After our morning tour of the city, we had an afternoon tour based on the Jewish heritage of Budapest and our first stop was to the Dohány Street Synagogue. The synagogue is named after its location, Dohány Street, which translates to tobacco street since there used to be a lot of tobacco production in the area. This was by far the most beautiful synagogue I had ever seen, and it’s actually the largest Jewish Temple in Europe, and the second largest in the world, falling short of Temple Emanu-El in New York by one inch.
During the Holocaust, all of the prayer books in the temple were destroyed by 25 Torah scrolls were saved by two priests who took them one night. The priests put the Torah scrolls into plastic bags, buried them in their garden, and returned them to the temple after the war. Thanks to these two priests, holy scriptures were saved and a major part of the temple had been restored after a terrible time in history.
Hungary was actually the last country to be occupied in World War II, and by the time this happened, the rest of the world had already been informed what was going on. Because the details of the Holocaust were known to the rest of the world, there was no time for strategic planning or paperwork to be completed on how to exterminate the Hungarian Jews, so the Jewish residents of Hungary were forced to walk to the concentration camp.
Outside of the temple, we came across an elegant little shop run by this cute, little elderly woman who was selling handmade Jewish crafts and goods. We were told that this elderly woman, Lucy Brown was actually a Holocaust survivor. Lucy was a teenager when she, her mother, and sister were taken with the other women from their town on a march, led by the Arrow Cross Army. As they were marching towards the Danube River (where the Jews would be shot and thrown into the River), a street cleaner opened up a gate to clean the grounds behind the gate. Lucy grabbed her mother and sister, and ran through the gate, and fortunately enough, the Arrow Cross leader didn’t notice. Lucy ripped off the yellow stars from their shirts, and the three of them went into hiding until the end of the war, thanks to gentile neighbors and friends of theirs. Because of Lucy’s courage, she saved herself, her mother, and her sister.
After walking through the immaculate Dohány Street Synagogue and meeting Lucy, we walked to a Jewish Museum next door which was built over an apartment building where Theodore Herzl, the visionary behind modern Zionism and the reinstitution of a Jewish homeland was born. One of the first artifacts we came across was a bench where the Rabbi would sit to perform a Brit Milah, or circumcision on newborns, which is customary in the Jewish religion. The two seats on the bench are for the Rabbi and for the prophet, Elijah. One of the ways that the Nazis would know if a male was Jewish during the Holocaust was to see if he was circumcised. So even if you had paperwork stating that you’re not Jewish, the Nazis would force you to pull your pants down, and if they saw that you were in fact circumcised, they would kill you on the spot. For this reason, many parents in Budapest are afraid to circumcise their children out of fear of what might happen in the future.
We then came across a scroll that shows a dying man with a Rabbi because it is said that you cannot die until you complete your studies, so the angel of death cannot get to the sick person because he is still learning in the picture. Years ago, the mafia in the area stole everything from the museum, with hopes of profiting from the sales of these ancient artifacts. No one in Budapest could figure out who the thief was until the members of the mafia were caught trying to sell the artifacts. The only item they didn’t take was the Menorah pictured below because it was too heavy.
I hate to split up this one day into yet another blog post, but there was so much rich history that we learned about in Budapest, so the remainder of the city’s Jewish heritage tour will have to be continued!