Saturday, November 30, 2013

Slovakia and the Great Synagogue

We are slowly recovering from a wonderful Thanksgiving and getting geared up for winter. The first snow fell last week here in Budapest and all the Christmas markets are just opening up in Europe. We drove to Bratislava last Saturday to try out the market there.  It was good fun!
Here's Claudia standing in St. Michael's street (looking bored to tears), with St. Michael's Gate in the background. St. Michael's gate is the last remaining tower from when the city was fortified during the Medieval era.  She looks utterly miserable because she was this close (tiny finger width) from falling asleep.  She slept the whole way home to Budapest  (2 hours).  
And this guy!  He had a blast.  The Bratislava market is not overly crowded (we even went on the opening day), so he was able to freely run around and enjoy himself.  
They had great entertainment for the kids... a crossbow game, a carousel and ice skating.

You'll find interesting statues all over the city.  This is Schöner Náci, inspired by Ignác Lamár.  Lamár lived in Bratislava until his passing in the 1960s.  He was a colorful fellow that brought some entertainment to Bratislava during the dark Soviet days by wandering the streets, politely charming all the ladies ... in three different languages even!  
Čumil ... he's been tripped over, stood on and even run over by a few trucks.

This is the Nowy Most bridge, a very Soviet-style construction, finished in 1972, during the communist rule of Slovakia.  The locals were not big fans, but they made the most of it by recently turning it into a restaurant called "UFO."   Bratislava is a great city.  It's a manageable size and can be toured in a day.  Since its a quick drive from Budapest, why not?
Back in Budapest, we visited the Great Synagogue.  On our trip to Auschwitz, we learned more of Budapest's Jewish history.  Before World War II, one out of every four Budapest citizens was Jewish.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire was extremely progressive with respect to its Jewish citizens, so the community truly grew and flourished during that period.  And within Budapest, Jewish citizens greatly wanted to assimilate into the Hungarian culture, learning the language, taking on the Hungarian spellings of their names and building this amazing synagogue in the city.  
The synagogue was built in 1859 and the construction was loosely based on the biblical descriptions of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, with its two large towers.  
The inside of the synagogue glows.  It has Moorish design elements throughout, so it was easy to get lost in meticulously arranged tiles and gold details.  The synagogue was spared destruction during the war, unlike so many other synagogues in Europe, as a result of the Nazi's use of the synagogue.  They placed radio antennas in the two towers, kept horses in the nave and supposedly the Gestapo even used one of the upper balconies as a base.  
After the war, the synagogue sat empty for about 40 years, until the fall of the Soviet empire, when individuals of Hungarian-Jewish decent began pouring money into a considerable renovation.  One of the major contributors was Tony Curtis and his daughter Jamie Lee Curtis.  

After the war, there was a great diaspora of Hungarian-Jews. Many went to America.  Here are a few individuals of Hungarian-Jewish descent that have become known to many ... Harry Houdini (born Eric Weisz) Elie Wiesel, Joseph Pulitzer, Estee Lauder, Goldie Hawn and Kate Hudson, Peter Lorre, Eva and Zsa Zsa Gabor, Adrien Brody, Louis C.K. (original Hungarian spelling "Szekely"), and Jerry Seinfeld.  There's actually a longer list, but these are just a few.  
Behind the synagogue is a courtyard with the symbolic grave of Raoul Wallenberg.  Here is Patrick attempting to put a really big stone on his grave (to show your respect, you may place pebbles and stones beside his grave). I recently finished a book on Wallenberg and his story is the most moving account of human compassion I've ever heard.  

