Bringing back the sound of music to abandoned shuls

We follow the Budapest Festival Orchestra's mission to remind villagers of a lost community


The orchestra performing in the lovingly restored shul

The orchestra performing in the lovingly restored shul

Tucked away in a remote corner of Hungary, the village of Mád constitutes little more than two streets of houses, a small hotel and a dusty café decorated with flowers. Vehicles rarely travel along Mád's roads. Two storks squawk from their nest overlooking the picture postcard countryside.

There is little point trying to locate the village on a map. It is closer to the borders with Slovakia, Ukraine and Romania than to its nation's capital, a three-hour journey by bus. And yet in the midst of the relative emptiness stands one of the most elaborate, ornate, visually stunning synagogues you could dream of visiting.

This beautiful shul was the location chosen by the prestigious Budapest Festival Orchestra to launch one of the most ambitious projects in its history.

Over three nights last week, the acclaimed ensemble performed free concerts in disused, abandoned or derelict synagogues for the local communities. A British equivalent of this audacious project would involve taking the London Symphony Orchestra on a tour of barns in the Shetlands.

Seventy years after the Holocaust, these empty shuls remain as a reminder of the lives lost in the Shoah, the devastation of communities and a Jewish way of life forever lost to the Hungarian countryside.

Mád was once home to 800 Jews – around one-fifth of its population. But for younger inhabitants of the villages on the orchestra's tour - Keszthely and Albertirsa were the subsequent stops - the shuls now have no meaning or context.

The tour was initiated by the orchestra's music director, world renowned conductor Iván Fischer, as a response to the growth of far-right political parties and antisemitism across the continent. It was developed in conjunction with Rabbi Slomó Köves of Budapest as part of the orchestra's outreach programme, celebrating Hungary's diverse cultural heritage and attempting to inspire younger citizens.

Over breakfast close to another stunning shul - Budapest's Great Synagogue - BFO executive director Stefan Englert stresses the project's social significance. "It's an important statement from us," he says. "We want to make an impact. This is a musical approach, not a political one. It cannot be criticised.

"We are trying to create understanding. Most prejudices come from not understanding other people. We want to give people in the countryside an understanding of Jewish life."

But for Fischer, it is as much a personal crusade. "I come from a Jewish family," he explains on the bus to Mád. "My grandparents lived in a typical Hungarian village like this one and they were deported to Auschwitz. My mother, their only child, survived because she was hiding.

"Hungary's Holocaust was an especially tragic one, because proportionally it was an incredibly high number killed - about 500,000 Jews [from a population of 800,000]. Jews were almost completely wiped out in villages. That leaves us with many abandoned synagogues in the countryside."

Fischer sees the concerts as a "friendly gesture" to villagers. Certainly his orchestra would not under normal circumstances visit outposts like Mád. The musicians are more accustomed to performing at the Proms in London or travelling to Tokyo, Los Angeles or other major concert venues across the globe. But the reaction to the synagogue project has been unanimously positive, he reports.

As for the audiences, "the people living in the community only have the experience of an empty building. They know very little about what it was for, what its real function was.

"Maybe, if they understand these were ordinary people, not some sort of strange cannibals - that these were their neighbours and their children played together - it could reduce some feelings of antisemitism or antagonism. If only a few of them think twice when they hear the next hate speech, then we will have accomplished a lot."

Ivàn Fischer

Ivàn Fischer

The Mád shul's baroque interior is breathtaking. Its decorated ark, with its golden ornaments and lettering, and the four stone pillars holding a dome over the bimah, are surrounded by wooden pews topped with stars of David. The building was restored to its original beauty 10 years ago with the support of the New York-based World Monuments Fund and American Jewry. It is as impressive now as it must have been when it opened in 1795.

Among those attending the concert was Barnabas Fehér, a 78-year-old Catholic villager who remembers playing in the fields with his Jewish neighbours as a boy.

Such was his family's strength of feeling towards the Jewish community that for the past 50 years, he has protected the empty shul, acting as de facto caretaker.

"I feel a little bit like an honorary Jew," Mr Fehér grins. "There are no Jewish people here now. It's a very good feeling to see these nice people from the orchestra come here. It's a very special event for us."

Villagers of all ages filled the pews to the capacity of more than 100, eager to hear the music - all the work of Jewish composers.

The half-hour concert opened with the string section performing Budapest composer Leo Weiner's Divertimento, based on Hungarian folk music. The strings were then augmented by a clarinet player for Golem, a contemporary piece by Israeli musician Betty Olivero. As the sounds of the klezmer-style music filled the shul's decorated domes, a handful of women villagers dabbed at their eyes with handkerchiefs.

Comparing the synagogue scene with the reality of what happened in Mád during the Shoah was a sobering experience. More uplifting was the performance on 10 wind instruments and a double bass of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy's thrilling incidental music.

"Wonderful, absolutely wonderful," Fischer beamed as he handed over to Rabbi Köves. Two hours earlier, the orchestra chief had worried whether anyone would show up.

Standing in front of the ark, the rabbi asked the audience to remember those who had once prayed in the building and gave a run-through of the shul's history, functions and ornaments.

As villagers sampled thick slices of traditional küchen in the cool evening air, Rabbi Köves reflected with satisfaction on how the long-planned event had come to fruition - and how such outreach work could curtail the rise of hatred against minority communities.

But with far-right party Jobbik holding three seats in the European Parliament and securing nearly 15 per cent of the vote in last month's Hungarian elections, is it not naïve to think a musical performance can change the realities of the political environment?

"Our tradition and religion teaches us that every small deed adds up - especially in places like this," Rabbi Köves insists. "My strongest belief is that the grounds for antisemitism are ignorance. Our biggest enemy is ignorance. As we are taught, you have to fight darkness with light and I think this is light that we have brought here tonight."

    Last updated: 11:42am, June 27 2014