Jewish Heritage Along the Danube
As the taxi sped from the Budapest airport through an industrial stretch before reaching grand boulevards in the city center, I had an East-meets-West moment. With its ornate Baroque buildings and sprawling neo-Gothic Parliament, Budapest was clearly the architectural equal of the great capitals of Western Europe. Yet something felt different about this land.
It wasn’t because our driver was gesticulating enthusiastically with both hands as he told my husband and me about his city. Or that we had sidestepped concerns about the ongoing war in Ukraine, whose border was less than 200 miles away. Or that we had reservations about Hungarian right-wing politics and antisemitism.
To meet up with our seven-night lower Danube River cruise, we had crossed the former Iron Curtain. Flowing from Germany’s Black Forest to the Black Sea, the Danube traverses or borders 10 countries. Beginning in Hungary, we would move east into countries that for decades had experienced Communist rule.
For a host of logistical and practical reasons, we weren’t likely to travel to Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania on our own. Each country has its own currency and language. Such an itinerary involves numerous border crossings with strict passport checkpoints. The journey would have been arduous by car and inaccessible by train.
But all those challenges were smoothed over by the eager-to-please crew of our AmaWaterways “Gems of Southeast Europe” cruise. Because we booked the trip through Brandeis Travelers, a program of Brandeis University, our small group gained Jewish historical and political context from Professor Emeritus Antony Polonsky, an expert in Holocaust studies, as well as guided visits to Jewish sights. (Similar itineraries are served by several major cruise companies, including Uniworld and its Delightful Danube sailings.)
We began our journey on solid ground a day before embarkation, giving us time to explore Budapest. With a few hours on our own, we rode the funicular up the steep hill of the Castle District on the Buda side of the Danube and wandered down a narrow road in search of the Medieval Jewish Prayer House.
We passed it, then doubled back. From the outside, the two-room prayer house resembles its neighboring buildings, marked only by a small sign. We had to rap on the entrance, a barnlike door reinforced with iron bars in a menorah-like design, to gain admittance.
Inside the dim entryway, to the left, Hebrew gravestones from the Middle Ages have been arranged on concrete slabs. In the low-ceilinged room where minyans once gathered, we saw crude, ruddy markings drawn overhead: a bow and arrow pointing toward heaven with a prayer for strength against mighty foes and a Star of David marked with the priestly blessing. Once used as a sanctuary by Sephardi Jews fleeing persecution in the late 15th century, the structure dates back further, to the 14th century, when it was originally built and used by Ashkenazim.
As either a museum or chapel, this was a curious place—spartan compared to Budapest’s gold-plated Pava Street Synagogue and the Moorish-style Dohany Street Synagogue, the largest Jewish house of worship in Europe and a top tourist destination.
But this medieval prayer house embodies Jewish life in southeast Europe: once vibrant but now receding, imperiled but somehow resilient. In our cruise through the Balkans and the Iron Gates—a gorge between Serbia and Romania—we would encounter this reality again and again as we witnessed the beauty and pain of this region.
“The Danube was one of the great European frontiers,” Polonsky, the professor, would later explain on-
board. It marked a religious divide—the Catholics of Croatia on one bank, the Eastern Orthodox of Serbia on the other—that was a backdrop to the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s.
When Yugoslavia broke apart, Serbian forces targeted the predominantly Muslim population of Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as its Catholic Croats in a bloody campaign of “ethnic cleansing.” (Islam had been brought to the Balkans centuries earlier by the encroaching Ottoman Empire.) In these contested lands, religious loyalties were entwined with national identity, and Jews, who numbered around 5,000 in 1991 at the start of Yugoslavia’s disbanding, historically led a precarious existence.
While the Holocaust extinguished entire Jewish communities in Europe, we saw the broad arc of a Jewish
presence both before and after in Budapest. Before Hungary joined the Axis powers in 1941, Budapest’s Jewish population stood at 200,000. The population in Greater Hungary, including territories such as Transylvania that were ceded to the country after their allegiance to Germany, exceeded 725,000. By the time of liberation in 1945, some 565,000 Jews had been murdered.
Today, Budapest’s Jewish population is estimated at 100,000, and there are five kosher restaurants in Pest’s old Jewish quarter, an area that has reinvented itself as an entertainment district known for its “ruin bars.”
The old stone wall and high fence that surrounded Pest’s ghetto beginning in December 1944 are gone, but the vertical concrete slabs of the Ghetto Wall Memorial mark that dark time and display a timeline of the tragedy that befell the area’s Jews. In the same vicinity, in-ground brass plaques known as Stolpersteine, or stumbling stones, honor Jewish residents who were persecuted, deported and killed during the Holocaust.
