Reminders of Jewish Life in Mád, Hungary

the mad synagogue - Mad Hungarya

The Shul

If you arrive in Mád by train, expect a tepid welcome. As we stood on the platform, the town sign loomed threateningly over the tiny rail station. Alongside the road to the village, an abandoned factory, one of thousands strewn across the eastern half of Europe, huddled in a forest of weeds. A handful of unbroken windows reflected sunlight in a way which appeared as if the ghosts of communist workers still toiled inside. Keep going, the reality of Mád isn’t nearly so grim.

sign in train station in Mad Hungary

A meager welcome to Mad…

Mád is, at its heart, a wine town – part of the Tokaj region of eastern Hungary. Yet we came to Mád with one goal, to visit the baroque synagogue built in 1795 – potentially the oldest in the country. I had read about the NY Times and seen photos of the interior. But I wanted to see for myself and had set an appointment to do just that.

We entered Mád on one of two seldom traveled roads which constitutes the village. Our meeting with the synagogue caretaker had been prearranged for 3PM. Barnabás Fehér was lying on a swing in his backyard as we approached. He jumped up and motioned “one minute”, dashed thru his back door and returned holding aloft an iron key–the length of a trout with the heft of a chisel. He nodded his head towards a  tractor path which cut behind his property to the synagogue.

Barnabas feher with the key to the Mad Synagogue Hungary

Barnabas with the key to the synagogue

Barnabás described everything we saw in Hungarian, painstakingly, slowly with the deliberation of a man who has performed this role for decades. He peppered his speech with English, German, Italian – pointing to a ruined building next to the synagogue as a “scuola” – which turned out to be a rabbinical school. A few steps past the school stood the simple shul – a beige and cream building with classically baroque domed windows and arched facade.

As soon as Barnabás opened the door, Pat set about to shoot photos attaching his camera to his tripod and scouting the best angles. The interior was cramped with a bimah, the spot where the Torah was read, in the center of the room surrounded by pillars. No single photo could possibly capture the entirety of the sanctuary.

While Pat worked, my girlfriend, Sue, and I followed Barnabás as he led us through the synagogue. He pointed to an upper balcony and indicated “women” and the lower floor he said, “men”. Then, he paused before a series of marble plaques inscribed with names and mournfully indicated, “Mort… Auschwitz”.

Prior to World War II, the 700 person Jewish population of Mád thrived, working in the wine industry – often as merchants. Yet today, not a single Jew lives in Mád. The synagogue serves as a memorial and an occasional performance hall. Monday prior to our visit, the Hungarian Jewish conductor, Ivan Fischer, and the Budapest Festival Orchestra performed at this venue.

Barnabás led us to an anteroom – a tiny museum of various religious items and pointed to a photo of the shul – devastated and burned. “No war, fire.” Behind the royal blue curtain, the ark contains “No Torah”.  Sadly, in Central Europe today, many rural synagogues no longer serve a religious purpose.

renovation photos of the Mad synagogue in Mad Hungarycynm

The spectacular renovation

We spent nearly an hour in the synagogue. At times I wiped tears from my cheeks, yet overall I was captivated by the vibrant colors everywhere – blue, pink and tan; the gilded carvings and geometric designs; the silver and gold accents.Standing there, I vacillated between heartbreak and hope.

Tombstones on the hillside in Mad Hungary

Tombstones dot the hillside

We left the synagogue and walked to the furthest end of town. There, fully visible over a concrete fence was the Jewish cemetery which dates back to 1769. Colorful tombstones inscribed in Hungarian, Hebrew, or both dotted the hillside. Up above the graves, row after row of grapes stretched as far as the eye could see.

Grapes growing on the Tokaj hillsides

Grapes cover the hillsides

Ironically, for me, the cemetery served as a reminder of the living, an indication of the vibrant Jewish community which existed in Mád for centuries. The synagogue, in all its opulence and color, today memorializes the dead – a tribute to this same community now gone.

As we rode the train back to Tokaj, Pat, Sue and I talked about what a special and moving day we had spent in Mád – a pilgrimage of sorts. We specifically returned to the far eastern corner of Hungary to see this one amazing building. As we pulled out of town, I felt so very grateful we had made the journey.

 

During our visit, we learned of the life of Barnabás Fehér. He has earned his own post which I hope to write shortly.



