About a year ago, the Debrecen newspapers published a decision by the city council to place copper memorial stones with the names of Holocaust victims (Stolpeisteine) on the sidewalks in front of the entrances to their homes. A similar memorial project was done in the streets of Berlin and Budapest.
Members of the local chapter of the neo-Nazi party 'Jubik' came out to protest against the initiative. The provocative demonstration created a lot of anger in the city. The Bishop of Debrecen called the Chief Rabbi of the city, Rabbi Dr. Asher Ehrenfeld, and proposed a counter-demonstration of both Jews and Christians. The demonstration which took place in the city center was in support of the commemoration of the Jews, and the brazenness of the neo-Nazis.
In this demonstration, speeches were given by both the Protestant and Catholic bishops, several politicians, and the mayor, as well as the Chief Rabbi Ehrenfeld, who really knows how to excite the audience. In his speech, Rabbi Ehrenfeld included the sentence, "You, the members of Juvik, are the offspring of Ferenc Szalasi and his followers." (Franz Szalszy was the prime minister of Hungary at the end of World War II, an anti-Semite and a Nazi, who participated in the extermination of Hungarian Jewry, after which he was sentenced to death for his crimes).
A local attorney filed a complaint against Rabbi Ehrenfeld on charges of libel. She explained that she was a member of Juvik, and had also participated in the anti-Jewish demonstration, but had no family connection to the despicable Franz Szalasi.
According to Hungarian law, the police must investigate every complaint. Police investigators contacted Rabbi Ehrenfeld and asked him to come in for an investigation at the police station, and they also invited the mayor to testify. The mayor, Laszlo Papp, shouted out: "As long as I am the mayor of Debrecen, this city will not invite a rabbi to the police, nor any other clergy or religious leader."
The next morning, the phone rang in Rabbi Ehrenfeld's home, there was a police officer on the line that said, "How are you, Rabbi?"
"All right," replied the rabbi.
"Well," the interrogation officer sums up. “My question was within the framework of the investigation, and as far as we are concerned, your answer is now complete, and you do not have to bother to come to the station as we have determined, because I am closing the file."
I recently heard this story from Rabbi Ehrenfeld. And, this individual case incorporates the general situation of the Jews of Debrecen in both the present and in the past. A small community that suffered greatly in the Holocaust, but today enjoys the tolerance and recognition of most of the non-Jewish residents in the city. When the mayor acts with respect for the rabbi of the city and the Jews, he knows that he represents the majority of the residents of the city. True, there is a noisy and racist group in Debrecen, but most of the city's residents object to them, and even protest against their anti-Semitism. Debrecen has cooperation and mutual respect between the religious leaders in the city, including the head of the Jewish community. The municipality works for the benefit of the Jews in various areas, including renovations of public buildings and synagogues.
The heart of the city of Debrecen is the Piac pedestrian street, which runs from the main yellow church, all the way to the south. On either side of the pedestrian mall, there are restaurants and cafes on the ground floor, as well as luxury shops throughout. On the floors above are the most expensive offices in the city, as well as luxury apartments. The rabbi of Debrecen, Rabbi Asher Ehrenfeld, told us that many of the luxury stores and buildings on the main street were owned by Jews that were murdered in the Holocaust.
The Jewish Quarter of Debrecen is adjacent to the Piac pedestrian mall. As we stand there with our backs to the church, all the small streets and alleys to the right and to the west are part of the old Jewish area. And, it truly is very worthwhile to visit there.
Jews began to settle in Debrecen almost two centuries ago, following the laws of emancipation, which granted Jews equal rights. Up until the Holocaust, about 12,000 Jews lived in Debrecen, in three large communities – the Orthodox, the Neolithic (Reform), and the "status quo" community, whose members did not find themselves among the two extremist approaches of the other communities. Each community had its own synagogues, but the public institutions and schools were shared.
Today, there is not much left of Debrecen's glorious Jewish past. Only about a thousand Jews have remained in the city, most of them elderly. Most of the younger generation have immigrated to Israel, or went on to study in universities and Yeshivas in England and Switzerland, and then stayed there to establish their own families. Most of the buildings in the Jewish neighborhood were destroyed by the bombings of World War II, along with other parts of the city.