Also in Pest, adjoining the Pava Street Synagogue, visitors will encounter the Tower of Lost Communities in the courtyard of the Holocaust Memorial Center. The Tower installation features panes of glass etched with the names of the 1,441 Hungarian towns and villages where Jewish life ceased to exist.
We set sail before sunset on a Monday evening and were still in Hungary when we awoke, in Pecs, a storied city that offers visual examples of both religious turmoil and tolerance. Indeed, a mosque, cathedral and synagogue stand within a short radius.
As we walked past the remnants of the medieval city wall, we stepped into Szechenyi Square and stood before the Downtown Candlemas Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, an unusual-looking cathedral with a round stone exterior and green dome. It was previously the Mosque of Pasha Qasim, built by the Ottomans in the 1500s, before the conquering Hapsburgs replaced the minaret with a bell. A short walk from the square, the Jakovali Hassan Mosque, also dating to the Ottoman era, is still in use.
Nearby, the peach-colored façade of the Pecs Synagogue features arches and, above a large clock, an inscription from Isaiah in Hebrew: “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” The tablets of Moses crown the top of the building.
Pecs’ Jewish community numbered almost 3,500 prior to the Holocaust. The last date that the synagogue was fully packed for services was May 8th, 1944. The next day, the Jewish people were sent to ghettoes, Tibor Kaufmann, the synagogue’s caretaker, told us through an interpreter.
“And all of them were deported to Auschwitz in the first week of July,” he added. “Out of the people sent to the concentration camps, approximately 10 percent returned.”
The congregation today has about 70 members.
We heard a similar story when we disembarked in Novi Sad, Serbia, and when we saw the tarp-covered synagogue under renovation in Vidin, Bulgaria. While most of Vidin’s Jews moved to Israel decades ago, in 2003, a group of them erected a white stone memorial in a city center park to thank their former neighbors for protecting them during the war.
In Belgrade, now home to around 2,000 Jews, we wandered through Sukkat Shalom Synagogue. Outside
a nearby Jewish cultural center in the onetime Jewish quarter, flyers advertised a Sephardi music festival,
just one sign of the resilience of Jewish culture despite the community’s dwindling numbers. Another example is the 144-year-old Serbian Jewish Singing Society, today known as the Baruch Brothers Choir, which still holds annual concerts. And 2023 marks the fourth year of a local Jewish film festival.
We sailed on between Serbia and Romania, climbing to the top sundeck to view cliffs rising on both shores, majestic and impenetrable. Our cellphone clocks shifted between the countries’ different time zones, giving us the sense that we were somehow suspended from ordinary time.
Later that night, our group of 13 Brandeis Travelers squeezed around a table for a Shabbat meal. The ship’s hotel manager, a jovial Bulgarian named Zhivko Georgiev, brought out electric candles—no flames allowed onboard—and presented us with a picture-perfect challah courtesy of the chef.
As we recited the Kiddush, it felt like more than a blessing. It became an anthem, or, to borrow from Hanukkah, a rededication to our own Jewish heritage and to the endurance of Jewish communities around the world.
Most Danube cruise itineraries feature a stop in Budapest, where the river slices through the city, with Buda on the West and Pest on the East. On the shores of Buda looms the massive Buda Castle complex, which includes, among other sights, the Budapest History Museum, the Hungarian National Gallery and the Castle Museum. The Medieval Jewish Prayer House, also part of the Castle District, is a short walk away. If you feel fit enough to climb 197 narrow steps in the bell tower of the neo-Gothic Matthias Church, you’ll be rewarded with a panoramic view of the city. You can also get stunning views of the Pest side of the city from the fortress-like Fisherman’s Bastion.
One of Budapest’s most emotionally arresting sights is The Shoes on the Danube Promenade Memorial, along the Pest-side riverbank near Parliament. Sixty pairs of cast-iron work boots, women’s pumps and small children’s lace-ups are scattered in a row. The rusting shoes represent the Jewish men, women and children who were lined up and shot into the river by the Hungarian Arrow Cross militia in 1944 and 1945 after they had removed their shoes, which were then reused. Visitors leave stones or candles in remembrance.
The Dohany Street Synagogue, a Moorish-style edifice and UNESCO World Heritage Site, anchors the old Jewish quarter in Pest. The largest in Europe, the synagogue was built in the 1850s by a Neolog congregation—a Hungarian Reform group that favored speaking Hungarian rather than Yiddish. Thanks to a renovation completed in 1996, the interior was restored to its gilded glory, with soaring arches, intricately painted geometric ceiling, chandeliers featuring glass globes and a pipe organ. The synagogue is open for tours Sunday through Friday and for services on Shabbat and the High Holidays.
