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Splendour and despair in Budapest

Take in the majesty and gravity of the storied Jewish quarter, where tens of thousands were tortured during World War II

Ronan O’Connell on 26 Nov 2017

The Straits Times


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While admiring the glory of the religious structures in Budapest's Jewish quarter, I find it difficult to comprehend what occurred in this small section of the Hungarian capital during World War II. It was fenced off from the rest of the city, becoming a disease-ridden, lawless place which showcased the deepest of human evil.


The story of Hungary's Jewish community is relatively unknown on a global level, in comparison to the tales of horror which emerged from Germany and Poland during the same period. So much so that the Jewish quarter escaped my notice during my first two trips to Budapest.


The quarter is a small patch of the touristy downtown area straddling the Danube River. Travellers often linger at the handsome riverside buildings, such as Buda Castle, which has an eclectic melange of Baroque, mediaeval and modernist architecture.


Another highlight is the Hungarian Parliament, an enormous building which took 17 years to complete.


Then there is the Hungarian State Opera House, which boasts a striking neoclassical facade which does justice to its opulent interior.


After all the grand state architecture, it is worth heading to the Jewish quarter.


Here, you can experience a storied, sobering place and contemplate one of the darkest periods of European history and the legacy of resilience the Jewish community has left in the city.


During the Nazi Occupation of Budapest, the area became a walled ghetto where 60,000 Jews were imprisoned before being sent to concentration camps.


The area was guarded by Nazi soldiers, who blocked aid from being supplied to those stuck inside, where the living conditions were squalid, with rubbish and even dead bodies littering the precinct.


It was decades before the quarter recovered from this horrific era and began to thrive as a commercial area.


Now, it is a busy neighbourhood which blends easily into the city centre, with its array of neat shops and cafes. It becomes particularly bustling after dark, when revellers descend upon its many bars, spilling out onto the street with beers or cocktails in hand.


The only sign of the Jewish history linked to this area is the presence of two large synagogues, including Europe's largest, the Great Synagogue, which has been the city's focal point for Jews for more than 150 years.


Standing at its entrance, I notice a pile of paper yarmulkes, a skullcap worn by Jewish men during religious ceremonies. An elderly male volunteer of the synagogue smiles and gestures for me to place one on my head.


Over the next 30 minutes, it falls off repeatedly as I crane my neck to stare up at the glory of the building. Working as a travel journalist for the past four years, I have visited many of the world's most renowned religious complexes. Few have left me in such awe.


Many of my favourite religious structures have been mosques, and the Great Synagogue is reminiscent of an Islamic place of worship, due to its Moorish style.


The earthen-red stripes on its facade remind me of the extraordinary Mezquita mosque in Cordoba, Spain. Its dual towers evoke memories of the lofty minarets of Delhi's incredible Jama Masjid mosque.


The synagogue's interior is even more arresting.


Gentle light filters into its massive main hall through stained glass windows decorated by the Star of David, the famous symbol of Judaism which was used against the Jews by the Nazis.


During the latter part of World War II, hundreds of Jews lived in the synagogue at any time.


More than 2,000 of those who died in the ghetto were buried at the synagogue's cemetery. It is a daunting experience to read the names of the dead while wandering through the cemetery and the adjacent Holocaust Memorial Park. The centrepiece of this park is a metallic, willow-inspired sculpture engraved with names of Holocaust victims.


The Great Synagogue is an exhausting place to visit. It elicits emotional highs with its majesty, before the gravity of its history prompts deep sadness.


In this tumultuous state of mind, I wander to the nearby Rumbach Street Synagogue. It cuts a starkly contrasting figure. With walls marred by graffiti, wooden doors rotted by the elements and foundations losing the battle against time, it is a rundown structure.


I step inside to find it empty - void of both furniture and people. Unlike the busy and meticulously maintained Great Synagogue, this place has been largely forgotten. There is a solitary chair by a pile of debris. I pick it up, place it in the middle of the synagogue hall and take a rest.


Even in its state of disrepair, it remains gorgeous.


Particularly enchanting is its domed ceiling. From a central design shaped like a flower, the ceiling spreads in a glorious wave of symmetry and motifs. This ability to shine amid adversity, to remain bright in a dim situation, reflects the spirit of the Jewish people.


Here in Budapest, they were tortured by a heinous army. Yet, the mark the Jews have left on this city has an undeniable beauty.


• The writer is an Australian photojournalist who divides his time between Ireland and Thailand.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


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