Budapest -- Bob Cohen, Lipot Baumhorn and the Main Jewish Cemetery

A tomb designed by Lipot Baumhorn in the Kozma utca cemetery. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Bob Cohen, whose blog (Dumneazu) I've linked to several times in the past, has a post about his first visit to the main Jewish cemetery in Budapest, the enormously huge cemetery on Kozma utca at the end of the 37 tram.

Bob himself finds it astonishing that in all his years in Bp, he has never visited there before -- in fact, I find it astonishing, too, given all the time in past years that I myself have spent there.

Tomb designed by Odon Lechner and Bela Lajta. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The cemetery figures prominently in two of my books, Jewish Heritage Travel, of course, but also in Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today, which came out in 1994.

When I first visited, some 20 years ago, the cemetery was pretty much a wilderness -- most of it was overgrown with ivy, saplings, weeds, bushes. Only the very front part was cleared.

My most memorable experience came when I was researching "Doorposts" -- and Ed Serotta accompanied me there to try to find the grave of Lipot Baumhorn, the great synagogue architect, who died in 1932.

I recount the full story in "Doorposts" -- going to the office of the cemetery, having the man there riffle through endless index cards (nowadays the records are computerized) to find the plot. Then following him around the cemetery (first going in the wrong direction) until we found the proper plot -- but no stone, just a huge clump of trees. Then I looked closer and saw that the trees were actually a thick mass of ivy, covering one stone, and I made out a few letters -- it was, in fact Baumhorn's gravestone.

Ed and I ripped away the ivy, uncovering the stone: it was a very emotional experience. On the stone's face was a list of synagogues that Baumhorn had designed or remodeled... at the top was a bas relief of his masterpiece, the dome of the synagogue in Szeged. Then, there was an epitaph written in highly complex, poetic language by the great Rabbi of Szeged, Immanuel Löw, about how he sought synagogues in heaven.... I took the Hungarian original to a series of friends around the city who put together different translations of the difficult lines.

This is the way that the architect and architectural historian Janos Gerle rendered the poem:

Our inspired artist: His inspiration and heart gave birth
To the lines of synagogues that look toward heaven and awaken piety.
Above his peaceful home hovered devotion;
The soul of a father and husband gave birth of heaven-seeking consolation.

In Szolnok, outside the LB synagogue, 2006