Where Past and Present Meet: The Jewish Quarter in Budapest

The Jewish quarter in Budapest is one of the most vibrant parts of the city. It is situated in Elizabethtown, which is the 7th district of the capital. The historic Jewish quarter contains the largest synagogue of Europe, the Dohány Street Synagogue and two other beautiful synagogues on Rumbach Sebestyén and Kazinczy Street respectively. It is a place, where past and present meet. Today in the cool shadows of the synagogues there are cafés, restaurants, kosher bakeries, sweet small shops, and fashionable ruin bars. The quarter is also the center of Jewish religious life, on the streets rabbis and their students walk under the shadows of young, lean trees. The quarter saw many of its residents perish during the Holocaust when it functioned as a ghetto. The quarter’s newfound popularity is the reminder that new life can blossom even in places which once witnessed unimaginable sorrow.

The Ghetto

A small and insignificant looking wall stands in the backyard of a building on Király Street. It is the last standing part of the ghetto wall that was built in the autumn of 1944. More than 40,000 Jews were forced to move next to the approximately 30,000 already living there. The city had to move 10,000 non-Jewish residents out. It was overcrowded, without enough food, and was constantly raided by Hungarian Arrow Cross Party soldiers. Many were dragged out and shot into the cold and dark waters of the Danube River. It only stood for a few months but 3000 dead bodies were found inside after it was liberated by the Soviets. The last reminder of the ghetto was destroyed by a construction business but after public outrage, it was rebuilt. The walls of the buildings in the Jewish quarter once echoed the voices of those betrayed by their own government and their own nation. If a visitor walks down one of the narrow and sometimes crooked streets and looks up, he can see the same chunk of blue-grey sky that those trapped in the ghetto once saw.

Religious Life

The quarter is the center of Jewish religious life. There are two still operating synagogues in the district and there are also prayer rooms and schools. The biggest and most famous synagogue is the Moorish Revival style Dohány Street Synagogue. It was designed by Ludwig Förster an architect from Vienna and was officially opened in 1859. The building gives a home to the neolog Jewish community, and its complex houses the Jewish Museum which was built on the site where the famous Zionist Theodore Herzl birthplace had stood. The beautiful building can be seen from the windows of the yellow trams that travel through Károly Boulevard. In the garden lies a mass grave of 2000 people. They were swiftly buried after the liberation in a makeshift cemetery against Jewish customs. To honor those who died unnecessary deaths a weeping willow sculpture stands in the garden. The park is named after Raoul Wallenberg the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews during the darkest hours the city of Budapest has ever seen.

Night Life

Nowadays the Jewish district is not only a religious center but also the party district of the city. In 1901 an eccentric Romanian lawyer ordered in his will that a building complex containing 7 buildings were to be built. Today these 7 buildings and their courtyards are called Gozsdu udvar. It is filled with exotic cafés and restaurants, design shops and showrooms. The old imposing stone gate opens to a passageway that goes through all of the courtyards. During the summer the courtyards are filled with sunshine and when the holiday season comes the passageway dresses up in Christmas decorations. The Jewish quarter is also home to several ruin bars, the most famous and most popular being Szimpla Kert on Kazinczy Street. The interior is ever-changing, it has many rooms filled with surprising designs, it has an open-air cinema, there is even a piano the visitors can play on, an upper garden of house plants and there are also cocktail bars, and dance floors. Kazinczy the street that houses Szimpla is the home of several other ruin bars and restaurants. It has Kőleves a restaurant with a romantically leafy backyard and Kazimir Bistro where the visitors are transported to a nice little clean town far away from the noises of the big city. These restaurants are situated near the orthodox Kazinczy Street Synagogue which illustrates how the past and the present live together in the Jewish quarter.

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Photo credit Mate Ladjanszki

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