Europe Trip Exposes Couple to Jewish Culture, History in Budapest and Prague

On July 6, Jake and I flew to Budapest for a two-week vacation in Europe. We had arranged to stay three days in Budapest to tour the city and its Jewish sites before taking a Danube River cruise and to stay in Prague for three days after the cruise to tour that city and its Jewish sites.

Budapest is divided into two sections, Buda and Pest, divided by the Danube River. Buda is on a hill and Pest is on a flat plain. In medieval times, Jews lived in Buda as merchants, shopkeepers and craftsmen.

A synagogue was built in 1307, but was destroyed a number of years later. The Jews were expelled several times but allowed to return and gained prominence. Jews lived in Pest as early as 1407 and built their first synagogue there in 1787.

The period from 1873 to World War II was a time of prosperity. Theodor Herzl was born in Pest. Following World War I, the Jewish community grew to 246,000. At the beginning of the war Hungary sided with Germany, so Budapest was not occupied until 1944 and 80,000-90,000 Jews survived the Holocaust in Budapest.

Today about 80 percent of the Jews are Neolog (Reform and Conservative) and the rest are Orthodox.

Budapest boasts the largest synagogue in Europe on Dohany Street. There are 26 active synagogues there along with three new Jewish schools and two small yeshivot. There are also kosher restaurants.

We toured the Jewish quarter. The huge Dohany Street Synagogue seats 3,000 people. It was built in Byzantine Moorish style with ceramic decorations and onion domes, between 1854 and 1859.
The congregation practices Neolog Judaism but has balconies for the women. Its ark contains 25 Torah scrolls taken from destroyed or looted temples during the Holocaust.
In the courtyard of the synagogue there are mass graves of thousands of Jews from the ghettos in Budapest. A memorial weeping willow tree made of granite and steel commemorates all the Hungarian victims of the Holocaust with each leaf inscribed with a name.

We also toured the Rumbach Synagogue built between 1869-1872 in Moorish design. It is being restored.

We walked the Jewish quarter seeing other synagogues from the outside. There is also the Holocaust Memorial Center and the memorial called the Shoes on the Danube along the Pest embankment. It marks the spot where Jews were shot and thrown into the Danube during the German occupation.

There is a Budapest Rabbinical Seminary, opened in the early 1900s, which houses a huge library of more than 150,000 priceless volumes of Jewish literature.
After our three days in Budapest, we boarded the Avalon Panorama for our cruise on the Danube. During a stop, in Vienna, we went to a wonderful bakery and bought a delicious challah, which we shared with some passengers on the ship. The last stop was Nuremberg, Germany, where we disembarked and boarded a bus for Prague.

Prague is a 1,200-year-old city that was not bombed during World War II. The architecture is mixed – baroque, gothic and modern. It has 1.24 million inhabitants and lies on the banks of the Vltava River (Moldau in German). It is divided into four sections – Stare Mesto (Old Town), Nove Mesto (New Town), Mala Strana (Little Quarter), and Josefov (Jewish Quarter). There is also the Hradcany (Castle District).

We had a walking tour of the Mala Strana and the Charles Bridge on the afternoon that we arrived in Prague. We saw the immense castle across the river and we toured the Old Town, saw the Astronomical clock built in 1410 and went to a kosher restaurant called Dinitz in the Jewish Quarter, where we had a delicious meal.

Another day we had a tour of the Jewish Quarter. The Old-New Synagogue is the oldest landmark of the Jewish Quarter. It was built in the 13th century. The main building is surrounded by low annexes that serve as a vestibule and women’s sections. Women can hear the services through narrow apertures in the walls.

To this day, the Old-New Synagogue has retained the original seating arrangement around the perimeter of the main hall. It has always been the main synagogue of the Prague Jewish community.
We also saw the Jerusalem Synagogue, built in 1905-06 in Moorish Style in the Nove Mesto (New Town), and toured the Pinkas Synagogue built in 1479 in a Renaissance design. Franz Kafka, a famous Czech writer, attended services there.

The earliest religious building on the site of today’s Pinkas Synagogue is the ritual bath (mikvah) dating from the 11th century. In the 1950s the synagogue became the seat of the Memorial of the 77,297, a monument erected in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. Their names are inscribed on the walls. It also houses the exhibition of drawings done by the children who were imprisoned in the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp from 1942-1944.

The Jewish Town Hall in Prague dates from the 16th century and is in Baroque style. It features a clock with Hebrew numbers whose hands move counter clockwise.

Nearby is the Old Jewish Cemetery. It holds 12,000 tombstones for more that 100,000 people buried there. Because the cemetery was only designed to hold around 10 percent of the Jews buried there, some graves are 12 tombs deep.

The most famous tomb there belongs to Rabbi Loew who died in 1609 and was thought to be the creator of the story of the Golem. Hitler ordered that this cemetery be saved to serve as part of a museum after all the Jews had been exterminated.

The last synagogue that we visited was the Spanish Synagogue built in Moorish design by Iberian Jews who came to Prague to escape persecution.

The Jewish Museum has collections that allow us to understand the development of the city’s Jewish community and its culture. The museum exhibitions are located in six different places: five synagogues and the cemetery, a kind of large open-air museum.

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