Categories: Central/Eastern Europe

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12 replies

  1. This was a good read!

  2. Last weekend, June 30th – July 2, 2017 – I was privileged to visit Mad, along with about 200 other fellow Jews.
    The boys yeshiva you wrote about is now a beautiful, modern study house with black and white pictures depicting some of the families dragged to their deaths from Mad. Over 880 were taken to Auschwitz on the same day we arrived to Mad! Only about 15-20 survived, 19 came back to search for their families and left weeks later for America and Israel.
    On the sabbath, the Main Street of Mad leading from the synagogue as the yeshiva on the hill was nice and alive by proud Jewish men wearing their tallises!
    No Hungarian came out from their houses but I can assure you they were watching us from behind their curtains.
    We had babies in strollers too!
    The night before with a candle light procession many went up the hills to the Miracle Rabbis. I chose to walk those hills in Sunday morning with friends. It was a overwhelming experience with mixed feelings…

    • Thank you so much for this comment, Edith. I can not even imagine what this must have been like for you. I will need to return to see the school! Mad, Hungary might be the most moving place I’ve ever visited.

      • Was good hearing from you! You depicted the little town so well. Barnabas, I did inquire about him, he keeps mostly to himself nowadays… Due to frail health.
        I’m trying to make connections and find if there are second generation children of survivors like mysel from Mad. Myself, I was born in Cluj, Klausenburg) Romania, after the war, and what I remember often is hearing that my grandparents and my dad’s first family while in the cattle trains they saw the sign “Kassa” in then Czecholovakia, and the poor Jews panicked.. They realized where the trains were taking them. That station is very close to Mad.
        So for me, it was also going back in the footsteps of my family 73 years to date!!!!

      • That’s so great, Edith! Wow. What an emotional journey. I have a few ideas on research. First, in Mad, Gabo Bartha is a Hungarian from Romania (Transylvania) who lives in Mad. She is the person that put me in touch with Barnabas Feher. You can reach her (I believe this is still true) through the Budahazy Pince website. She might have ideas of contacts in the town that can help you.
        Second, a man reached out to me whose father, grandfather, and great grandfather were all rabbis in Mad (all buried in the Mad cemetery next to their wives). In 2014, Joel was in NYC and had traveled to Mad 10 times in various Jewish reunions and memorials. If you email me from my website (use the contact button) I will send you his email address.
        Lastly, you might want to reach out to whomever is the lead on Hungarian Jewish research at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. They were very helpful on some research I did on the Slovak Jewish Community. Good luck!!!

  3. I just enjoyed reading your ” a weekend in New York” that really takes me back to the 60’s as a young teen who moved to New York with my parents.
    To this day I find Times Square don’t ask me how to even start describing it, as the epicenter of my memories of the 60’s!! Working for Icelandic Airlines, on 5 th Avenue, I would often walk down the Avenue to catch a subway home to Brooklyn from 34th Street. Oh those sights! Hawaii Kai, remember? Castro convertible, a sofa being opened by Bernadette? The Wienerwald, the gritty men walking by…. Not the same today, but I sure make it my business to do that walk each time I go into Manhattan…. Cafe Wha, O’ Neill’s in the Village..
    What is your take on Budapest? I found it depressing, congested and rather unkept..
    When will you visit Cluj? The next time I will ever again, it will be to post a deserving plaque to the more than 19,000 Jews taken from there -if go you go to the Iris brick factory which was turned into a ghetto for them, a real inferno, you will hardly notice a small rusted plaque.
    The Germans, Romanians are planning to actually open on that sacred ground art exhibits and fun things as if they didn’t have enough empty places all over there…
    I do Holocaust research and thank you I do know about Yad Vashem. They are good.
    Looking forward to your next article!
    Edith

    • Oh Edith… I remember all those things. Drug deals on Time Square. Teens trying to sell us pot while police officers stand idly nearby. Some of what left is better off gone, but I’m still not sure I love the new city.
      We lived in a wonderful neighbourhood in Budapest and fell in love with it. But I can see how people could leave with different impressions. It’s a place we could live in, but we won’t. The government is too unstable and insane (sound familiar?).
      I have no firm plans to return to Romania, but we did enjoy our short visit there. If we return, I will certainly put Cluj on the list!

  4. I am a 1st gen American. My father was born in Kunágota, near Arad. I went to the unveiling of a holocaust memorial in Bekéscsaba in 2016. At that time, my father, read the names of neighbors he remembered from his childhood. We are not Jewish but my dad’s memory of the kindly neighbors forced expulsion scarred him. I am glad you are able to reclaim your heritage. Your words help to preserve history

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  1. The World In Between
  2. Barnabás Fehér – The Keeper of the Mád Synagogue: Nearly 70 years later, a Catholic man honors his murdered Jewish friends | The World In Between

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