As you travel, you never know where you will find stories of faith that will amaze you. Such was the case in Budapest. Hungary is predominantly a Roman Catholic country, and the largest church in Budapest is an amazing structure with an interesting history. St. Stephen's Basilica, named after the first king of Hungary who converted the Hungarians to Christianity, holds 8500 people.
Started in 1851, the church, built in a Neo-classical style, took over 5 decades to build. The dome of the church collapsed in 1868 and the church had to be rebuilt almost from scratch, but when completed it was definitely a stunning masterpiece.
The most sacred treasure of the church is the mummified right fist of St. Stephen which is on display in a side chapel in an ornate glass reliquary.
One of the most moving parts of our trip to Budapest was the time we spent in the Jewish Quarter, which has seen a tragic history, especially during the Holocaust period of this last century. Our tour started in the Dohány Street Synagogue, which is the second largest synagogue in the world, just behind Temple Israel in New York City. Today, the Jewish community stands strong, with around 100,000 Jews calling Budapest home. The Quarter is home to 20 synagogues and prayer houses, schools, restaurants, and a hospital.
The Dohány synagogue seats 3000 people and was built in 1859.
The wives, mothers and daughters assemble on the balcony level so that the men can worship without distraction.
At the beginning of WW II, some 240,000 Jews made their home in this area with 125 active synagogues, but all that was to change, when in 1944, the Germans installed a Hungarian Fascist party, the Arrow Cross Party, who set up a reign of terror. Over half of the Budapest Jews were lost in the last year of the war.
In the Garden of Remembrance, some 2281 people are buried in 24 mass graves right beside the synagogue, even though this was against Jewish law to be buried so close, but there was no other option at the time. The synagogue served as a detention center for many. As many as 20,000 Jews met their death when they were forced to march to the edge of the Danube River, and then shot and thrown into the river. Tens of thousands were assembled to go on death marches to concentration camps. Thousands died on the march, either from being shot or from starvation.
The remaining Jews left behind were gathered into an area called the Jewish Ghetto and enclosed by makeshift walls to contain them, where they suffered horrible conditions, lack of any medical care, insufficient food and frigid winter weather. 100, 000 people lived in these appalling conditions until liberated by the Soviets in January of 1945.
In the gardens behind the synagogue stands a metal weeping willow tree, a memorial to the 600,000 Hungarian Jews killed at this time. American actor, Tony Curtis, of Hungarian-Jewish descent, founded the Emanuel Foundation which restores Hungarian synagogues, and their group erected this memorial. The silver and stainless steel sculpture also represents an upside down menorah.
The names of victims are engraved on each of the leaves and remain as a chilling reminder of how wrong things can go when a society goes so far astray.
We stood in silence and respect as the truth of the story made its way into our hearts. The Hebrew inscription on the black granite archway sums up their loss,
"Is there a bigger pain than mine?"
A sober and moving memorial to so many lives wasted.