Synagogue under the ground

“Old Prague, with its red roofs, zigzag streets and towers is the saddest city in the world”, writes Michael Chabon, referring to the devastation of World War II in the capitals of Central Europe, which comparatively spared this city. But we know well – from among others, the example of Prague –, that the destruction of the medieval or early modern heritage began much earlier, due to other wars or deliberate urban planning. The Jewish quarters were especially vulnerable to such destruction. While that of Prague was irrevocably reshaped by bailouts, in modern Ljubljana – at that time, Laibach – only two street names recall the former presence of the Jews, expelled in 1515. The Jewish monuments of medieval Buda in the Castle Quarter have fared somewhat better.

So-called “Tatar money”, in reality, coins with Hebrew letters as mint marks, referring to the head or to the place of the mint: צ (tsadi, above) and א (aleph, below). Reign of Bela IV (1235–1270) and Istvan V (1270–1272) respectively, auction material, from here and here.

The first Jewish settlers appeared in the territory of Buda – at that time called Novus mons Pestiensis, Pest’s new hill – shortly after its founding, following the Mongol invasion of 1241-1242. The first Jewish quarter was set up around today’s St. George (at that time, Jewish) Street, and today’s Palace Street, giving its name to the nearby Jewish (later, Fehérvári) Gate. Its location was uncertain until ten years ago, when the remains of the synagogue under today’s Palace Street, and those of the mikveh beneath the former Joseph Garden, were found. The later can be visited since last September, at times one day of the week. The Jewish quarter lay outside the city walls, between today’s Alagút, Roham and Pauler Streets. Here was also buried the judge of the Christians in Buda, István Verbőci, author of the Tripartite Law defining Hungarian law for centuries, after he was killed in 1541.

The first Jewish quarter ceased to exist in 1360 with the expulsion of its inhabitants. Nevertheless, only four years later the Jews were allowed to return to Buda. By then, their former houses had gone into the possession of Hungarian aristocrats, so the new Jewish quarter was established in the northern part of the civil town, in today’s Táncsis Mihály Street. This second foundation was more lasting. With minor interruptions, it remained the Jewish quarter of Buda until the recapture of the city from the Ottomans in 1686, and its name as Jewish Street survived for another half century. Its late Gothic synagogue was built in 1461. Under the reign of Matthias I, the office of the Jewish Prefect was created. It was provided from the beginning with the members of the Mendel family – first with Jacob, until 1516 –, who had two houses on the two sides of Jewish Street, linked by a bridge over the street at the height of the second floor. The Ottoman army, in sacking Buda after the Battle of Mohács in 1526, also took the Jewish population of the city to Constantinople. Until the definitive conquest of Buda by the Turks in 1541, the houses of the Jewish quarter periodically changed hands between the supporters of Ferdinand I of Austria and John I of Hungary. The role of the Mendel palace as a status symbol is demonstrated by the report of Court Chaplain György Szerémi:

“Fertur dixisse unus Judeus, tot dicias secum ducebat, quod solus spopondisset gubernatori Gritti, ut ipsum duceret ad Budam, et domum Mendel ac Judeorum vicium relaxaret ei, quod propriis expensis alevisset dominum gubernatorem ad decem annos, omni anno decem milia markas presentaret gubernatori ad manus.”

“They say that a Jew brought so great wealth with himself, that he promised to Governor Gritti [Lodovico Gritti, from 1530 to 1534 Governor of Hungary; his father, Andrea Gritti Doge of Venice between 1523 and 1538], that if he allows him to settle in Buda, and gives to him the Mendel house and Jewish Street, he would provide for the Governor for ten years, giving him ten thousand marks every year.”

(Epistola de perditione regni Hungarorum, cap. 107.)

