Thursday, August 4, 2011

Pictures from Pest

Today was See Beautiful Buildings Day in Pest (tomorrow, we cross the Danube and do it again on the Buda side).

First, the Opera House:

Then, the Basilica.  (Also Cathedral.)  St. Stephen (Istvan).  Lovely place:

I included the detail of the image so you can see (almost) that it's a mosaic.  Only my zoom lens could tell for sure; from the ground, it looks painted.

I always get a little weirded out taking pictures in a church -- because it's somebody's house of worship and they don't really need tourists walking through it with guides and cameras and all that stuff.  But pictures were pretty much encouraged in St. Stephen's.  And, you know, when in Rome Budapest....

Actually, the weirding out part sorta reached a zenith at St. Stephen's, as you can go in back and check out the relic -- in this case, the (actual) hand of St. Stephen.  I don't believe I've seen an actual religious relic before, so I went with the group to take a look.  Here's the thing:  photography was allowed (although not with flash) but there was a little light inside the glass case which would stay on for a certain amount of time if you point a Hungarian coin in.  Our tour guide handled the actual payment -- but it basically came down to, "Plop in a quarter and see the relic!"  (Or, since the place was crawling with tourists and it didn't look like there was anyone in that little chapel for actual religious reasons, "Plop in a quarter and see an actual dead man's hand!")

I want to be clear here -- it wasn't that hand that weirded me out, it was the paying to see it.  I'm not a Catholic, but it seems to me that a relic of a saint is something that ought to be treated with respect, not displayed like a carnival side show.  So, yeah, I declined to take a picture; the whole thing just seemed wrong.

Then, continuing in the See Beautiful Buildings Tour of Pest -- and, from the Turnabout is Fair Play Department -- we actually went to a synagogue, where (for once) I'd see a house of worship of my own faith turned into a tourist attraction.  I had mixed feelings about the experience, but they were based largely on the fact that the synagogue in question (Dohany) is sort of a restored relic of a bygone era, and not the center of a vibrant religious community.

First, the good news.  It's awfully pretty.  As synagogues go, it is beautifully designed and decorated.  (It looks a bit more like a church than a traditional synagogue.  There is a reason for this -- the architects were not jewish, so modelled it on a church.)  It's also huge -- the second largest synagogue in the world (the largest is in New York).  Can seat about 3000, when you include the galleries.  See... pretty:

OK, here's the depressing bit:  Before World War II, the Jewish population of Hungary was something like 800,000; after the war, it was 200,000.  600,000 people wiped out.  A word like "decimated" is a dramatic mathematical understatement.  (In fact, Hungarian Jews were the largest group killed at Auschwitz.)  While current numbers are hard to get hold of (because it is now illegal in Hungary to ask people to identify their faith), there's an estimate of between 100,000 and 160,000 Jews in the whole country.  This particular synagogue is still active, but, on a regular basis, is used to a small fraction of its capacity.

It is also a memorial.  I already showed you the mass grave of Warsaw Ghetto dead; there is also a mass grave of Budapest Ghetto dead -- and it's in a garden area beside this synagogue.  The Budapest Ghetto was fairly unusual in that it was only in operation for a number of weeks near the end of the war (I think the guide said seven) before it was liberated.  Still, nearly 3000 people died there.  They have been buried in 24 mass graves in this little garden -- the few tombstones around each plot have been placed there when family members were able to identify the dead; most of them are unknown.  Still, it's an oddly beautiful place.

The last thing to see at Dohany ... and I regret I did not get a good picture ... is a section (in another garden) honoring Raoul Wallenberg and other so-called Righteous Gentiles who saved the lives of Hungarian Jews during the holocaust.  There is a large stone engraved with a list of the names of people who saved many, and four more stones engraved with the names of people who saved just one person or family.  And there are a lot of names there.  We talk about people like Wallenberg and Carl Lutz who saved tens of thousands, but it's important also to honor those who risked their lives to save just one other life.  Dohany does that, and it's a beautiful thing to see.

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