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RELIGION : 130-Year-Old Building : Curtis Helps Restore Budapest Synagogue

April 02, 1988|COLIN McINTYRE | Reuters

BUDAPEST — With the help of film star Tony Curtis and a $2-million tree, Hungarian Jews are trying to restore Europe's largest synagogue in Budapest.

Work on repairing the huge 130-year-old building in the former Jewish quarter, weakened by World War II bombs, neglect and the last three severe winters, has already begun with a $5-million contribution from the Hungarian government.

But the 60,000-member community--a shadow of its prewar strength of 800,000--hopes that most of the $20 million needed will come from abroad, particularly the United States.

Curtis, whose father was born in Budapest, heads the Emanual Foundation set up last month in the United States to publicize and seek money for the restoration.

For their own fund-raising drive, Hungarian Jews have commissioned well-known sculptor Imre Vargas to design a tree with 40,000 metal leaves, each of which will bear the name of a person who died in Hitler's concentration camps.

For a minimum of $50 per inscribed leaf, Jews living abroad will be able to leave a permanent reminder of friends or relatives who perished in the Holocaust.

"Of course, if anyone offers us $5,000 for a leaf, we are not going to say no," Chief Rabbi Alfred Schoener told visiting foreign journalists.

The trunk of the sculpted 11-foot-high willow tree, to be shaped like a traditional Jewish seven-branched candlestick, or menorah, will carry the Ten Commandments "as a reminder that they were not respected during World War II," Schoener said.

Lack of Maintenance

Schoener admitted that the community had partly itself to blame for the deterioration of the complex, which also contains a museum, a smaller synagogue and a cemetery.

"If the synagogue had been maintained every year, it would not be in the state it is now. However most of the deterioration came in the last three years, when snow got in and caused cracks."

The foundation stone of the Oriental-style synagogue was laid in 1854. This was 10 years after a royal concession for the first time allowed the Jewish community, whose members until then had been prohibited from purchasing real estate, to buy two plots of land.

The synagogue, whose construction of brick on a cast iron frame was revolutionary for the time, has a seating capacity of 3,500, but according to Schoener there are usually at least 5,000 in the congregation on Jewish holidays.

Until restoration is completed, around 1,000 seats in an upper section of the building have had to be closed, a blow to the community's efforts to raise funds by selling tickets for concerts of Jewish religious music, particularly during Budapest's popular spring cultural festival.

Schoener said it is impossible to say exactly how many Jews live in Hungary, since they are not required by law to declare their religion.

"There are 60,000 who pay taxes to the community or are known to us, but the real figure could be 100,000," the chief rabbi said. There are still 22 functioning synagogues in Budapest and an additional 23 elsewhere in Hungary, he added.

Hitler's Troops Came

He said the first written evidence of Jews living in Hungary, from tombstones, dated back to the third century.

Their numbers swelled over the years to around 800,000. Then came March 19, 1944, "the blackest day in our history," when Hitler's troops occupied Hungary. A few weeks later the Nazis began deporting Jews to concentration camps, where 600,000 died.

Though enjoying only a fraction of its prewar membership, the Hungarian Jewish community is still better off than others in the Soviet Bloc.

Last year a center for Jewish studies was established at Budapest's Eotvos Lorand University, the first of its kind in Eastern Europe.

Budapest is also the site of the Soviet Bloc's only rabbinical seminary, which numbers among former students the present Chief Rabbis of Moscow, Riga, Leningrad and Kiev in the Soviet Union and Prague, Czechoslovakia. It has also had students from Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and East Germany.

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