Treasures of The Jewish Budapest
From the castle of Buda to Zugló and Kispest we can find several traces left behind by Hungarian Jews, who have been living here for centuries.
When, on the occasion of the Jewish New Year, I began to write this post, I realized it’s impossible to pick one single street or district which represents Jewish Budapest. Talking about German, Slovak, Serbian or Hungarian Budapest the conclusion is the same. The Jewish population has always been living together with the rest of the inhabitants on different locations in Buda, Pest or Óbuda.
Thus by the end of the 19th century the multinational and multireligious city became like an alluring tapestry woven of several radiant strings, in which different colours and textures make up unique, captivating patterns.
Writing this post my aim was, on the one hand, to draw a general picture of Jewish Budapest, and, on the other hand, to list all the landmarks and locations which I would definitely show a foreign tourist.
I recommend three walks in the city: firstly, the route between Király street, Kazinczy street and Dohány street, secondly, a short journey to Thököly road, and, thirdly, a stroll in Újlipótváros and Buda to the Castle.
First walk: from the street most typical of Pest to the synagogue in Dohány street
If you visit Budapest, it’s definitely worth taking a walk on one of the busiest streets in the city, Király street. Once an accomodation road, in the 18th century it was converted into a bustling street.
Around 1870 the narrow street, teeming with shops, warehouses, bars and blocks of flats, had approximately 7600 inhabitants. This time a number of halls where available here, many of which were infamous as a joint. One of them was the Blue Cat (its jiddish name was Blaue Katze or Blaue Katz), which entertained its audience with vaudevilles. Hungarian writers and journalists often dismissed it as a dishonourable place.
Blue Cat was internationally famed: according to the urban legend the forthcoming King Edward VII also visited the place as a young crown prince and fell in love with the soubrette. The romance ended after the intervention of Edward’s mother, Queen Victoria. Other noble descendants also made an appearance in the bar: Bismack’s son was, allegedly, once seen naked and drunk in the audience.
The building, which now houses a bistro, is also reminiscent of tragic events. From June 1944 people labelled as Jews were forced to live in the so-called ʽstarred houses’. After the coup d’état of the Arrow Cross Party 40.000 people were deported into the ghetto, which was created here in the 7th district. On 10 December 1944 the area was cut off from the outside world with a wooden fence, with only four exits left. Many died of cold, starvation and disease. After the war the last contiguous piece of the previous ghetto wall stood behind the former Blue Cat in the yard. Now there’s a memorial place.
Kiraly Street 100 Years Ago
Kiraly Street Now
Another landmark of the street is Gozsdu house. The building complex was erected in 1901, fulfilling the final wishes of the Budapest-based Romanian lawyer, politician and patron of art, Emanoil Gozsdu. It was planned by Győző Czigler, who aimed to create an extraordinary home. Gozsdu House is a complex in which several yards are surrounded by the buildings and a closed promenade between the buildings connects Király street and Dob street. During the war these buildings also became parts of Pest ghetto. Nowadays frequented cafés, restaurants, pubs and bars can be found in the yards.
Kazinczy street, which crosses Király street, also boasts with some exquisite sights. Right on the corner you can see Wichmann house, where Tamás Wichmann, Hungarian canoe world champion and European champion was running a legendary pub (which was closed this June) for thirty years. The building itself is also noteworthy: the card painter Joseph Schneider bought it in 1834 and here he invented and began to produce the Hungarian playing-card deck of 36 pieces, the predecessor of the deck now in use. He is honoured by the plaque with a card on the wall of the building. In 1869 the house was bought by Mór Rothauser, who built an additional floor on it and also expanded the house toward the yard. In 1906 the spiritual group Hungarian Theosophical Society moved in.
The Theosophical Society made a gate decorated with symbols, which can also be seen today. The two snakes opposing each other and biting their own tails symbolize circulation and eternity. The snake embraces two interlaced equilateral triangles known today as the Star of David, which contains an ankh. The latter is an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph, which became the symbol of life. Above them, on both wings of the gate, a swastika can be seen. It used to be one of the fundamental symbols of humanity until it was expropriated by Nazi Germany. Originally it stood for the circulation of time, the power to create and to move, as well as the wheel.
The Wittmann House
Kazincy St. has another eye-catching landmark: the orthodox synagogue, planned by the Löffler brothers. The building, which presents the characteristics of the Lechner Secession and the late Secession in Vienna at the same time, was completed in 1913.
If you wish to dine out, in Kazinczy street you are spoiled for choice. For example, I often visit Kazimir Restaurant for cultural events or for a nice meal. I am also fond of Soul Food because of their unique menu: they run Louisiana Cajun cuisine, attracting tourists from all over the world. The pioneer of Budapest ʽruin pubs’, Szimpla garden – which was, a couple of years ago, elected by the Lonely Planet audience as one of the best bars in the world – is also found in Kazinczy street.
Kazinczy Street Synagogue in 1952 and in 1989
Kazinczy Street Synagogue Now
It’s worth walking on to Dohány street, since one of the most awe-inspiring churches in Budapest is located here: the Great Synagogue with the Heroes’ Temple, the graveyard, the Holocaust Memorial and the Jewish Museum. The sublime synagogue was planned by the Viennese architect, Ludwig Förster. It was built between 1854 and 1859 in Romantic style with elements of the Moorish Revival, of yellow and red bricks, with ceramic decorations on the facade.
