09 February 2013

Jewish Budapest comes to life again

In the late C18th the royal court of Hungary granted the Jews freedom of rel­ig­ion, trading rights against payment of special taxes, and permission to live any­where in Obuda - privileges granted only in Obuda (not in Buda or Pest)! Later, Count Ödön Zichy II (1811–1894) and his wife were noted for their dedication to promoting art and industry in Hungary. He was particularly famous for founding the Oriental Museum in Vienna and the countess was much loved for invit­ing Jewish families to live on Zichy family property in the district. 

By the time the Obuda synagogue was built in 1820, the local Jewish community had become the largest Jewish community in Hungary. This new synag­ogue was thought of as one of the prettiest synagogues in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Obuda synagogue
built 1820, sold in 1970 and reopened 2010.

Within one generation, in 1850, the Obuda population was one third Jewish and two thirds Christian. Obuda might have been the smallest of the three towns that were united in 1873 to form Budapest, but it proudly took its place in the newly cosmopolitan city. Only after Jews were allowed to move into the action-packed city of Pest did the Jewish community of Obuda shrink. However even after WW1, the Obuda district was still 10% Jewish.

An Obuda synagogue had been built in 1737, and although not much is known about it, this first building possibly had a copper roof. But a great deal is known about the second synagogue which was built on the same site in 1820. The second synagogue, bigger and fancier that the first, was designed in a classical style by architect And­reas Landesherr. I assume the synagogue board of directors asked for a pediment and six Corinthian columns on the exterior, to look like a classical Greek temple. Carved classical ornamentation, that could have been found on any C19th building, was only partially Judaicised by adding the Ten Commandments. And there were two tiers of round-arched windows along both sides.

But inside, the building looked every inch a synagogue. As the book Jewish Budapest: monuments, rites, history has shown the bimah/table for reading the scrolls had four corner columns in the much loved Egyptian Revival taste. Each obelisk was well decorated with carved, classical ornament, capped by a sphere capped by an eagle. The ark for the scrolls was flanked by classical columns, and topped by a crown Tablets of the Law. The women's gallery ran along the northern and western walls.

Let us leap forward into the 20th century. The capital city, Budapest, was 23% Jewish in 1939, Pest more so than Buda. It was a thriving, educated and cultivated community.

Despite the Holocaust, and the mass emigration of Jews and others in 1956, Hungary is still home to around 100,000 Jews, a very large community by post-WW2 stand­ards. Most live in Budapest, which is enjoying a revival of Jewish culture. Yet in the 1970s, the Jewish community wasn’t using the Obuda synag­ogue any longer and so the building was sold. Used for a long time as a TV studio, the lovely old building was not re-inaugurated as a synagogue until recently.

Districts of Budapest
On the west side of the Danube, you can see Buda.
East of the Danube, you can see Pest. Note districts 6 & 7
To the north you can find Obuda, in district 3.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, a Jewish Quarter started to form in Pest, particularly in the 6th and 7th districts (see map). I have never seen the annual Jewish Summer Festival, but locals say it is an important sign of the modern Hungarian Jewish community’s ability to live a public life. The centre of the festival is the elegant Dohány Street Central Synagogue (1859) in the city’s former Jewish Quarter, along with the Jewish coffee and cake shops, restaurants and music centres.

When Obuda synagogue’s was reopened in 2010, it was an important part of that year’s Jewish Summer Festival. Music had always been central to the synagogue’s fame, so it was appropriate that The Boban Markovic Orchestra, a Serbian gypsy brass band ensemble, would participate in the rededication of the building. [I love the idea that, pre-WW1, both Franz Liszt and Camille Saint-Saëns played the synagogue's organ].

Visitors also might like to consider the Jewish Budapest Sightseeing Tour. It starts along the Danube river, then St Stephen’s park, the World War II victims’ memorial, Dohány Street Synagogue and New Leopold district, the Jewish garden, the Jewish Museum, the Tree of Life and the Temple of the Heroes.

My husband's favourite coffee house/music bar in the heart of Jewish Budapest is Spinoza House. He says it reminds him of the vibrant inter-war era that he loved. Of course he wasn't born till after the war, so I presume he is reliving his parents' memories :)


Andrew said...

Brilliant. Because of Jane and Lance, I have taken quite an interest in Budapest and you have spelt the city out ever so clearly. I have heard trams have a soothing influence on cities. I expect having a significant Jewish population does too.

Joe said...