The synagogue grounds encompass several other buildings and spaces. The Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park honors Holocaust victims and Righteous Gentiles, including Swedish diplomat Wallenberg. The metal leaves of the park’s weeping willow Tree of Life sculpture are engraved with names of Hungarian Holocaust victims. The collections of the onsite Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives range from Judaica and artifacts to one of the largest community archives in Europe.
The Pecs Synagogue, also built by a Neolog group, was completed in 1869. Small onion domes give the exterior a Moorish look, and the striking rose-colored interior is adorned with delicately stenciled designs and carved oak panels that frame the women’s galleries. The sanctuary still has its original organ built by master organ designer Jozsef Angster. But a net hanging from far above reveals the financial struggles; there’s not enough money for a full renovation and the ceiling is crumbling. The synagogue is open to visitors every day but Saturday. In the women’s gallery, peruse a small exhibit on the history of Jewish life in Pecs. Shabbat services are held in a community center next door.
NOVI SAD, SERBIA
The glorious Art Nouveau Novi Sad Synagogue features a 130-foot-high dome and design elements reminiscent of a medieval church. It is now used mostly as a concert venue, though the city’s small Jewish community holds High Holiday services there.
On the banks of the Danube, a monument known as both the Raid Victims’ Memorial and The Family—13-foot-high bronze figures of a man, woman and child—commemorates the January 1942 massacre in which Hungarian police and soldiers shot thousands of Jews, Serbs and Roma and pushed their bodies into the river.
Sukkat Shalom, consecrated in 1929, is the only synagogue in Belgrade to survive World War II (the Nazis had turned it into a brothel). Today, it is the only functioning synagogue in Serbia’s capital. Its gray stone exterior features a large Magen David in its gable above rows of arched windows. Inside, white columns flank the ark, but the sanctuary lacks the grandeur of some of the other ornate, renovated synagogues of the region.
Created in 1948, the small Jewish Historical Museum, housed in the Jewish community center about a 10-minute walk from the synagogue, recounts through ritual objects, documents and photographs the story of Serbian Jewry from Roman times to postwar Yugoslavia. (It hasn’t been updated to mark the end of
In the city’s Sephardi cemetery, which is still in use and far larger than the Ashkenazi burial ground, the Jewish community of Belgrade erected the Monument to the Jewish Victims of Fascism in 1952. Two wing-like stone walls more than 30 feet high flank a pathway that incorporates pieces of rubble and broken gravestones from the old Jewish neighborhood, which was destroyed in the war. An iron menorah rests on a pedestal at the end of the pathway.
For decades, Vidin’s synagogue, built in 1894 in a neo-Gothic style, was a roofless, decaying hull, abandoned after failed renovation efforts. With an infusion of European Regional Development funds, the synagogue is now being restored as a cultural center and museum.
It takes over an hour to drive from the Danube port city of Giurgiu to Bucharest, but it’s worth the detour. Bucharest was dubbed the “Little Paris of the East” at the turn of the 20th century, and that nickname still seems apt, if somewhat exaggerated. The city boasts fine examples of neoclassical and Baroque architecture, dozens of downtown fountains and the Arcul de Triumf (triumphal arch) on Kiseleff Road. Romania has refurbished a sizable portion of its Old Town, which is abuzz with outdoor cafes and shops.
Today home to just over 10,000 Jews, Bucharest also boasts significant Jewish heritage sights all within easy walking distance. The Great Synagogue on Adamache Street presents a somewhat plain yellow stucco exterior to passersby, but inside, the rococo-style sanctuary dazzles with an intricately painted vaulted ceiling and rich details such as gilded candelabras and chandeliers. The oldest extant synagogue in the city, it houses an exhibit on the Holocaust in Romania featuring photos, documents and written testimonials that describe the persecution and extermination of Jewish life in Romania.
The Dr. Moses Rosen Museum of Jewish History in Romania, named for the city’s chief rabbi from 1964 to 1994, is located at the Holy Union Temple, built in the Moorish-style in 1864 and funded by the wealthy Jewish Tailor’s guild.
The Choral Temple, which holds daily services in a small chapel, was designed to resemble Vienna’s Leopoldstadter Tempel, a beautiful synagogue in Moorish revival style that was destroyed during Kristallnacht. After the fall of Communism, the Romanian Jewish community erected a monument to victims of the Holocaust in front of the synagogue.
Michele Cohen Marill is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta. Her work has appeared in Tablet, Atlanta magazine, Wired.com and many other publications.