From the outside, 22 Teleki Square looks like most other Budapest apartment blocks. But behind the heavy wooden doors of this four-story ochre building lies a hidden little synagogue. Operating continuously for at least 100 years, the Teleki Square Shul endured the Shoah, World War II and the Communist regime.
On Saturdays, the community buzzes in and out of the little shul, which occupies conjoined apartments on the building’s ground floor. A tap juts out of the wall by the entrance; beside it, a hand-washing cup sits on an aged metal basin. Faded carpets lead into the main sanctuary, which is covered in block-printed walls and placards written in Hebrew. The room is partitioned with a lace mechitza separating the women from the men.
The shul can fit around 60 people. Most are locals with a sprinkling of visitors. The little shtiebel is unique in Hungary’s Jewish scene. It’s the only apartment shul still operating in the area.
Guidebooks will refer to Budapest’s 7th District as the Jewish Quarter, home to the Dohány Street Synagogue, Europe’s largest, as well as a number of other architectural gems. That was the district that was turned into the city’s Jewish ghetto in 1944, but it was not the only place where Jews lived. Though not as showy, the 8th District was once home to a thriving community of its own, which one can still catch glimpses of today at places like the Teleki Street Shul.
“There were more than 50 praying houses prior to World War II, just around the square and in the neighboring streets,” said Gábor Mayer, president at the Teleki Square Shul, and head of the Jakab Gláser Memorial Foundation, an organization named for a longtime pillar of the community. “Many of the shtiebelakh were run by the owners of the buildings. Legend has it that the Teleki shul was given for this use by the original owner of the building.”
In the early part of the 20th century, the Jews who lived around Teleki Square were Yiddish-speaking immigrants from what is today Ukraine and Poland. Most worked as peddlers in the thriving flea market that once occupied Teleki Square. As in other major metropolises, relations with the existing, more-established Jewish communities were not always so warm.
“Most of those who lived here were born in Hungary and their mother tongue was Hungarian,” added Mayer. “Still, they only arrived a few generations back, so those more assimilated Jews who lived here for generations, some since the Middle Ages, didn’t very much like the crowds of poor, traditionally dressed Hasidic Jews from the countryside, because it made them look bad.”
I first heard about the Jewish community of the 8th District in 2014, during the annual Budapest100 architecture festival, when private buildings open their doors to celebrate their hundredth birthdays. Inside the courtyard of 1 Teleki Square, I encountered photographs pinned to a clothesline revealing Sephardic religious poetry written in Hebrew, which had been uncovered in one of the apartments when the owners peeled back wallpaper during a renovation.
“The entire floor here was once a synagogue,” one of the residents told me. “After the war, it became a part of the Communist Party’s office, but until the 1960s they still rented it out to the local Jewish community.”
The neighborhood once housed nearly as many Jews as the district that today gets the lion’s share of the attention. “Around 40,000 Jews lived in the 7th District, and 30,000 lived here in the 8th,” said Borcsa Lakos, a tour guide for Beyond Budapest’s Stars of the 8th District Tour. “It’s interesting, because the population is comparable, but the 7th is better known, thanks to the three large synagogues and good marketing. The 8th District also has three synagogues, only they’re smaller and hidden behind walls.”
But most of daily Jewish life in the surrounding streets has disappeared. Gone are Pászka Macó, a kosher general store; the bakery at number 27 Nagyfuvaros Street that allowed its oven to be used for cholent on Fridays; and the ritual slaughterhouse. The only remnant of the district’s middle-class Jewish population, which was distinct from the Hasidic peddlers who lived nearby, is the synagogue at 4 Nagyfuvaros Street.
The synagogue occupies a building hidden within a residential courtyard that once housed the Józsefváros Casino. Light streams in through the glass ceiling by the women’s gallery as bulbs nestled in five- and seven-branched menorahs illuminate the rest of the hall. At first glance, it appears to be furnished in an Orthodox style, with a central bimah and white-and-gold curtains around the ark, but today it serves a Neolog community, Hungary’s version of Reform Judaism, and is still active, although its 800 seats are seldom filled up.
Today, dilapidated buildings, firewalls covered with murals, and new buildings that are mostly home to Budapest’s Roma and immigrant populations give the 7th District its unique character. Fecske Street 14, like many buildings in the area, appears to be on the verge of being condemned. The crackle of a radio out a kitchen window will echo the flaking walls of the deceptively plain courtyard, but closer inspection will reveal stone carvings on the wall, and stained glass Stars of David lining the inside of the stairwell.
Stories thread through the streets of the neighborhood, sometimes literally. Commemorative bronze Stolpersteine, or stumbling stones, embedded into the sidewalk around the city by German artist Gunter Demnig, remind passersby of the neighboring Jews who died in the Holocaust. At 46 Népszínház Street, on the corner of Teleki Square, above a stone inscribed with the name Márton Lászlóné, a placard hangs dedicated to the event known as Little Warsaw that took place in October 1944.
“There was a legend of a counterattack against the fascist Arrow Cross soldiers here,” said Lakos, the tour guide. “The name comes from the resistance of the Warsaw Ghetto, but there wasn’t really anything of the kind in Hungary. It was a Yellow Star House, one of around 2,000 in the city, a place Jews had to move before deportation. Someone shot out of the window at one of the passing soldiers and the soldiers entered the house, dragged everyone out, and shot them in the head. One possibility is the Christian housemaster overseeing the house shot the gun to provoke, but we still don’t know what happened exactly.”
Even though there was no uprising, the area was infused with the spirit of resistance. The community at the Teleki Square Shul uncovered more stories as they delved into the neighborhood’s history.
“[We found] stories of Jews dressed up as Arrow Cross people saving other Jews and killing Nazis,” said the Teleki Shul’s Mayer, “And we made an interview with a man called Feri, who, at the age of 12, managed to provide for his family by burying the dead and bribing officials for fake documents.”
Having endured bombings, the Communist regime, and dilapidation, the Teleki Shul’s next challenge was its aging membership. In the 1970s and ’80s, some of the neighboring shtiebels were still active, but it could be a struggle to make a minyan.
Realizing that the community was at risk of dying out, Jakab Gláser, who served as manager of the Teleki Square Shul, took it upon himself to find fresh blood to take it over. Gláser made his way to 22 Teleki after one of the nearby shtiebels closed. He made it his mission to keep the last shul alive.
“What I found most fascinating about him was his sense of reality and people,” recalled Mayer. “He wasn’t a rabbi, and from his stories and jokes we learned that he had always been on the naughty side of things. He knew that he had to be more lenient if he wanted us young to come again so he told us jokes and took us to the confectionery right after service on Shabbat that others would’ve frowned upon. He told these people to come and be the 10th or just shut up.
“He remembered everything. Not just the name of the doctor who took out his tonsils, but he also remembered what he had for breakfast yesterday or two weeks ago or what happened three years ago.” And so Gábor Mayer and the Teleki community decided it was time to record Jakab Gláser’s memories before it was too late.
When a French director named Barbara Spitzer appeared at the shul one morning in 2000, a documentary sprang to life. Based on 200 hours of raw footage, Tales of Teleki Square premiered in 2014. Another installment, about Jakab Gláser’s story, is scheduled for completion in 2019.
Even though it boasts no grand monuments, the Jewish community of the 8th District reveals a vibrant, enduring spirit nurtured by a group passionate about preserving memories—and making new ones. The Teleki Square Shul draws Jews from across denominational boundaries, and, as its numbers grow, there is hope that it can once again be open not only for Saturday morning services, but on Friday evenings, too.
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Jennifer Walker is an ex-physicist turned freelance writer specializing in art, travel, and culture.