Question: Where in the world did a Hollywood movie star “plant” a willow that weeps the names and numbers of the dead?
Answer: Dohány Street Synagogue, Budapest, Hungary
A half million Jews lost their lives in Hungary during the Holocaust, so it’s no surprise that Budapest is home to several powerful monuments to the tragedy. One of the most beautiful, the Emanuel Tree at the Great Synagogue on Dohány Street, was quietly made possible by Tony Curtis, a Hollywood heartthrob many Americans never knew was Jewish.
Curtis, born Bernard Schwartz, was the son of a Hungarian tailor, Emanuel Schwartz, who survived the “White Terror” period just after World War I and fled to the U.S. for safety. That move saved his life, but others were not so lucky. Anti-Semitism increased exponentially and in 1944, 200,000 Hungarian Jews were forced to relocate to the Ghetto of Pest. More than 130,000 were deported to concentration camps.
When the Ghetto was finally liberated, more than 2,000 murdered Jews were left behind and had to be buried en masse next to Dohány Street Synagogue. In the 1980’s, Curtis learned that the synagogue, which his father had attended as a boy, was in serious disrepair and strapped for cash. Curtis not only raised funds to help with restoration, he ordered the creation of a Holocaust memorial on the spot. Hungarian master artist Imre Varga came up with the Emanuel Tree, also known as the Tree of Life, a metal weeping willow adorned with thousands of leaves inscribed with names and registration numbers of Holocaust victims.
Curtis, a man who changed his name to be less obviously Jewish in Hollywood, spent his last decades supporting the causes of Judaism, describing his approach to faith this way: “It’s like prayer, it’s personal.”
More to Look for at the Great Synagogue
- The synagogue is topped with Moorish domes and adorned with Islamic eight-pointed stars, the first temple in the west reflecting the mid-19th-century craze for Moorish architecture.
- In 1931, The Heroes' Temple, a smaller house of worship seating 200, was added to the Great Synagogue in 1931, as a memorial to Hungarian Jews who died in battle during World War I.
- In the backyard of the Heroes' Temple, glossy black marble markers recount the names of some of the people buried here, 100 to a grave, after the liberation of the Ghetto in World War II.
- There is a separate Lapidarium with older tombstones, which are considered sacred, and plaques honoring Jews born here in the 1800’s.
- Raul Wallenberg Memorial Park (in which the Emanuel Tree resides) also features four red marble plates inscribed with the names of 240 non-Jews who saved their fellow Hungarians from the Nazis.
- In front of the synagogue, the entry plaza features white bricks making a pattern in the mostly red expanse; from above you can see that it creates a picture of a menorah.
- Inside the synagogue, a massive two-story Ark contains torah scrolls rescued from synagogues destroyed during the Holocaust.
- Behind the ark, hidden from sights, is a 5,000-key organ played by Franz Liszt at the opening ceremonies, and still in use today in the sanctuary Curtis helped restore.
Discover the painful history and powerful pride of Budapest when you join Grand Circle Cruise Line’s Romantic Blue Danube: Budapest to Prague River Cruise.