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Town's Jews Are Gone, but Rural Synagogue Will Live On

The crumbling complex in Mad, Hungary, is being restored as a cultural center, museum and occasional temple.

October 26, 2003|Karl Peter Kirk | Associated Press Writer

MAD, Hungary — Perched on a plank high above the ark that once held a Torah scroll, Anita Peto draws another decorative circle, carefully copying the blurred shapes on a fading photograph taped to the scaffolding.

The 24-year-old art restorer is putting together clues from the past to restore a crumbling rural synagogue to its former splendor when Mad was an important center in Hungarian Judaism.

"We only have a few old photos and descriptions to go on," Peto said, straining her eyes over the yellowing photograph dating from the late 1800s. "And as you can see, there isn't too much of the original decoration left on the walls."

This is one of a handful of synagogues in rural Hungary that are getting a makeover after decades of abuse and neglect during communist rule, when abandoned temples were used as storehouses for grain and stables for livestock -- or simply left to rot.

The Nazi Holocaust swept away two-thirds of the nearly 1 million Jews who lived in Hungary on the eve of World War II, and many of those who survived fled during the 1956 uprising against Soviet rule after realizing that the communists were just as determined to stamp out their religion. Today, there are fewer than 100,000 Jews among Hungary's 10 million people.

No Jews are left in Mad, a town 130 miles east of Budapest that was a center of Jewish learning, so its synagogue will rarely be used as a temple. The synagogues renovated so far have been turned into cultural centers with exhibits on Jewish life before the war, but some will be used by Jewish congregations.

At the end of the 19th century, more than 800 Jews lived in Mad, constituting nearly 30% of the town's population. They arrived in the 1700s from Galicia, a region now split between Poland and Ukraine. Most were traders, buying and selling Mad's wines throughout central Europe.

Built in the 1770s in Baroque style, the synagogue is unusual because it has survived complete with its yeshiva, or school.

"Mad was a very important place in the Jewish spiritual world," said New York-born Rabbi Boruch Oberlander of Budapest's Chabad Lubavitch Jewish community. He clutched a large dusty responsum, or rabbi's answers to questions, that was written by Rabbi Mordechai Leib Winkler, one of Mad's most famous teachers, who died in the 1930s.

"Almost every Orthodox rabbi in the world knows him and quotes from his works," Oberlander said.

Mad's mainly Hasidic community was devastated in 1944 when German soldiers and local militiamen rounded up the Jews and locked them in the synagogue without bread or water for three days. A local woman who tried to take them food was beaten by the guards, a Holocaust survivor wrote in her memoirs. The captives were sent to Nazi death camps.

The renowned library of Mad's rabbinical school disappeared in a Nazi bonfire.

"So far, we have been able to find only one book. I found it hidden in a box in the loft of the local school," Peto said.

In other synagogues she has worked on, Peto found more traumatic reminders of the past. Inscriptions carved into wooden benches told harrowing tales of Jews' last days. Among them: "The guards are coming to take us away soon," and "We know that they are going to kill us."

Restoration of the Mad synagogue has been financed in part by the New York-based World Monuments Fund, which gave $80,000. The Hungarian government matched the contribution.

"We try to help fund projects where the site is of architectural distinction or where there is a continuing Jewish identity," said Sam Gruber, a consultant to the group and director of the Jewish Heritage Research Center at the University of Syracuse.

After restoration is complete in December, the synagogue will serve as a cultural center, museum and exhibition hall and will be used for religious purposes when needed. The yeshiva may serve as a guesthouse.

"For many years, it was difficult to get donors and governments interested in preserving this heritage," Gruber said. "But they have realized that Jewish history can be developed as part of a long-term tourism strategy, even where there are no Jews left."

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