In 1541, some of the former Jewish inhabitants returned to Buda. They restored the medieval synagogue which was damaged in the siege of 1530. During the Ottoman period, another, Sephardic synagogue was also active in the building of the former Mendel palace. The fate of the synagogue and of the medieval Jewish quarter of Buda were sealed by the recapture of Buda in 1686. The devastation was described by Isaac Schulhof (c. 1650 – 1733) in his Chronicle of Buda (Megillat Ofen). Schulhof was born in Prague, came as a prisoner to Buda, where he became Rabbi, and later victim and witness of the events that he described. During the siege, the majority of Jews fled to the synagogue, which was first defended by dragoons, but later the victorious Christian forces also invaded it, killing everyone inside, including the wife and son of Schulhof, and set the building on fire. Some of the survivors of the siege were scattered across the country and Europe: ten of them were brought to the Kismarton/Eisenstadt estate of the Esterházys, many of them to Győr and Komárom, and a few distinguished Jews to Berlin. The captives who remained in Hungary were ransomed for a high sum by the Jewish Viennese army contractor and banker Samuel Oppenheimer. Alexander Tausk of Prague, who worked on behalf of Oppenheimer, also bought out two hundred and seventy four Jews during the siege with the support of General Charles of Lorraine, covering their ransom with loans from the Jewish communities of Krakow, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, among others. Many of the rescued Jews – including Isaac Schulhof, who was saved due to a mysterious lady and her husband, as well as Oppenheimer – found a new home in Nikolsburg.

The former Jewish Street today

This is more or less all that is known about the late medieval synagogue of Buda from written sources. The exact location of the building was forgotten after the recapture of Buda. Its remains were brought to light on a plot on Táncsics Street 23 only in 1964, during the restoration of the Sephardic synagogue at No. 26, which is today a memorial museum. The excavations were led by László Zolnay, Rózsa Feuerné Tóth, and István Gedai. After the siege, the ruins were simply filled with debris, which preserved the original conditions relatively well. An ash layer, two to three fingers thick, mixed with human bones, came to light during the excavation, and serves as sad proof of Isaac Schulhof’s description. (The human remains were later buried in the Kozma Street cemetery.) The excavations also showed that the 26.26-meter long, 10.73-meter wide and 8.5–9 meter high building, had it survived, would be now a unique Central European monument, about twice as large as the Old-New Synagogue in Prague. In size and design it can be compared only to the hundred-year-earlier, and since also destroyed synagogue of Regensburg.

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The interior of the synagogue. Reconstruction of Aurél Budai, from here

The further fate of the synagogue could be seen as a mirror of the present-day relationship of Hungarian politics and the protection of monuments. As the excavations of 1964 established, a partial reconstruction of the synagogue – if not to 1461 conditions, then at least to those of the Ottoman period – would be possible even today. Only the women’s gallery is covered by a modern building, the Horányi-Zichy Palace, which has also become “former” since 1945. However, Professor Sándor Scheiber, Director of the Jewish Theological Seminary – who helped identify the Hebrew inscriptions during the excavations – was not as fortunate as his predecessor, Alexander Tausk, who collected ransom for the prisoners from all over Europe. Although the “ransom” of the synagogue, the costs of the reconstruction of which would have been covered by the American Jewish sponsors, nevertheless the Hungarian State Office for Church Affairs did not give permission to use foreign – American, and, in addition, Jewish! – capital to do the work. As there was no other option, the excavation trench had to be buried again. They did so with an eye on the future, as the ruins were covered so that during an eventual new excavation only the surface layer would need to be removed before beginning the restoration work. Nevertheless, both individuals and organizations – most recently, the Ássuk ki! Egyesület (the “Let’s Dig It Out! Association”) – have to date unsuccessfully called for the opening of a new excavation and the restoration of the synagogue. For the time being, we have to rest content with the excavation photos published by László Zolnay, as the only documentation from an important monument of medieval Hungarian – and Central European – Jewish heritage. That is, almost the only one.

Indeed, on the Christian feast day of St. Michael the Archangel, on 29 September, the Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association and the Buda Municipality inaugurated a memorial plaque along Mihály Babits Walkway, reminiscent of the buried synagogue of the late medieval Jewish quarter, at least until the resumption of the excavations and the beginning of the restoration. There’s nothing better we can wish for for the Jewish New Year, which just begins today.

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