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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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