The Jewish cemetery, which can be found in the yard of the synagogue, is of special interest. Originally it was an area covered in grass. Jews usually don’t locate cemeteries next to synagogues. This one had to be created in order to bury the people who died in the sealed ghetto from starvation, cold or the cruel deeds of the Nazis. And, since Jewish religion prohibits the exhumation of the dead, the cemetery was left here.
In the nearby park stands the movingly beautiful memorial of the Hungarian Jewish martyrs, the internationally renowned willow. Its construction was funded by the Emanuel Foundation, founded by Tony Curtis. The memorial forms a weeping willow with the names of the martyrs engraved on its leaves.
Dohany Street Synagogue in 1942 and in 1945
Dohany Street Synagogue Now
Second walk: Jewish memories near Thököly road
If you walk along the now neglected and dirty, but originally captivating buildings of Thököly road from Keleti railway station, not far from the corner of Dózsa György road and Thököly road you can witness a virtual kind of magic.
The tenement house at 46 Thököly road, renowned for its ʽMatyó’ folk art motives and wrought iron gang with wings of a butterfly, was designed by István Nagy for the insurance superintendent Mór Szenes and his wife Regina Stern in 1905. On the lower part of the building a wine cellar and an inn was planned, but instead the Civic Casino of the 7th district, led by Szenes, moved in. A couple of years later the owner sold the building to a countess, and continued to live there as a tenant, but the house still preserved his name until nowadays.
A stone’s throw away, in Cházár András street you can find ELTE Radnóti Miklós Secondary Training School. Originally it was built for the Israelite Religious Community of Pest, based on plans by Béla Lajta, Ármin Hegedűs and Henrik Bőhm. Since the construction was protracted, Béla Lajta died by the time of the handover. Education at the school began in 1923. The synagogue was completed in 1927, and the complex was finalised in 1931. Until 1942 it housed the secondary grammar school for girls and boys, afterwards it was converted into labour service camp and a ghetto house.
The memorial plaque of captain László Ocskay was appended onto the wall of the school in the 1990s. The officer, often referred to as the ʽHungarian Schindler’, saved thousands of Jews during the Nazi occupation. When research brought his exploits into the light, he was posthumously bestowed the title of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
ELTE Radnóti Miklós Secondary Training School
Walking on we come across the synagogue of Zugló, which was damaged by fire in 2016. Originally a villa on Thököly road, it was rebuilt into an orthodox synagogue in the early 20th century. During the war the Arrow Cross Party brought Jews here to be murdered, that’s why, sadly, the building also functions as a martyr memorial place. Before the war there were five synagogues in Zugló. Three of them survived the war, but, since the number of believers was reduced dramatically, the religiuous community used only the Thököly road building.
Not far, at number 69 Slachta house is located, which was the motherhouse of Sisters of Social Service. The Sisters were sheltering Jews and other persecuted people here in 1944.
Third walk: Újlipótváros-Lipótváros and Buda
Újlipótváros is a special place: its buildings were constructed in the 1920s and ʽ30s. During the Nazi occupation several houses were starred. The Arrow Cross party police ordered several people also from this district to the bank of the Danube, to murder them. Many tried to prevent these horrific murders either in an official or in an unofficial way. One of them, Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, saved the lives of thousands of Jews by, among others, issuing protective passports. After the invasion of the Soviet troops in 1945 a Russian major took him. Nobody saw him anymore and up to this day his fate and demise is unclear. His memorial statue is erected in Szent István park. In Lipótváros, on the Danube Promenade near the Parliament we can see an extraordinary memorial consisting of statues forming empty shoes.
From Újlipótváros it’s worth crossing the Margaret Bridge to Buda and going to Óbuda, to Lajos street. Here we can find the amazing Óbuda Synagogue, built in Greek Revival style. Jews are believed to have lived in this area even during the Roman reign, in the third and fourth centuries AD, in Aquincum (which now belongs to Óbuda). In the early 18th century they settled in Óbuda with the permission and support of the Zichy family.
The recent Óbuda synagogue was built between 1820 and 1821 using the foundation walls of the previous building. This is the oldest, still functioning Jewish house of prayer in Budapest. During the Holocaust most Óbuda Jews were killed. They are commemorated on a plaque on the wall of the synagogue.
Another interesting building is located near Komjádi swimming pool. At first sight, the tenement house at 49 Frankel Leó street does not stand out from the surrounding houses, but the internal yard hides a synagogue. The small Neo-Gothic temple is surrounded by the tenement house in a U shape, so it can only be seen from the Danube. Its function is marked by a Star of David decorating the facade.
Few people know that in Buda Castle and the area below Jews have been living since the Middle Ages. In the 1960s during the excavation of an old dwelling house the remains of a 16th, 17th century synagogue were revealed in Táncsics street. Visitors can see the Medieval Jewish chapel from Wednesday to Sunday between 10 AM and 5 PM.