My mother spent the last few years of the war in Budapest and remembered the city very fondly. So she took me to Budapest in 1994 to revisit all her old haunts, especially In Old Pest. The cakes were amazing.

We both loved Dohany synagogue, but Obuda synagogue was not yet rebuilt in 1994.

Hels said...


Great story, isn't it? By the way, I feel the same way about Historic Houses of Romania, an eye-opening blog about a country we should know more about.

I DO read about Hungarian history and architecture, but only a chapter here and there. Surprising really, since my brother married a Hungarian and my huband's brother was born in Hungary.

Hels said...


Your mother's cakes, chocolate drinks and coffees were amazing. I think the entire Austro-Hungarian empire must have been amazing.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
We have so enjoyed your wonderful post about our adopted city of Budapest and its Jewish heritage. Indeed, there is much to enchant the visitor to Budapest, not least of which are the many Jewish places of interest including the Dohany Street synagogue which we understand to be the largest in Europe.

Our apartment is in District 6 so is placed very centrally for much of the vibrant life of Pest and very close to the 7th and 13th Districts which are still recognised as being heavily influenced by Jewish culture and everyday life.

For us, one of the great joys of living in Budapest is that it still retains its 'café society' and we could possibly conduct our own tour of the coffee house both grand and modest which do seem to be on every street corner!

jeronimus said...

So many synagogues were destroyed during WW2. I'm glad this beautifully proportioned work of architecture survived.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I wasn't aware that Budapest had such an historically strong Jewish population. Your are right, that temple certainly doesn't look like one from the outside, although it is a handsome building.

This article is redolent of the city's cosmopolitan past, of which I am glad to see, partly via the Hattatt's blog, that so much has survived or is being revived.
--Road to Parnassus

Emm in London said...

Oh, what a lovely post! I would love to visit Budapest and I have some Serbian friends studying there so I am greatly enjoying seeing the city through their eyes.

I had a heavy heart reading this, knowing what happened to the Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz but am pleased that Budapest has such a large population! When I visited Novi Sad in Serbia, I learned that the community was only about 700. It's crazy.

The Obuda synagogue is intriguing! It absolutely doesn't look like a synagogue.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

I don't think I realised where you lived in Budapest and even if I did, I haven't been there since 1994. Probably things have changed a great deal in the last 19 years.

District 6 must be perfect for the active cultural life in the centre of Pest. Do you have easy access to musical events? theatre? Is your Hungarian good enough to full participate?

Hels said...


Budapest oil refineries, bridges, communications and storage tanks were bombed by American air raids; Russians besieged the city from the East and Germans destroyed the Jewish institutions in the city. It was indeed a miracle that this beautifully proportioned synagogue survived largely intact.

Hels said...


It is a fascinating dilemma. In rebuilding a city post-war, there is always a tension between preserving and slowly renovating historical buildings Vs pulling everything down and quickly building modern replacements. I hope the city fathers err on the side of architectural caution.

Hels said...


me too! Joe and I saw Budapest and Prague through my mother in law's stories and then her eyes.

It is interesting that although they were Czechs, both my in laws had to learn Hungarian when their town was absorbed by expanding Hungarian borders. Their high school education was completed exclusively in Hungarian.

Lord Cowell said...

I wasn't expecting the barrel vaulted ceiling inside! It is quite a well proportioned building.

Did the Jews have much of an artistic presence in Obuda/Pest?

I must admit that Hungary is still on my to do list. It is quite a hike from down under.

Hels said...

Lord Cowell

There were surprisingly few visual artists of international fame, except for the odd star like Isidor Kaufmann, Marcel Breuer and László Moholy-Nagy. But when it comes to writers, architects, composers and musicians, Hungary's cupboard would have been very bare, had it not been for the Jewish community.

p.s Always find a relative in the cities you want to visit. You will still have to pay for the plane fare from the Antipodes, but at least you won't have to pay for hotels, food and car. My spouse, bless him, has relatives in Vienna, Prague and Budapest!

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels [again]:
Music is, in fact, one of our great interests and joys in life. We are situated less than five minutes' walk from the Opera House and about the same from the Music Academy.

Happily our Hungarian is sufficient to get us by!!

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

My TOTAL knowledge of Hungarian runs to a couple of expressions I learned decades ago:
Nem értem
Hogy vagy
Jó napot kívánok,
Igen darlink :)
Köszönöm szépen

It is a much more difficult language than German, French or the Slavic languages, I think.