13 January 2023
Dohány Street Synagogue
in Budapest is the largest
synagogue in Europe
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.