With the capacity of nearly 3000 seats, the Dohány Street Synagogue is the largest synagogue in Europe and the fifth largest in the world. It was built between 1854 and 1859 in the Moorish Revival style, with the decoration based chiefly on Islamic models from North Africa and mediaeval Spain (the Alhambra).
The Dohány Street Synagogue complex consists of the Great Synagogue, the Heroes’ Temple, the graveyard, the Holocaust memorial and the Jewish Museum, which was built on the site on which Theodore Herzl’s house of birth once stood. Dohány Street itself, a leafy street in the city centre, carries strong Holocaust connotations as it constituted the border of the Budapest Ghetto.
The monumental synagogue was built in a residential area between 1854 and 1859 by the Neolog Jewish community of Pest according to the plans by Ludwig Förster. It was consecrated soon after, on 6 September 1859.
The synagogue was bombed by the Hungarian pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party on 3 February 1939. Used as a base for German Radio and also as a stable during World War II, the building suffered severe damage from aerial raids during the Nazi occupation but especially during the siege of Budapest. During the communist era the damaged structure again became a prayer house for the much diminished Jewish community. Its restoration started in 1991 and ended in 1998. The restoration was financed by the state and by private donations.
The synagogue is 75 metres long and 27 metres wide. It is done in the Moorish Revival style, but the design also features a mixture of Byzantine, Romantic and Gothic elements. Two onion-shaped domes sit on the twin octagonal towers at the height of 43 metres. There is also a rose stained glass window over the main entrance.
Similarly to basilicas, the building consists of three spacious, richly decorated aisles, two balconies and, unusually for a synagogue, an organ. Its ark contains various Torah scrolls taken from synagogues that were destroyed during the Holocaust. The famous Hungarian romantic architect, Frigyes Feszl, produced the frescoes, done in coloured and golden geometric shapes. A single span cast iron supports the 12-metre-wide nave. The seats on the ground floor are for men, while the upper gallery, supported by steel ornamented poles, has seats for women.
The Jewish Museum was built in 1930 in accordance with the synagogue’s architectural style and attached to the main building in 1931. It the collection of religious relics of the Pest Hevrah Kaddishah (Jewish Burial Society), as well as ritual objects used during Shabbat and the High Holidays. A separate room is dedicated to the Holocaust.
In the backyard of the Heroes’ Temple, enclosed by the Jewish Museum and the Dohány Street Synagogue there is a Jewish cemetery. According to Jewish traditions, cemeteries cannot be located on the premises of the house of prayer. This graveyard, however, is a result of tragic historical events during World War II.
In 1944, the Dohány Street Synagogue was part of the Jewish Ghetto and served as shelter for a lot of people. The cemetery in the courtyard of the synagogue holds the remains of over 2,000 people who died in the ghetto from hunger and cold during the winter 1944-1945.
The Raoul Wallenberg memory park in the rear courtyard holds the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyr. During the Holocaust 400,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered by Nazis. The memorial resembles a weeping willow whose leaves bear inscriptions with the names of victims. There is also a memorial to Wallenberg and other Righteous Among the Nations.
Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish architect, businessman, diplomat and humanitarian. He is widely celebrated for his successful efforts to rescue tens of thousands to about one hundred thousand Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary from Hungarian Fascists and the Nazis during the later stages of World War II. While serving as Sweden’s special envoy in Budapest between July and December 1944, Wallenberg issued protective passports and sheltered Jews in buildings designated as Swedish territory, saving tens of thousands of lives.