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The Great Synagogue in Dohány Street, Budapest, Hungary

Haim F. Ghiuzeli

The Great Synagogue in Dohány Street, also known as the Dohány Synagogue, or the Tabac-Schul, the Yiddish translation of dohány (tobacco), after the Hungarian name of the street, is located in Belváros, the inner city of Pest, in the eastern section of Budapest. It was built between 1854-1859 by the Neolog Jewish community of Pest according to the plans of the Viennese architect Ludwig Foerster. The synagogue neighbors a major Budapest thoroughfare expressing the optimism and the newly elevated status of the Hungarian Jews in the mid years of the 19th century.

It is a monumental, magnificent synagogue, with a capacity of 2,964 seats (1,492 for men and 1,472 in the women’s galleries) making it one of the largest in the world. The building has a length of more than 53 meters while its width has 26.5 meters. The design of the Dohány Street synagogue, while basically in a Moorish style, also features a mixture of Byzantine, Romantic, and Gothic elements.

The western facade boasts arched windows with stone-carved decorations and brickwork in the heraldic colors of the Budapest: blue, yellow and red. The western main entrance has a stained glass rose window above it. The gateway is flanked on both sides by two polygonal towers with long arched windows and crowned by copper domes with golden ornaments. The towers rise to a height of 43.6 meters each, their decoration features stone carvings of geometric forms and clocks with a diameter of 1.34 meters each. The facade is topped by the Tables of Covenant.

Exterior View of the Dohány Street Synagogue, 1982. Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center. Courtesy of Gabor Hegyi

Exterior View of the Dohány Street Synagogue, 1982.
Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center.
Courtesy of Gabor Hegyi

Yom Kippur in the Dohány Street Synagogue, 1980. Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center

Yom Kippur in the Dohány Street Synagogue, 1980.
Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center

The synagogue’s interior, designed by F. Feszl, has wall surfaces adorned with colored and golden geometric shapes. The Holy Ark is located on the eastern wall, facing the nearby Bimah. The choir-gallery is situated above the Holy Ark, while the women’s galleries, supported by steel ornamented poles, are located at the upper levels on both southern and northern sides of the synagogue. During the 1933 renovation works of the synagogue a mikveh was revealed under the Holy Ark.

The 5,000 tube synagogue organ was built in 1859; Franz Liszt and C. Saint-Saens are probably the most famous musicians that played on this remarkable instrument.

M. Friedman, A. Lazarus, Z. Quartin, and M. Abrahamsohn are among the distinguished cantors from the Great Synagogue in Dohány Street that gained world recognition. Theodore Herzl, whose house of birth was located in the vicinity of the synagogue, had his Bar Mitzvah celebrated in this synagogue.

In 1944, the Dohány Street Synagogue was included first in a military district, then in an internment camp for the city Jews. Adolph Eichmann turned it in a concentration point from which the Nazis sent many of the Budapest Jews to their extermination. Over two thousand of those who died in the ghetto from hunger and cold are buried in the courtyard of the synagogue. The synagogue was also used as a shelter, and towards the end of World War 2, the building suffered some severe damage from aerial raids during the battle for the liberation of Budapest.

After World War 2, the damaged structure became again a prayer house for the much-diminished Jewish community. Only in 1991, following the return to democracy in Hungary, the renovation works could start and were completed in 1996 when once again the building was restored to its former beauty.

In 1991 a monument dedicated to the memory of the Hungarian Jews who perished in the Holocaust was installed in the rear courtyard of the synagogue, in a small park named for Raoul Wallenberg. The Holocaust memorial, the work of Imre Varga, resembles a weeping willow whose leaves bear inscriptions with the names of the victims and boasts the inscription Whose agony is greater than mine. 240 non-Jewish Hungarians “righteous among the nations”, who saved Jews during the Holocaust, are inscribed on four large marble plaques. The memorial was made possible by the generous support of the New York based Emanuel Foundation for Hungarian Culture, with funds raised from private donors. The National Jewish Museum (Orszagos Zsido Vallasi es Torteneti Gyujtemeny) is located within the synagogue compound.

Today the Great Synagogue in Dohány Street, for a long time one of the most renowned landmarks of Budapest, is serving as the main synagogue of the local Jewish community as well as a major tourist attraction.

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