Postcard from Budapest, Hungary: Striking synagogue enshrines tragedies of surrounding ghetto

Moorish. Byzantine. Gothic. Oriental. The striking architectural mash-up of the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest is referred to as Moorish Revival.

Franz Liszt played the 5,000-pipe organ during the 1859 opening of the what is still the largest synagogue in Europe. Upper galleries flanking the center section of the temple were built to accommodate seating for women.

On the site of the former homestead of Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), widely regarded as the father of Zionism, the gracefully arched Jewish Museum opened in 1931 to display a rich collection of religious artifacts.

The Great Synagogue’s role at the center of a thriving community changed dramatically with the German invasion in March of 1944. Under the plan developed by Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962), hundreds of thousands of Jewish Hungarians were deported to extermination camps.

Approximately 70,000 members of the Jewish faith were herded into the ghetto surrounding the synagogue. During the following brutal winter as World War II drew to a close, many died from cold and hunger. With the liberation of Budapest from German control, the courtyard behind the synagogue became a makeshift cemetery for more than 2,000 of those who perished in the ghetto.

Soviet control brought a different set of issues and religious restrictions to the neighborhood.

Freedom to renovate the Great Synagogue and its grounds did not arrive until the 1990s when Hungary finally secured independence from Soviet control.

One of the major contributors to the makeover of the Great Synagogue built the base for her fortune by cooking up cosmetic creams in her kitchen and attractively bottling them for sale. She spent much of her life trying to distance herself from her parents’ roots:

I loved them both so much – their beauty and their character, but I didn’t love feeling different because of their old country ways.

Late in her life, Estee Lauder (1908-2004), whose mother was a Hungarian immigrant, paid tribute to those origins by contributing $5 million toward the renovation of the Dohany Street Synagogue.

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