The lavishly ornate interior of the grand New Synagogue in Szeged awaits much-needed restoration, two years after the multi-million euro restoration of the exterior of the enormous domed building was completed.
On Monday, JHE director Ruth Ellen Gruber toured the synagogue and met in the Szeged Jewish community office with the president of the Jewish community, Istvan Buk, and two representatives of the municipality engaged in the EU-funded Rediscover Jewish heritage project. They told her that water infiltration has continued since the exterior renovation, creating further problems and even compromising the synagogue’s electrical system. The building’s structure, however, remains sound.
The second largest synagogue in Hungary (after the Dohany st. synagogue in Budapest), the Szeged synagogue, inaugurated in 1903, is the masterpiece of the Budapest-based architect Lipot Baumhorn, central Europe’s most prolific synagogue architect. (A bas relief carving of the massive dome of the Szeged synagogue decorates the upper portion of Baumhorn’s gravestone in Budapest’s Kozma utca Jewish cemetery.)
The government announced in 2014 that it had allocated 950 million forints (at the time €3.1 million) for much-needed repairs on the building. According to Infostart.hu, some restoration work was also carried out with funding from the Jewish community’s Szeged Synagogue Foundation.
The exterior work, completed in 2017, included repair of the main dome, the towers, the roof, and the facade, as well as gutters and drainage. The fence and precious stained glass windows incorporating rich Jewish symbolism were repaired, and the Biblical garden designed by Rabbi Immanual Löw, who consulted closely with Baumhorn on many facets of the design and lavish decorative elements, was replanted (but much of the plantings seem not to have survived the Hungarian winters) .
According to the information provided to the JHE director, the recent water damage and damage to the electric system was the result of failed or omitted restoration on two of the synagogue’s towers. Rectification of this is already planned.
They estimated the cost of full restoration of the interior, including rewiring and restoration of the sumptuous decoration, at approximately €6.6 million — that is, considerably more than the cost of the exterior renovation.
The synagogue, owned by the Jewish community, is a city landmark operated as a tourist attraction with regular visiting hours and also a cultural venue for concerts and other events. Baumhorn also designed the Jewish community headquarters building across the street, as well as the ceremonial hall in the Jewish cemetery.
Szeged is one of nine mid-sized cities taking part in an EU-funded project called “Rediscover, expose and exploit the concealed Jewish heritage of the Danube Region.”
The more than €1.8 million project (with most funding from the European Regional Development Fund) kicked off June 1, 2018 and runs until May 31, 2021. It is being implemented by partnerships of local governments, NGOs and Jewish communities in the EU’s Danube Region — an area stretching along the river and its hinterland, from the Black Forest to the Black Sea. The project explores ways to promote Jewish heritage tourism as well as to educate local people about Jewish heritage and history.
Szeged’s municipal government is the REDISCOVER project’s lead partner, and, in cooperation with the Jewish community, it has been engaged in a variety of local projects ranging from organizing Jewish heritage itineraries and a Jewish cultural festival, to research ahead of a planned exhibition on Lipot Baumhorn to mark his 160th birthday next year.
In Szeged, the JHE director met with the Rediscover project’s communications manager Eszter Nagy-Tóth and project manager Anna Szentgyörgyi.
Here are some further images of the Szeged New Synagogue — you can see both the beauty of the interior as well as evidence of water damage: