At long last, after decades of fitful starts and setbacks, the stunning art nouveau synagogue in Subotica, Serbia is restored, inside and out — with the official dedication planned for some time in the next couple of months.
Some details remain to be resolved, but restoration of the interior, carried out with significant funding from the Hungarian government, was completed in December after 13 months of work.
JHE Coordinator Ruth Ellen Gruber visited the synagogue on Sunday, along with Robert Sabadoš, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Serbia, and the architect Viktorija Aladzic. (Back in 2001 Ruth and Viktorija had been part of a foundation, SOS Synagogue, that had, with little success, attempted to promote the restoration of the building.)
The synagogue, which is owned by the municipality, will be managed as a tourist attraction and concert venue — but it will also be used by the small local Jewish community, when they wish, for services and on other occasions. According to Sabadoš, the Jewish community will be able to veto concerts or other events deemed inappropriate. There are also plans to install a permanent Jewish exhibition.
Known in Hungarian as Szabadka, Subotica was part of Austro-Hungary at the time the synagogue, dedicated in 1902, was built, and it was designed by the Budapest-based architects Dezső Jakab and Marcell Komor, who also designed the town hall and the buildings of the park in Palić, outside of town.
They had submitted an identical (or very similar) design in the competition for the synagogue in nearby Szeged in 1999 — but their design lost out to the grand synagogue designed by Lipot Baumhorn.
In the 1920s, architect Jakab commented on the synagogue’s concept in the Jewish weekly Szombat: “We designed the whole temple to be a light, bright place in lively colors, where sorrow passes away and believers, after having finished their prayers, leave it with peace in their hearts, as an opposition to the gloomy intimacy of Gothic churches.”
The Synagogue has a tall central, eight-sided dome, whose roof is patterned in multi-colored tiles. This dominates smaller, bulbous domes, sinuously curved gables and ornamental buttresses. Each dome is topped by a star of David. The cream stucco outer walls are edged in red brick or terracotta tiles molded into floral or other decorative shapes.
With its glazed tile roof and zinc-clad domes, the synagogue was one of the first buildings to employ concrete and steel construction, a technique that did not become commonplace until later in the twentieth century.
Eight steel columns arranged in a circle support the vast central dome. Interior walls, columns, and balcony panels are decorated with brightly colored murals, woodcarvings, and plaster elements. These include Secessionist-style forms and stylized motifs including roses, carnations, tulips, peacock feathers, and stems with leaves inspired by Transylvanian folk art.
Particularly notable are the stained glass windows, originally from the studio of Miksa Roth, and the elements made from unglazed terra-cotta produced in the Zsolnay factory in Pécs.
In his award-winning book about the synagogue, Rudi Klein wrote:
Besides lending the synagogue a distinct double identity in architectural terms, Jakab and Komor created a new space-conception of synagogue architecture in Hungary and deployed modern steel structure as well as an advanced technique of vaulting. Unlike period synagogues in Hungary that featured a predominantly basilical arrangement with a nave and two aisles, with or without a dome, this synagogue achieves a unified, tent-like central space under the sun, painted in gold on the apex of the dome. The women’s gallery and the dome are supported by four pairs of steel pillars covered with gypsum with a palm leaf relief. The large dome is a self-supporting, 3-5 centimeters thin shell-structure, formed in the spirit of Hungarian folklore. While many other synagogues have utilized light structures, they usually mimicked traditional arches and vaults. The novelty of this synagogue is the sincere display of modern structure and modernity in general, of which Jews have been important advocates and generators.
The design for the synagogue carries through into its surrounding yard, which is surrounded by a wrought iron fence worked in a pattern of hearts.
The long saga of the synagogue’s restoration began in the mid-1970s. Viktorija Aladžić has prepared a report, available online, detailing the decades of successes and setbacks. (Rudi Klein has also detailed this.)
The small, surviving Jewish community in Subotica was not able to maintain the synagogue after World War II, and in September 1979 it presented the building to the city, under the condition that it be restored and used for cultural purposes that would accord with its original function.
Between 1985 and 1992 Synagogue was used as an avant-garde theater which contributed to the further degradation of the building. A number of structural changes, were carried out, including raising the floor, adapting rooms for workshops and storage, removing of pews and introducing movable grandstands. Heating, plumbing and ventilation were not adequately installed. Improperly insulated electrical cables for heating units placed under the new floor short-circuited and caused fires several times.
In addition, the performances included the use of animals in the building and even performers urinating in front of the Ark. Restoration work, including repainting and reinforcing the inner cupola and dome, was carried out between 1976 and 1994, but work was never completed — it was then stalled by the impact of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
In 1996 and then again in 2000 the World Monuments Watch placed the synagogue on its Watch List of 100 most endangered sites, and in 2000 the WMF granted $ 60,000 financial aid for the repair of the most damaged parts of the roof. Europa Nostra put it on its Seven Most Endangered List in 2014.
The synagogue eventually became a WMF priority project with funding from several donors.
The Hungarian government provided significant funding, in particular nearly €3 million — targeted mainly for the restoration of the interior of the building, which was carried out between November 2016 and December 2017.
Note: Thanks to Rudi Klein for allowing us to use some of his photos