The fate of the synagogue in the village of Olaszliszka in the Tokaj wine region of northeast Hungary long symbolized the fate of post-Holocaust Jewish heritage and Jewish memory.
Built in the mid-19th century and located in the middle of town, the synagogue was large, in order to accommodate the followers of the local Hasidic Tzadik Zvi Hersh Friedmann (1808–1874). The story has it that when the synagogue was built, Friedmann instructed that the last stone would not be laid, to recall the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by symbolizing that the local synagogue, too, was not complete.
The building was decrepit but intact through the 1970s; by the 1980s, however, nothing had remained but the sad ruins of its eastern wall at the end of a vacant lot: apparently the synagogue had been demolished and used as a sort of quarry to provide building material for local construction.
The ruins were sometimes referred to as a “wailing wall” for Hungarian Jewry.
In 2015, a memorial was erected on the synagogue site.
Designed by Zsolt Szécsi, it retains the ruined wall and traces the footprint of the synagogue, incorporating a full-sized reconstruction of the building’s vanished front wall, on which is traced a map of Jewish communities in the region that were destroyed in the Shoah.
(Other memorials that trace the footprint of a destroyed synagogue include the one in Tarnow, Poland, where only the bimah still stands.)
The memorial was erected as part of a major Jewish tourism project in the region, developed by Chabad’s EMIH (Unified Hungarian Jewish Community) branch, which received around €1.5 million in EU/Hungarian government grants. (We will discuss the main focus of this project, Footsteps of the Wonder Rabbis, in a separate post.)
Many many synagogues in central and eastern — and western — Europe survived World War II intact, only to crumble into ruin or be demolished in later decades.
Among them, the fate of the Olaszliszka synagogue is notable — as the Hungarian filmmaker Miklós Jancsó chronicled the demise of the building in three short documentary films, shot in 1965, 1978, and 1986, collectively called Jelenlét (Presence).
As György Báron wrote in 2003, in an article about Jewish themes in Jancsó’s work:
In the 1965 black-and-white Jelenlét, two elderly men enter the ruined synagogue of Olaszliszka. The building—or more precisely what is left of it—is polluted and abandoned. The wind rushes through the broken windowpanes, scattering the pages of holy books all around. Languid rays of afternoon sun sift in and the dust that’s been kicked up sparkles in the light. The clattering of a train is heard, getting louder. The closing image of the film is a line of wagons speeding away while the two men pray inside.
The train advances on the closing image of the 1978 Olaszliszka episode as well. The synagogue is still abandoned, in ruins, a little boy is playing in the sunshine, this time two younger men put the praying shawl on their shoulders. The train begins its third visit of 1986 to Olaszliszka as well, and ends with the images of hope, a host of children singing, prayer in the tent, the cutting of barches (a Jewish cake made for Passover) and dipping it into honey.
This video incorporates brief excerpts from the three films:
Here you can watch the 1965 segment, which shows the building still standing, though in abandoned state:
The 1965 film includes footage of the hilltop Jewish cemetery in nearby Bodrogkerestúr, where another local Tzadik, Saje Steiner is buried.
At the time of Jancsó’s film, the Bodrogkerestúr cemetery there was a desolate, abandoned site — though as in Olaszliszka, Hasidic pilgirms stlll came to pray at the Tzadik’s grave. (In 1990, when JHE coordinator Ruth Ellen Gruber first tried to visit the cemetery in Bodrogkerestúr on a rainy day in November, the site was unmarked and the dirt track leading up to the cemetery was an impassable river of mud.)
Much has changed since then.
Followers of Saje Steiner have enclosed and restored the cemetery, building a large entry area leading to the rebbe’s Ohel. The road up to it is also now paved.
The rebbi’s followers have also purchased the Tzadik’s house in the village — creating a 24-hour kosher kitchen and pilgrim center there.
In Olaszliszka, followers of Friedmann had already fenced the Jewish cemetery and constructed an ohel by the late 1980s, although many of the stones — some of which still bear traces of the original red and blue polychrome decoration — were broken and vandalized. The damage has been repaired and the ohel and cemetery are well maintained.