After a 50-year break the Óbuda Synagogue is operating again as the 23rd synagogue of the capital. In the 1960s when we moved to Budapest from the countryside my mother said once that she would go to the Óbuda synagogue for a memorial service.
She may have gone to the Zichy utca prayer room, which was the last place for Jewish religious purposes in Óbuda when the big synagogue was not functioning any more. The people who used to go to the Óbuda synagogue joined the Frankel Leó út community, which is quite close. Later the synagogue was sold to Hungarian Television and became a studio.
Long time coming
Three years ago there was a Seder evening organised in the historical synagogue and it was rumoured that the Budapest Jewish Community would buy it back. Finally the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation/EMIH took over the Óbuda Synagogue in Lajos Street a few days before the 5771th Jewish year started so that the Rosh Hasanah/new year service could be celebrated there.
The rededication service began on last Sunday, 5 September at 4.30pm. More than 1,000 guests had confirmed their attendance. A few minutes after the 3.30pm gate opening, big crowds were waiting at the security check. The Rajkó band played gypsy music and many waiters welcomed the visitors with snacks and refreshments.
It’s unique not only in Hungary but also in Europe that after so many decades a synagogue goes back into use.
Attention from Israel
Prayers were led by Yona Metzger, Chief Rabbi of Israel. He thanked the Hungarian state for allowing the free practice of religion. The state of Israel was represented by Yakov Marghi, Minister of Religious Services, and Hungary by Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, Foreign Minister János Martonyi and Secretary of State for Culture Géza Sz?cs.
The rededication was followed with interest abroad. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the historic event was a “symbol of the renewal of Hungarian Jewish life”. Israeli president Shimon Peres expressed his hope that in this old synagogue the prophecy of Isaiah will be fulfilled and it “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples”.
After the ribbon cutting a torah was brought in and Slomo Köves, rabbi of the synagogue, started his rededication speech. He quoted from the dedication speech of rabbi Josef Münz from 189 years before. Rabbi Köves said the walls had never given up hoping that supporters would return. He emphasised that the new Jewish community should be very open and welcome non-Jews.
The rededication was a good answer for anti-semitism and had been made possible by much work and donations by EMIH members: Sándor Sarkadi, Zoltán Vas, Gábor Futó who presented the new torah, Péter Wilhelm, Grünberger Tamás for the chandelier, Ottó Albert, Róbert and Adrienn Deutsch. They all received commemorative awards.
Rich in Jewish history
Óbuda played an important part in Hungarian Jewish life until the end of the 17th century when the present capital consisted of three independent towns: Buda, Óbuda and Pest.
Jews lived only in Buda and Óbuda. Jews were permitted to settle on the Pest side only 100 years after the Turks had been pushed out. During the 150 years of Turkish occupation, huge areas became unpopulated because the Turks killed many people or took them away. The Hapsburgs were Catholic and at that time Protestants were not emancipated, but as they started to become the new middle class they opposed the settling of Jews on the Pest side, fearing competition because Jews had the same professions and also belonged to the new middle class. Finally Joseph II allowed Jews to settle in Pest.
The oldest records about the Jews in Óbuda are from 1349. There were active communities but after the 1526 defeat to the Turks at Mohács these communities perished. Jews can be found again with about 24 families containing 88 people in 1712. They mostly came from Czech regions and Moravia. Hapsburg emperor Charles III wanted to control the number of Jews and only first-born sons were allowed to marry. Hungary was much more tolerant from this point of view and Jews came to the country, many to Óbuda. In the 19th century many Jews arriving from Moravia became bankers, entrepreneurs and factory owners, the so-called financial elite. Those who arrived from Austria and Germany were mostly traders.
Under the protection of earl Zichy the congregation grew and paid a protection tax, preventing molestation by authorities. The Zichys allowed public religious services and the Jewish religion in Óbuda had equal rights with Christian religions. The Jews had their own court of disputes and they could make and trade kosher wine and meat. The Jewish judge was a highly respected person. He always held a decorated silver stick while walking in the street and a servant of the community walked in front as a herald.
In 1737 about 43 families accounting for 198 people were on record. They obtained land for a cemetery and had their first synagogue in 1738. The first rabbi was Issachar Ber Oppenheim.
In 1780 a Jewish hospital was built and in 1784 the first secular Jewish elementary school in Hungary was organised.
In 1838 Cvi Hirsch Heller was rabbi and when the big Danube flood in 1838 caused much damage to the synagoge the Presbyterian/-Calvinist church nearby welcomed the Óbuda Jews and helped them in this difficult period. In 1861-80 Hirsch Markus was rabbi and later became chief rabbi of Prague and Hamburg. During these decades Pest became the center of culture and Óbuda faded into the background.
After the first synagogue a second was built but the one we still have today goes back to 1821, 38 years before the great Dohány synagogue was built. The plans were by András Landherr and it was dedicated on July 20, 1821. The building was renovated by Gyula Ulmann in 1900. His plaster design and the art nouveau decoration of the arcade can still be seen today. The Óbuda synagogue was the largest synagogue in the Hapsburg empire.
According to a 19th-century traveller, the synagogue was the second-most beautiful one in Europe after the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam. Palatine Josef took pride in its Corinthian columns and tympanum.
Notable Óbuda Jews
Óbuda had outstanding burghers such as the Goldbergers who founded a textile factory, and Benjamin Salamon Spitzer. He started as a peddler, later went to Prague and Hamburg where he became a sailor, sailed around the world twice and founded a shipping company in New Orleans, becoming financially very successful.
Josef Manes Österreicher was also from Óbuda. He was the first Jewish doctor to receive a diploma from a Hungarian university. He wrote a thesis called Analysis aquarium Budensium, or Analysis of the waters of Buda.
During the freedom fight of 1848-49 against the Hapsburgs, the Óbuda Jews supported Kossuth’s army with soldiers and money. After defeat Haynau the Hapsburg tyrant punished Óbuda Jewry with a penalty of many tens of thousands of peng?, the currency then. In a compromise with the Hapsburgs in 1867 Franz Joseph returned this money and it was used to build the neolog Rabbinical Seminary.
Though in 1944 Óbuda was part of the capital and governor Horty stopped the deportation of Budapest Jewry, many were deported from the Óbuda brickworks and most of them were killed.
Owing to this the number of Óbuda Jewry decreased a lot. I met Mr Márkusz György, 73, at the rededication service. He said that his parents’ wedding ceremony was held in the synagogue. In spite of the huge number of martyrs the synagogue was full many times after the war. After the First World War the Jewish community was more than 5,500.
The Jewish school, cultural room, home for the aged and kitchen were in Zichy utca 9 and there was a prayer room there too. After the 1956 revolution many Óbuda Jews left Hungary and fewer and fewer services were held.
The Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation plans to use Budapest’s 23rd functioning synagogue for each Shabos and holy feast to establish a motivation for those who are seeking a new home for praying and meeting each other.
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