Sunday, December 16, in Budapest the closure of Central Europe’s first official celebration of the Jewish Chanukah holiday.
Prayers and songs reverberated throughout snow covered streets in Hungary’s capital, as an Orthodox Jew lit the eight candles of a 6 meter (18 feet) Menorah placed in front of the Parliament building.
The gathering around the Menorah, described by organizers as “the tallest in Europe,” was to encourage Jewish people not to hide their traditions after decades of persecution, which intensified during World War Two and continued under Communism.
“I was already 16 when I realized my Jewish roots because I was never told about that,” said Julia Lengyel, now a 45-year old mother of two. “Both my parents were Holocaust survivors and under Communism it was difficult for both Christians and Jews to keep their traditions and go to the church. Although it was never officially forbidden, it could cost your job.”
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Lengyel said she is happy that Hungarian Jews can now openly enjoy Chanukah, the Hebrew word for “renewal.” It was first celebrated in 164 B.C. when Jewish people got back their Temple in Jerusalem, after they revolted against their enemies. They discovered one bottle of olive oil to light the candles in the Temple for one day. However the oil is said to have lasted for eight days,
an event that became known as “the miracle of Chanukah.”
“This is a very emotional moment for me,” Salamon Berkowitz, the founder of the Mechon Simon Foundation and organizer of the Budapest ceremony, told BosNewsLife. “We gathered in front of the same Parliament building where Hungarian politicians once introduced Europe’s first anti Semitic laws, which eventually lead to the Holocaust.”
“There were many tears among Holocaust survivors,” said 54-year old Berkowitz, whose brother and sister were among the 600.000 Hungarian Jews who died in Nazi concentration camps. His father and other family members later fled Hungary to begin a new life in the United States.
Berkowitz, now a successful banker, arrived in Budapest from New York, where recovery workers are still working beneath the rubble of what was the World Trade Center. “This Chanukah event in Hungary was also held to commemorate the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. We will always remember those heroes as an internal flame.”
Berkowitz said he was encouraged that local authorities allowed the ceremony to take place near a monument that commemorates the 1956 revolution against Soviet domination. He hopes it sends a message to Hungarians that “their Jewish brethren” also took part in wars for freedom. “We hope and pray that the spark of Chanukah will bring light throughout the holiday season and strengthen the American concept of democracy around the world.”
Former Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs, who currently leads the Hungarian Socialist Party, suggested to BosNewsLife that the Chanukah celebrations in Hungary should help to overcome anti Semitism. The United States Ambassador to Budapest and other officials have recently expressed concern about what they see as extremist incidents.
“I hope that if we win next years elections, we will be able to prevent extremism to spread throughout Hungary,” Kovacs said. The leader of the ultra right wing Hungarian Justice and Life Party, Istvan Csurka, declined to attend the Chanukah celebrations in Budapest. But in a letter he promised to pray “around Christmas time” for the Jewish people and their religion.