After decades of fitful starts and setbacks, the magnificent art nouveau synagogue in Subotica, Serbia has been officially reopened with a high-profile ceremony attended by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. (A second dedication ceremony organized by the Jewish community is planned for April, when Torah scrolls will be reinstalled in the Ark.)
Some 900 invited guests attended the event on Sunday (March 26). They included representatives of Jewish communities in Serbia and Hungary, as well as diplomats, representatives of the church, and other VIPs.
Orban and Vučić both said the restored synagogue symbolized cooperation among Serbs, Hungarians, and Jews.
Hungary allocated significant funding to the restoration, particularly for the restoration of the interior, which was completed in December. In his speech Orban noted that in 2014, the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary, the Hungarian government had launched “a synagogue renovation program, with a budget of around 10 billion forints (€32 million).” Within this program, he said, “many buildings – from Budapest to Vynohradiv/ Nagyszőlős, and from Berehove/ Beregszász to Subotica/ Szabadka – have been renovated and saved from destruction.”
Robert Sabados, president of the Jewish community of Subotica and the Federation of Jewish Communities in Serbia, told JHE that the rededication represented “the end of 40 years of suffering for this wonderful building.”
Owned by the municipality, the synagogue 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.
You can already see an online exhibit about the synagogue put together by the World Monuments Fund.
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.
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, author of an award-winning book on the synagogue, has also detailed this.)
In 2001 JHE Coordinator Ruth Ellen Gruber served on a foundation, SOS Synagogue, that had, with little success, attempted to promote the restoration of the building.
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.