The long-abandoned synagogue of Kővágóörs, a village near the north shore of Hungary’s Lake Balaton, is – finally – set to be reconstructed. A foundation set up last year has purchased the long-ruined building and plans to restore it for use as both a synagogue and a cultural center.
The Synagogue of Káli-valley Foundation (in Hungarian, Káli-medence Zsinagógája Alapítvány) officially acquired the building in October, after a year and a half of discussions, from a Canadian businessman of Hungarian origin, who had owned the synagogue since 2013.
The paperwork for the purchase was completed in February, but work is on hold due to the Covid-19 crisis, which has Hungary under lockdown.
Local citizens and associations had attempted several times over the past two decades to purchase the building in order to restore it, without success. One prominent lobbyist had been Tamás Cseh, a well-known Hungarian singer and actor who died in 2009 and who, like several other prominent Hungarians, had a holiday house in the village. in 2013, the Municipality of Kővágóörs renamed the street where the synagogue stands after Cseh.
The Synagogue of Káli-valley Foundation was established by four people who raised the approximately €80.000 euros needed for the purchase of the building.
“From the first ‘yes’ to our offer from the previous owner, it took us more than a year and a half to buy the synagogue,” Csaba Kelemen, one of the founders, told JHE. “We bought it last October, but since it’s a historical protected building, we had to wait 90 days until the purchase became legal. During this period, several government offices had the chance to buy it, and this slowed the purchase. We received all the documents only in February, and now we are officially the owners.”
Kelemen is a Budapest-based economist and entrepreneur, the owner and founder of the Lauritzen Group, a leading Hungarian sales and advertising agency, and member of the Maccabi Club Hungary. The other members of the Foundation’s board are also Jewish, live in Budapest, and have holiday homes in the Kővágóörs area.
“We decided to buy the synagogue because we regretted the fact that a historical building was just dying in one of the most beautiful areas of the Hungarian countryside,” Kelemen said. “The synagogue survived so much in the past 200 years that we thought it really deserved to stay alive.”
Kelemen estimated that the costs for the synagogue’s renovation could amount to at least €400.000. The restoration plan and fundraising efforts are still in their initial phases, with architects currently working on a preliminary study. The Foundation has also contacted professionals who are studying the frescoes inside the synagogue, as well as historians who are compiling the history of the synagogue and will also try to collect potential memorabilia connected to it.
Kővágóörs lies in Veszprém county, and the Foundation hopes that the restoration can be ready by 2023, when Veszprém will be the European Capital of Culture.
Built around 1822 (and later reconstructed in the late 19th century), the Kővágóörs synagogue is a rare example of a surviving village synagogue in Hungary. After WWII, the building became the warehouse of the ÁFÉSZ, the state grocery retailer, but its owners changed several times since then and the building was eventually left empty. In 1985, the synagogue was declared a national monument.
The Center for Jewish Art has described it as “one of the most interesting Jewish monuments in Hungary”:
We suppose that originally the building had vaults, supported by a bimah-support structure in the center of the prayer hall. During the reconstructions, the bimah-support was removed, the ceiling became flat, and the pilasters were topped by decorative elements featuring a six-pointed flower. Probably at the same time, a wooden women’s gallery was installed in the western part of the prayer hall.
JHE contributor Michele Migliori visited the synagogue in mid-March and photographed its current conditions.
The synagogue lies completely ruined and abandoned in the middle of a small green area at the center of the village, bordered by an iron fence which is perforated in some parts, allowing anyone to get inside.
The stairs that once led to the women’s gallery are partially destroyed but it is still possible to go up the stairs.
Even though it’s in a bad shape, its interior preserves much of its original features, such as the wooden women’s gallery in the western part of the synagogue; the painted ceiling, pilasters and walls, with two murals above the Ark and Hebrew inscriptions.
In Kővágóörs, the house of the Rabbi once stood next to the synagogue, but it was destroyed in the 1960s. The former yeshiva is still standing, however — it is now being used as a holiday home.
The village’s Jewish cemetery, containing about 200 tombstones, was completely abandoned and densely overgrown with vegetation, until a clean-up organized several years ago by local activists.
The Foundation also aims to take care of it in the future.