Jewish Heritage Europe

Hungary: the sculptural Jewish tombs by famed architect Béla Lajta

Family vault of Dr. Emil Guttmann, 1908. Salgotarjani cemetery

An article in Apollo international art magazine highlights the work of the late 19th-early 20th century Hungarian Jewish architect Bela Lajta — including the remarkable sculptural tombs he designed in Budapest’s Jewish cemeteries.

Writes Edward Heathcote:

Lajta’s mausoleums in the Salgótarjáni Street Jewish Cemetery in Budapest are unlike anything anywhere. They seem to convey curious memories of ancient domes, temples and sculptures, as much Mesopotamian as Greek, a half-remembered melange of antique solidity and haunting archetypes. His black granite tomb for Emil Guttmann is an ominous dream, his Gries-family mausoleum a fragment of Solomon’s Temple, and his tomb for Lajos Schwarz, a massive, shadowy reinterpretation of Greek whiteness, its chunky sarcophagus sticking out from between stumpy columns like a swollen tongue. He invented three new architectural languages right here, in one cemetery, within a few months in 1907. 

Lajta (1873-1920) was one of the most important Hungarian architects of his day and a disciple of Ödön Lechner, the founder of Hungary’s vivid art nouveau style. He designed a number of important buildings in Budapest, including a nightclub now known as the “New Theatre” on Paulay Ede street, and his work foreshadowed art deco and modernism.

Lajta designed grand (and some not so grand) tombs in the  Salgótarjáni utca Jewish cemetery and also designed the cemetery’s entrance gate and ceremonial hall. He also designed tombs in the vast Rákoskeresztúr (Kozma utca) Jewish cemetery.

Lajta’s signature on the Guttmann family vault

The Bela Lajta Archives web site states that his relationship with the Chevra Kadisha began at the end of 1903, and he eventually was taken on as permanent technical adviser for the cemeteries.

His duties included designing the general layout of the Kozma Street cemetery (it is not known whether he finished these plans or not), vaults and minor buildings, as well as planning road construction and drainage projects, or sometimes even the monitoring of the elimination of “damp spots discovered on the building of the central cemetery”.

As for designed tombs — he is known to have designed more than 30 tombstones and family vaults, “the character of which changed in parallel with the evolution of his architectural style; from the refined forms of Art Nouveau to strict geometrical masses, providing a constant opportunity for the architect to develop his ornamental art.”

Click here to see a list (and pictures) on the Lajta Archives web site .

Here we present a photo collection showing some of Lajta’s Jewish funerary monuments and cemetery buildings.

According to the Lajta Archives, the earliest was the grave marker for his parents, in the Kozma utca cemetery, erected around 1903.

Tomb of Dávid and Teréz Leitersdorfer, c. 1903, Kozma utca cemetery

Lajta’s most famous tomb is probably that of Sándor and Róza Schmidl, in the Kozma utca cemetery. It dates from 1904 and is one of his earliest works, lavishly decorated with colorful tiles and mosaics.

Mausoleum of the Schmidl family, Kozma utca Jewish cemetery, Budapest

Schmidl and his wife ran a grocery and “colonial goods” (ie spices) shop on Budapest’s downtown Karoly korut — and Lajta also designed their store. Lajta signed the tomb Béla Leitersdorfer, his birth name (according to some sources Lechner collaborated on it.)

Mausoleum of the Schmidl family, Kozma utca Jewish cemetery, Budapest


Tomb of the Brody family, in Salgotarjani utca cemetery, 1908


Entry way to Kerepesi (Salgotarjani utca) Jewish cemetery, by Bèla Lajta


The ceremonial hall of Salgotarjani Jewish cemetery, designed by Lajta


Family vault of the Svab brothers in Salgotarjani utca cemetery, 1909


Family vault of the Svab brothers in Salgotarjani utca cemetery, 1909


Lajta’s signature on the Svab tomb


Tomb of Dr. Vilmos Bacher


Lajta’s signature on the tomb of Vilmos Bacher


Family vault of Baron Kohner, Salgotarjani utca cemetery


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