shalom

Inside the Heroes’ Temple, which seats 250 people and is used for religious services on weekdays and during winter (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Praying through poems and
with USPG: 13 January 2023

‘The Kings still come to Bethlehem / With broken hearts and souls sore-vexed’ … the kings in a Ukrainian children’s nativity presentation in Budapest last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Christmas is not a season of 12 days, despite the popular Christmas song. Christmas is a 40-day season that lasts from Christmas Day (25 December) to Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation (2 February).

Throughout the 40 days of this Christmas Season, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflecting on a seasonal or appropriate poem;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

We are back in Stony Stratford following a busy a week visiting Hungary and Finland with the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) and the Diocese in Europe, looking at how the church and church agencies there are working with refugees from Ukraine.

These Epiphany-tide journeys across Europe are over, but there is a lot of work to do on preparing reports and writing about these visits.

My choice of a seasonal poem this morning is ‘Epiphany,’ a poem written in 1916 by Winifred Mary Letts (1882-1972), an English-born writer who spent most of her life in Ireland. She was known for her novels, plays and poetry.

Winifred Mary Letts was born in Broughton, Salford, now part of Greater Manchester. She was her parents’ third child. Her father, the Revd Ernest Letts (1854-1904) was an artist and a Church of England priest. He married Isabel Mary Ferrier in Belfast in 1874. He was a minor canon and precentor of Manchester Cathedral, and the Rector of All Saints’, Newtown Heath, Manchester (1885-1904), until his untimely death.

Winifred many spent many childhood holidays at her mother’s home in Knockmaroon, near the Phoenix Park in Dublin. After the Revd Ernest Letts died in 1904, his widow returned to Ireland with their children and lived at Dal Riada in Blackrock, Co Dublin.

Winifred Mary Letts was educated in Bromley, Kent, and then at Alexandra College, Dublin. She began her career as a playwright, writing two one-act plays for the Abbey Theatre: The Eyes of the Blind (1906) and The Challenge (1909). She then started writing novels and children’s books.

Letts’s story ‘The Company of Saints and of Angels’ was published by The Irish Review in 1912, when the editor was Thomas MacDonagh, later one of the leaders of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. Her first poetry collection, Songs from Leinster, was published in 1913.

Six of her poems were set to music by Charles Villiers Stanford in A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster (1914); of these, the most famous is ‘A Soft Day’.

During World War I, while she was working as a nurse at army camps in Manchester in 1916, she published Hallowe’en and Other Poems of the War. Her poem ‘The Deserter’ (1916), describes the feelings and fate of a man terrified by the war, is often used in collections of World War I poetry.

Her collection was republished the following year as The Spires of Oxford, and other Poems (1917). A ‘Publisher’s Note’ in the 1917 edition explained: ‘The verdict of the public, as shown by continual requests to republish, is that The Spires of Oxford is the most important poem in the volume.’

She married the widowed William Henry Foster Verschoyle, of Kilberry, Co Kildare, in 1926, and they lived in Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin, and in Co Kildare. She continued to write novels and children’s fiction. Knockmaroon, a reminiscence of her childhood in her grandparents’ house in Dublin, was published in 1933 and is considered her finest book.

After William Verschoyle died in 1943, Winifred lived for a time with her sisters in Faversham, Kent. She returned to Ireland in 1950 and bought Beech Cottage in Killiney, Co Dublin. She lived there until moving to Tivoli Nursing Home in Dún Laoghaire in the late 1960s. She died in 1972 and is buried in Rathcoole, Co Dublin.

Epiphany (1916), by Winifred Mary Letts:

The Kings still come to Bethlehem
Though nineteen centuries have fled;
The Kings still come to Bethlehem
To worship at a Baby’s bed.
And still a star shines in the East,
For sage and soldier, king and priest.

They come not as they came of old
On lordly camels richly dight;
They come not bearing myrrh and gold
And jewels for a king’s delight.
All battle-stained and grim are they
Who seek the Prince of Peace to-day.

They bring not pearls nor frankincense
To offer Him for His content.
Weary and worn with long suspense
With kingdoms ravished, fortunes spent,
They have no gifts to bring but these—
Men’s blood and women’s agonies.

What toys have they to please a child?
Cannon and gun and bayonet.
What gold? Their honour undefiled.
What myrrh? Sad hearts and long regret.
For they have found through bitter loss
That Kings are throned upon the cross.

The Kings still come to Bethlehem
With broken hearts and souls sore-vexed.
And still the star is guiding them
Through weary nights and days perplexed.
God greet you, Kings, that you may be
New-crowned at His Epiphany.

‘Sad hearts and long regret’ (Winfred M Letts) … a cushion in ‘Ukrainian Space’ in Budapest last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is an ‘Epiphany Reflection,’ introduced on Sunday morning by the Revd Michael Sei from the Episcopal Church of Liberia.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Let us pray for victims of violence and drug abuse. May they be offered help and support, and may they find healing and peace.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Ukrainian icons at the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church in Budapest last Sunday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)