A few passersby were already there, with heads up to the heavens and gaping at the grand basilica. As for me, I just happened upon Dohany Street Synagogue during an evening stroll to the Jewish Quarter, now a hip part of Budapest and home to many of the city’s popular ruin pubs.
The next day, I arrived at the Moorish-romantic synagogue on purpose. The second-largest Jewish temple in the world, “The Great Synagogue” demands attention for its formidable size, but also for its ornamentation — a rarity in the architecture of synagogues. I marveled at its Gothic windows, arches and patterned brickwork, and stood in a queue before entering.
Built in 1859 and designed by Viennese architect Ludwig Forster, the synagogue features two balconies and enough pews to accommodate 3,000 people. It’s clear that the Hungarian Jewish community was thriving during this time; the grandeur of the interior is a match to the splendor of the facade, which features vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, a large organ once played by Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, beautiful tile and ironwork and a gilded ark.
With the special space committed to memory, I headed to the outdoor garden parallel to the temple for a breath of fresh air. That’s when I noticed the signs posted on the archways framing the gardens. One noted that more than 2,200 Jews were buried in 24 mass graves right in front me. It wasn’t a garden — it was a cemetery.
In the same complex as the synagogue is the smaller Heroes’ Temple and the Jewish Museum, which was reconstructed last year. Amid antique Judaica and Jewish contemporary art, there are precious artifacts from World War II.
One was a yellowed letter from a Hungarian Jew named Jeno Reich, written in 1944, months before the end of the war. On a freight car heading to Auschwitz, Reich threw the note to the ground in hopes that it would reach his family. He died at the concentration camp, but somehow his wife received his message, which would go on to play an important role during the Eichmann trial. It’s not clear if she stumbled on the note, like I had with Dohany Street Synagogue.
One thing is clear to me, though: I’ll remember this synogogue not just for its grandeur and tragedy, but for its small miracles too.