He sacrificed his life rescuing thousands of Jewish Hungarians.  The modest estimate of those saved is in the tens of thousands and the upper estimate is up to 100 thousand.  He holds the Guiness World Record for saving the greatest number of people from extinction.  
Wallenberg was a Swedish businessman, turned diplomat and humanitarian, recruited by the American OSS (predecessor of the CIA) and the Swedish government to rescue as many Jewish Hungarians as possible.  And that he did, by issuing protective Swedish passports, setting up safe houses for Jewish Hungarians expelled from their homes, pulling people off trains bound for Auschwitz and even fishing victims out of the Danube.  As the Soviet army got closer to Budapest, the Nazis resorted to lining up Jewish men, women and children and shooting them into the river.  To save bullets, they often tied victims together, shot one and let the entire group drop into the Danube to drown.  Wallenburg even went into the river to rescue these victims.  

The man was a shining light of mercy and morality in an otherwise dark and hopeless period of history.  The book I recently finished was His Name was Raoul Wallenberg, but there are several books about him on Amazon if you give it a search.  His story is absolutely fascinating and inspiring, so it will be great reading.  
There's a spot in the courtyard behind the Synagogue where you can put pebbles inside little boxes inscribed with names of Hungarian Jews that were killed in he Holocaust.  Seeing people bringing flowers and pebbles to the boxes of loved ones reminded me, once again, that this all happened in our not-so-distant past.
Claudia asked lots of questions about the Tree of Life, a memorial in the courtyard, whose leaves are etched with names of Hungarian Jewish Holocaust victims. 
The tree has four thousand etched leaves... but the number of Hungarian Jews killed in the Holocaust numbers at over half a million.
Another sobering sight at the Synagogue, a mass grave for the thousands who died in Budapest ghettos during the Nazi occupation of Hungary.  You will see headstones and markers that loved ones and families have brought here to honor their departed.  
During their occupation, the Nazis walled the Jewish Hungarians into the Jewish ghetto, which was directly behind the Great Synagogue.  The Soviets destroyed the wall shortly after the liberation, in 1945.   Here is what remains of a chunk of the barbed wire topped wall.  
Above all, the beauty of the Great Synagogue is inspirational.  Even after such devastation, even after the Jewish population of Budapest was utterly decimated, there is still a great desire to rebuild something that was nearly lost and to rebuild it with pride.  Second to Temple Emanu-El in New York, it is the biggest synagogue in the world and every bit of it seems to glow.   

It's a must see if you are in Budapest!  And they are super sweet to small children who want to rove all over the place and touch everything.  ;) 
And I have to end with a happy picture of Claudia since I started with that really pitiful looking picture.  She really enjoyed her Thanksgiving "feast" at school, and took great pride in telling all the kids in her class about this American tradition.   And I have to share the items she came up with for her thankful turkey this year, in the order she named them:

  1. Family (she actually named us all, but I suggested just writing "family" for short)
  2. Ice Cream 
  3. Mommy ("because I really, really love you"... oh, I loved that)
  4. Grayer (her sweet little school mate)
  5. Home

I hope everyone is having a great weekend and that you have good things to be thankful for ... wherever you are and wherever you're from.  =)


  1. Beautiful photos! I'm so jealous, I'd love to explore Bratislava.

  2. Wow, thanks for writing this post. I walked past the synagogue so many times while living in BP and never visited it, I regret that now! The book about mr Wallenberg sounds fascinating....adding it to my list of books to read. Thanks Meryl!

    1. You know, I can't believe it took us 3 years to finally visit the synagogue! So glad we did. And definitely read up on Mr. Wallenberg... you will be inspired!

  3. Miss you guys! Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. Miss you too, friend, miss you too. =)

    2. Good Evening Meryl,
      Thank you for all the photos and information. I recently visited The Great Synagogue in Budapest and your written blog has helped me to understand it so much more.
      My daughter has filmed a documentary about the Holocaust which includes interviews with some of the survivors of Auschwitz and -Birkenau and she is a Regional Ambassador for HET (Holocaust Memorial Trust) and it was through helping her with this documentary that my understanding of what happened during those awful times became so very real.

    3. Hi Lynn, I'm sorry, I just now saw your comment. I'm so glad you were able to see the Great Synagogue here and I'm happy my blog could help. The synagogue is a true treasure. I'd love to know more about your daughter's documentary and even watch it if I could. Thank you for commenting, Lynn!


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