For 137 years the Moorish-style Dohany Street Synagogue, with its twin onion-domed towers, mosaic floors, and gold-leaf detail, has been a cornerstone of social and spiritual life for Hungarian Jews. Europe's largest Jewish temple, it reopened last week, after four years of restoration, amid a gathering of more than 3,000 dignitaries and spectators in a country that once was home to close to 1 million Jews.
"When I come here I see a place that I, my parents, and grandparents have known so well our whole lives," says the pony-tailed Peter Herz, a recent graduate of the all-Jewish Anna Frank High School. "It feels like home."
Jewish leaders view the synagogue's $9 million restoration as a key first step - along with the long-awaited restitution to Holocaust victims - toward reviving a once-thriving Jewish community that was nearly destroyed by World War II and dormant during communism.
"This is not only the restoration of a building," says Robert Turan, director of the Budapest Jewish Museum, "but the restoration of the spirit."
Located on the rim of what was the Budapest ghetto, the bomb-damaged synagogue provided cover for a resistance movement operating through an underground tunnel that linked the ghetto with the outside world. The building itself became a collection facility for Jews assigned to brutal forced-labor camps and later for those awaiting deportation to concentration camps. Nearly 75 percent of Hungary's 800,000 Jews perished in the camps.
An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Jews now live in Hungary, mostly in Budapest. Hungary's wartime fascist government eagerly helped the Nazis clear the countryside of virtually all Jews.
Today it's a different story. With the West applying pressure - and integration into Western institutions the focus of foreign and domestic policy - the government has made several conciliatory gestures toward its Jewish community. It financed 80 percent of the Dohany synagogue's restoration.
Most important, however, in June Hungary became the first among its East European neighbors to create a framework for compensating Holocaust victims for billions of dollars worth of property confiscated or stolen during the war.
The 1947 Treaty of Paris obliged Hungary, as a Nazi collaborator, to compensate the Jewish community for its losses. But the Communists, who nationalized all private property in 1948, ignored the treaty.
Soon after the political system changed in 1989, the government began to return property to the public. Jews, however, were not singled out for their wartime losses.
In April 1993, Hungary's Constitutional Court ordered the state to hold up its end of the Paris treaty. But the process only sped up last year, when the US and European Union began to lean on the government. Some speculate that restitution is on a long list of preconditions for Hungary's entry into the EU.
"We wanted to finally resolve this problem," says Erika Planko, who represents the Ministry of Justice in negotiations with the Jewish community. "It's important to us what Europe thinks."
AN estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Holocaust survivors live in Hungary, whose compensation is expected to run to billions of dollars. But the Jewish community is sensitive to the country's woeful economy and wary of inciting an anti-Semitic backlash if it insists on a seemingly excessive amount.
"For the anti-Semites, even one forint is too much," says Peter Feldmajer, president of the Confederation of Jewish Communities in Hungary. "We've never said we want everything immediately, but we have a responsibility to all Hungarian Jews to rebuild Jewish life."