“What’s so interesting about a synagogue?”

By Reuven Koret |

Keszthely is a quaint and prosperous town in the Zala district of Hungary, a couple of hours southwest of Budapest, on the cusp of serpentine lake Balaton. The city prides itself on its resplendent Festetics palace and an array of cultural museums.  The center of town features a pedestrian mall, Kossuth Lajos Street, where one can stroll and enjoy a cappuccino and pastry.

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22 Kossuth

Above Kossuth 22, there is a plaque commemorating the building as the birthplace of Karoly Goldmark, a renowned musician and composer of the Opera The Queen of Sheba, famously performed in the Vienna Opera House in 1875.

Below there is a graceful archway with a closed but unlocked brown wooden door. As you enter, on your right, a small sign explains the significance of the place or, at least, a perception of its significance. Under the title “A Petho-Haz” (“The Petho House”)

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“The 18th century edifice built in the place of the late medieval mansion show the original width of the street. The house decorated with baroque arches used to be in the possession of the Gersei-Petho family. Karoly Goldmark composer was born here in 1830. He became famous for his successful opera, ‘Queen of Saba.’

The synagogue standing in the back of the yard was built in the place of the little tabernacle in around 1780. It was purchased together with the Rabbi’s apartment by the religious communities in 1812. The synagogue gained its present eclectic form in 1894. A ‘Biblical garden’ completed in 2002 is situated in the yard, with the plants appearing in the Bible and a small replica of the lake of the Gennesaret (sic).”

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The misspelling of Lake Kinneret can be forgiven, perhaps. Perhaps there is a certain poetic license in the conflation of Kinneret and Gennosaur, a town of Biblical fame on those Galilean shores. But it is a bit more difficult the total omission of what happened in the past 75 years. Indeed, even the title of the sign belies the fact that the place was throughout the 19th and 20th centuries widely known as the Goldmark House, after the composer.  Missing, too, is the word Jew, or Jewish, to specify the “religious communities” that built the synagogue.

But most of all, missed is a description of what happened to the Jews of Keszthely in the spring and summer of 1944.

 

 

Through the archway there is a courtyard, with small residences toi3on the left and a larger structure with barred windows on the right.  At the far end of the courtyard is a fence and a locked gate.  The “synagouge” (sic) is closed.

Inside the gate you can see the façade of a stately building constructed as the town’s synagogue. Visible is a memorial on black stone.

But you can’t get in. A sign says that the place is open to the public just one hour each week, on late Friday afternoon.

If you look carefully just beyond you can see a black stone monument. From a distance the only thing readable is the number 829.

On the internet one can find photographs of the synagogue’s interior, and the unique Biblical garden in the back, with its replica of the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee in Israel.

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So my friend and I went back out into the street and sought another access point.  There had been a Jewish school, but that is gone. We circled the entire area, looking for an opening that would perhaps give a glimpse of the garden and a closer view of the synagogue’s back side. No luck: all passages were sealed, not a few protected by not too friendly barking dogs.

My friend spoke a bit of Hungarian and asked some residents and shopkeepers about the synagogue, and how to gain access to it, or visit it, or at least its resplendent garden with its Biblical plants and its replica of the Sea of Galilee. Nobody knew. Nobody seemed to know that there even was a synagogue.

Finally we came back around to TourInfo, a tourist information office just a block from the archway entrance on Kossuth Street . My friend, speaking in her native German, asked if there was a way to see the synagogue, or gain entrance to its grounds, at least to see its memorial garden.

The middle-aged woman said she knew of the place, but said curtly that there was no way to visit it.  We thanked her and, as we were leaving, she turned to her colleague and said in Hungarian: “What does she want? What is so interesting about a synagogue?” She did not suspect that Hungarian was the mother tongue of my friend. Her mother was sent to Auschwitz as a child of five, and survived.

In the first half of April 1944, 855 names of Jews in the Keszthely district were collected: 748 of them from the city, 107 from the surrounding areas. Within a month, all of the Jews from the district were moved to two ghettos in downtown Keszthely, an “upper” and a “lower” ghetto called Volt. The arched entrance to Goldmark House on Kossuth Street was closed up.  The gates to both ghettos opened onto Hajdú Street, today Bem, parallel to Kossuth.   This block was the holding pen for 800 “relocated” Jews, as life outside the square went cheerfully on for the other residents of Keszthely, some of whom would be the fortunate inheritors of Jewish-owned homes and property that had been “vacated.”

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By May 26 the supervisors of the ghettos had compiled the list of names of those inhabitants falling under their order. According to this register 768 persons were placed in Keszthely’s Ghetto Volt. 30 of the young men were deported to a labor camp in the city of Kõszeg on June 13. The remaining inhabitants of the upper and lower ghetto were brought to the neighboring town of Zalaegerszeg on June 20, placed in a brick factory on the outskirts of town. From there they were deported to Auschwitz on July 5.

The family of the famed Jewish composer from Keszthely may have been dispossessed of its home, the community’s synagogue and courtyard and homes transformed into a pen for Jews,  human beings trapped like rats. The city tried to make amends. At number 33 Goldmark Karoly street, named after the composer, you may find a gate that leads to a small Jewish cemetery.  There you will find the graves of Jews from before and after 1944. But you will find none of those 829 transported to Aushwitz on July 5, 1944.  That gate, too, was locked. To prevent the dead from escaping? Or to prevent more desecration by the descendants of their tormentors?

It would be incorrect to ignore the efforts to restore the synagogue, inside and out. Full renovation work started in 1993, and the synagogue was reconsecrated on July 7, 1995 in the presence of the President of the Republic and the Chief Rabbi of Hungary. Today, the names of the 829  Jews murdered are inscribed on 102 marble plates that hang around the inside perimeter of the synagogues.

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In 2014, the Budapest Festival Orchestra played a series of concerts inside synagogues, including Feszthely, bringing to life something of the joy that had been extinguished within these walls. And the small but determined Jewish community continues, and invites visitors to join in prayer on each Sabbath eve.

And yet it is strange that such intensive efforts are made to restore the physical structure of the synagogue while it remains locked except for one hour of the week. And where there is no mention, in the street or its archway, to mark the site of the internment of all the city’s Jews in the months prior to their annihilation.

On the first Sunday of July, each year, the remaining Jews of Keszthely, now less than 100 in number, hold a ceremony and memorial service for the members of its community deported to Auschwitz and murdered. This year, the 71st anniversary of their deportation, falls on July 5th.

For a few, at least, the event should be of interest.