In the garden of the Great Synagogue on Dohány Street in Budapest, a metal willow tree memorial weeps endlessly for the Holocaust dead. In another courtyard lie the remains of thousands of Jews who died in the ghetto during the terrible winter of 1944.
And yet, the synagogue is also a place of great beauty. It's twin 143-foot-tall domed towers may seem out of place for an Ashkenazic temple, but the Viennese architect responsible for it somehow managed to persuade his clients that this Sephardic vernacular design was right for them.
Completed in 1859, the synagogue provided a place of worship for what was then a thriving Jewish community that numbered in the tens of thousands. Designed to accommodate 3,000 worshippers, the Dohány Synagogue is the second-largest synagogue in the world (after Temple Emanu-El in New York City).
Though the building suffered many insults and injuries during and after World War II, it stands today in pristine condition thanks to recently completed restoration efforts spearheaded by Tony Curtis and Estée Lauder, Americans of Hungarian-Jewish ancestry.
You can feel the overwhelming proud history of this place in its walls. Climbing the stairs to the National Jewish Museum and Archives located alongside the museum, you come across a plaque dedicated to Theodor Herzl, the "father" of Zionism, who was born in a home near to the Dohány Synagogue, and later celebrated his Bar Mitzvah there. And the great Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt is among those who performed on the magnificent 5,000-tube organ.
In World War II, a fascist Hungary allied itself with Nazi Germany after Hitler promised to return Hungarian lands that had been lost following the previous world war. Despite this alliance, Hungarian ruler Miklós Horthy resisted German requests to deport and exterminate Hungary's Jews. It was only toward the end of the war, when Germany occupied Hungary, that most Hungarian Jews faced extreme danger.
In the countryside, the devastation was rapid and complete. More than 400,000 were shipped off to Auschwitz and other killing camps. In Budapest itself, bombings of train lines and the proximity of the Soviet army prevented the mass deportations.
Diplomats like Raoul Wallenberg worked feverishly to save the newly created Jewish ghetto from destruction.
The Wallenberg Monument
Our knowledgeable Budapest guide, Richard Bogdán, told us that when Adolf Eichmann asked the German army to attack the Jewish ghetto, Wallenberg visited the German general in his capacity as a representative of the Red Cross, and told the general he would be held personally accountable for any such assault. The general listened to Wallenberg, the result being that many of Budapest's Jews survived the war.
A monument to him lies covered in pebbles behind the synagogue — a substitute grave for the man who disappeared in the aftermath of the Soviet victory.
There are many other worthwhile sites in Budapest for a Jewish visitor. Indeed, a Jewish Summer Festival (www.jewishfestival.hu; switch the site to English by clicking on "EN" in the upper-right corner of the homepage) is celebrating its 10th jubilee, taking place in Budapest Aug. 25 to Sept. 9.
Meanwhile, up on the Castle Hill district lie the remains of a medieval synagogue, and in the Óbuda district that was once the site of a Roman settlement, another former synagogue is used today as a television studio.
The amazing Holocaust Memorial Center, funded by the Hungarian government, leaves a powerful impression. Opened in 2004, the center's designers won an architectural award for linking modern exhibit space with the beautiful and serene 1924 Páva Synagogue.
Many say that the best view of Budapest is from the Danube River, which winds its way between hilly Buda on the west bank and flat Pest to the east. You can see not only Budapest this way, but a whole host of central European cities by joining a weeklong river cruise, such as that offered by Avalon Waterways.
Just Cruising Along
My wife and I sailed last month with Avalon the "Waltzing the Danube" itinerary. The route began just outside of Budapest, and took us first to the town of Bratislava. Now the capital of Slovakia, Bratislava was once known as Pressburg, and was the site of a famous yeshiva established by Rabbi Moses Sofer at the start of the 19th century.
The Jewish community of Bratislava recently opened a memorial to Rabbi Sofer, also known as Chatam Sofer by the many Orthodox Jews, who venerate his memory and come to Bratislava to pray at his grave and pay their respects. (Trivia fans may also be interested to know that Chatam Sofer was featured on a 1995 Slovak stamp, issued just two years after the country gained its independence.)
The cruise's leisurely pace offered time to admire the bucolic scenery along the Danube. The forested banks rolled by, sometimes broken by sandy beaches where children splashed and frolicked. Through breaks in the trees, you could occasionally see bikers or hikers wending their way along paths.
At each stop, Avalon arranges a walking or bus tour, along with some free time or optional excursions. While time may be limited in small cities like Bratislava and other towns such as Melk (home of a beautiful hilltop monastery), a full day or more is provided in the main attractions of Vienna and Budapest.
Sometimes, the greatest pleasures of a river cruise are stops in ports that would have otherwise been passed by. Getting a deal on a basket of fresh strawberries in the German town of Passau, or sipping fresh peach juice and munching on fresh-from-the-oven garlic sticks (a better combination than it sounds!) while sitting on a bench overlooking the Danube in the Austrian town of Dürnstein can be so thoroughly rewarding.
To plan a trip to Budapest, call the Hungary National Tourist Office at 212-695-1221 or log on to: www.gotohungary.com. To book an Avalon Waterways cruise on the Danube, call 1-877-797-8791 or see: www.avalonwaterways.com.