Barnabás Fehér – The Keeper of the Mád Synagogue: Nearly 70 years later, a Catholic man honors his murdered Jewish friends

Barnabas Feher near the entrance to the inner sanctuarya

Barnabas Feher

Barnabás Fehér was napping on his outdoor swing as we approached his home for our appointment to visit the synagogue. A cluster of fruit trees shaded him. Come late summer, these trees will produce a harvest from which he augments his pensioners income. Overly ripe fruit will be distilled into palinka which he will also sell.

As he heard us approach, Barnabás jumped up and ran into the house, grabbed the caste iron key, and returned holding it aloft with a smile that indicated, “Here it is, let’s go.”

Quickly, we realized Barnabás spoke very little English. He pointed to areas inside and outside the shul and provided one word descriptors across a linguistic spectrum which would make a United Nations translator proud.

We passed a “scuola”, and inside he pointed to the balcony, “women”. Then, we stopped before a marble slab engraved with columns of names. “Auschwitz. Mort.” Through these simple utterances, we figured out all we needed to know – or at least so we thought.

mad hungary tribute to jews kills during the war

A memorial to the Jews killed during the war

Pat set up his tripod and went to work while my friend, Sue, and I followed Barnabas back outside and into a side door where we could access the balcony. Returning to the main entrance, he brought us into a closet sized museum which held some number of religious items and photographs of the synagogue through the years.

Just as we concluded our visit, a young Hungarian couple entered. Barnabás talked to them for a while, after which they turned to us and began to translate his story.

Raised in Mád by a father who worked for a Jewish wine merchant, Barnabás played with the merchant’s children – and those of other Jewish businessmen. During the war, most were taken away and very few returned. Those who survived, eventually emigrated to America or Israel.

Today, in a town where one in five of the four thousand residents were Jewish, not a single Jew remains. Barnabás serves as caretaker, a position he feels honors those who died – a way for him to remember his friends. He pointed to himself – “Catholic”.

Barnabás went on to recount a visit to Mád a few years ago by a Jewish couple living in Israel. Perhaps they knew about him before their trip, or maybe they met the caretaker as we did. In either event, they brought Barnabás to Israel as their guest. “You have done more to honor the Jews than the Jews”, they explained. As Barnabás retells this story through our translators, he smiles. He appears rightfully proud.

After our visit, I learned Barnabás is 78 years old and collects a small pensioners salary – part of which is in recognition of the role he plays as a steward of the synagogue. Most visitors, like us, hopefully leave a few coins for his time.

A few months ago, after our trip to Mád , I wrote a blog post about the synagogue. In response, a man contacted me from New York. Four generations, ending with his father, served as rabbis in Mád. These rabbis and their wives are buried together in a mausoleum just inside the entrance to the cemetery. Periodically, he and his family return to Mád and sponsor a service. “Yes, I know Barnabás Fehér, a very fine gentleman and a very dedicated individual.”

I felt relieved that someone outside the community could vouch for the character and contributions of this man who captivated me.

Our trip to Mád may be my favorite memory from our time in Central Europe. Inside this nondescript village you will find an amazing synagogue. The simplicity of both the town, as well as the synagogue’s’ facade, amplifies the impact of the vibrant interior. Within this village is a range from the best to the worst of Jewish life in Central Europe.

Barnabás Fehér is a standard bearer for some of the best parts. Hearing his story translated from his own words, was a gift.

renovation photos of the Mad synagogue in Mad Hungarycynm

The spectacular renovation

Alas, I have finished my posts about our trip to Mád.

Since visiting Mád, we have spent weekends in Eger, Pecs, and Balaton and biked the vineyards of rural Austria near Bratislava. Pat had surgery in the Hungarian public medical system. He’s fine, and of course, I will be writing about his two night hospital stay (“Oh my gosh, you need surgery!  That’s going to be a great blog post!”) On a more serious note, Pat accomplished his dream of hearing the Vienna Philharmonic perform. And I reunited with one of my best friends from my youth after 38 years (dear Lord, did I say “38 years?”). I have so much to share.

Next week, we leave for ten days in Athens where Pat and I will attend the Travel Bloggers Exchange (TBEX) conference, and I will take a two day writing class taught by David Farley. All our kids will travel to Athens (including Taylor who is safely back from her Nepal adventures) to celebrate an early Thanksgiving.

In November we will join a Hungarian family at their traditional harvest pig killing in a Danube town on the Slovak border. I realize the reaction to this will be mixed. As a meat eater, I accept my dinner did not come from a pig who died in his sleep after a long and happy life. I can not wait to take part in this rural tradition.

We hope to cram in other day trips during November starting with a new cemetery as we honor the dead on my favorite holiday, November first.

December, we will check out the Christmas market in Sopron, Hungary before setting off to Philadelphia for Christmas and New Years.

Next year is shaping up to the be the best ever – lots more to come on that. But so far we have penciled in Philadelphia, Colorado (and a date with a still too big storage unit), Paris, Michigan and Virginia.

I need to kick it up a notch (I say that, but never quite achieve it). As the days turn cold and the nighttime lengthens, let’s wish for a flurry of blog posts. I hope you’ll stay tuned.

the mad synagogue - Mad Hungarya

The Shul



Categories: Central/Eastern Europe

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6 replies

  1. Here’s the link to an article I wrote about the restoration of the synagogue in Mad. You can read more about the building and the Jewish history of the area in my book “Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today”. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/04/travel/04iht-trgruber.html?_r=0

  2. so interesting, thank you for posting your impressions and experiences in Hungary

  3. We are planning to visit North East Hungary in two weeks – between New Year and Yom Kippur. How we can visit the synagogue in Mad? How can we contact the carekeeper?

    • Hi… Mad, Hungary is one of my favorite places. Largely because of the Synagogue. But also due to the cemetary and our lunch at the tiny vineyard of Budahazy Pince. The lunch is private, must be arranged in advance, and quite affordable. I have written about this on my blog is you search ‘Mad Hungary’.

      Gabo, at Budahazy Pince, arranged my appointment with the synagogue keeper, Barnabas Feher. He is in his 80s and speaks no English. As of a few months ago, he was still doing this.

      His home sits behind the synagogue down a path (past the ruined Jewish school. It is the home most immediately behind the synagogue. He has the key. If you just arrive, I assume there is a good chance he would be home.

      Good luck.

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