According to German Nazi orders in 1944, the Hungarian government blocked the openings of streets which leading to the Jewish neighborhood, thus creating the Jewish ghetto in Debrecen. Also, it was ordered that the wealthy Jews living in other neighborhoods of the city to gather into the ghetto. In June 1944, the Jews were taken on a long march to a blocks factory outside the city, from which about half were sent to Auschwitz, and about half were sent to the humiliating forced labor in the Austrian municipality of Vienna. But at least their lives were saved. About a year ago, attorneys Yossi Eshed and Yossi Rivlin from Tel Aviv, established a memorial plaque on the wall of the block factory, where the Jewish community ended.
I definitely recommend you to walk around the streets in the Jewish ghetto to see some of the houses that were not destroyed.
Recently, several synagogues have been renovated with the help of the government and the European Union, along with the help of philanthropists from the descendants of the residents of Debrecen and the surrounding areas.
The (pink) Orthodox synagogue was located at 4 Pasti Street. It was built in 1893, damaged in the World War and abandoned, and then reopened on Passover 2015 after a spectacular renovation. Today, the synagogue serves as a conference hall for community concerts. The magnificent Holy Ark (Aron Kodesh) is empty and covered with a curtain. In the women section (Ezrath Nashim) on the second floor, there is a display of Jewish topics from Debrecen. It is very worthwhile to go and see, and also enjoy the beautiful ceiling of the synagogue while there.
The synagogue on Pashti Street on the outside and inside
In the garden of the compound, there is a building that served as a Beit Midrash and Talmud Torah. The building was renovated as a small synagogue (Shtibel), where prayers are held three times a day. Almost. Rabbi Asher Ehrenfeld relates that sometimes there is no Minyan for morning prayers in the winter mornings. On Saturdays and holidays, the Shtibel is full of worshipers. The Holy Ark and the furniture in Shtibel are ancient, put there before the Holocaust, and only painted and reinforced by carpenters. I was sitting in my tefillin wrapped in a Talit in the synagogue in which Jews sat like me a hundred years ago. Dear Jews have now passed me the torch.
The shtibel above the old mikvah in the Pashti complex, on the outside and inside
Under the shtibel were previously the Mikveh and the slaughterhouse of the Jewish community. Nowadays, this area has been renovated as a tourist site, and are no longer in use. In 2005, a modern Mikveh was opened in a new building adjacent to the synagogue.
In the garden of the Pink Synagogue, there is a monument dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust. On the inner side of the wall next to the street, there is an iron surface on the wall with the names of 6,000 Jews of Debrecen who were murdered in the Holocaust, and the Kaddish prayer in Hebrew letters. Many Jews who visit the site tend to light a candle there.
A three-minute walk from there, we find the yellow synagogue of the "status quo" community at 26 Bajcsi Zsilinszky Street. This synagogue was founded in 1909, and today it has services only on Jewish holidays.
Debrecen is one of the only cities in Hungary where there is one Jewish cemetery shared by both Reform and Orthodox Jews. The cemetery was opened in 1842. In the Jewish community, there is a computerized catalog of all the graves, which can be used to easily find the gravestone of relatives that are in the cemetery.
The Hungarian government also renovated the community building. Apart from general offices, the community building has a state-of-the-art kitchen where a high-quality lunch is cooked daily for many of the city's Jews. Before Shabbat evenings, sweet challahs are baked there. Many of the city's Jews come to eat in the community and meet new and old friends. For the elderly and the sick that have difficulty reaching others, there are community vehicles that brings hot meals into their homes. Orthodox tourists can also get kosher meals by invitation in advance. Kosher food and kosher products can also be obtained at the Chabad House, but must be ordered in advance.
On Shabbat evenings, Kabbalat Shabbat are held with the Divrei Torah at the Chabad House for Jewish students studying in Debrecen. Some 300 Israeli students, mainly medical professionals and veterinarians, arrive every Friday for Shabbat and Kiddush at Chabad's Shaliach's house, with Rabbi Shmuel Feigin.
Recently, the community also opened up a type of "hospitality" hotel with 7 rooms for Jewish tourists who come to visit the gravestone of the righteous in the vicinity. The rooms are very clean and tidy, like a 3-4 stars hotel, and low prices.
I began this review with a story about the preparations and decision to place (Stolpeisteine) copper memorial stones on the sidewalks of several houses of the Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. Well, how did the story end?
The talking had become acting. In recent months, the municipality and the Jewish community have placed such stones in front of 24 houses in the Jewish ghetto. Each stone is about 10 x 10 cm. One of the stones is located right next to the Pink Synagogue. The answer is that the story is not over, and the project still continues today.
The study tour was organized and hosted by the City of Debrecen and the Association for the Tourism of Debrecen and Hortobágy, with the kind support of Wizz Air
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