The large-scale restoration of the long-derelict former Orthodox synagogue in Berettyóújfalu, a Hungarian town on the border with Romania between Debrecen (HU) and Oradea (RO), is expected to be completed by the end of this summer. The synagogue will be used both for worship and as a cultural space, but the new complex won’t be formally inaugurated until spring 2021, when a permanent exhibition on local Jewish history will also be installed.
As we wrote in 2019, the restoration of the synagogue, which was built in 1903 and after the Holocaust served for decades as a metal warehouse, includes the renovation of the facade and roof, the replacement of windows, and the restoration of the interior, including the decorative wall and ceiling paintings and metalwork.
In addition, an electronic panel will be installed near the entrance, where the names of the local Jews who were killed in the Holocaust will be displayed one after the other, and inside the synagogue information panels will be installed, where visitors may find more information about the Jews of Berettyóújfalu.
Moreover, a glass-walled service building has been built next to the synagogue, housing a reception area, café, and other facilities. It will also serve as the access to the synagogue, while the main doors will remain closed.
Last week, JHE contributor Michele Migliori visited the synagogue and the town’s Jewish cemeteries together with Irén Kállai, head of the Culture department at the Municipality of Berettyóújfalu, and Edina Szántó, an employee of the culture department who will work at the synagogue once it is open to the public. After the visit, Michele met with Zsolt Heller, from the Jewish community of Debrecen, who curated the exhibition that will be displayed in Berettyóújfalu and was also a consultant to the Municipality during the renovation works.
Irén Kállai explained that the façade of the building is an exact replica of the original, based on pre-war photographs in the collections of the Municipality and the Jewish community in Debrecen (the closest active community to Berettyóújfalu).
The main challenge, he said, was the restoration of the interior itself. Since the synagogue served for decades as a warehouse after the war, there was nothing left inside when the municipality decided to start the renovation, and no photographs of the interior have been found so far. However, after scraping the walls, some frescoes began to appear, and at that point they decided to carry out the internal restoration following those traces. This has resulted in delicate, colorful frescoes all over the synagogue, curated by a company from Budapest.
The building will be used for both cultural and religious purposes, and will host concerts, conferences, events, and also the permanent exhibition, which will focus on the local vanished Jewish community, its relationship with the non-Jewish inhabitants, and its most prominent members.These include György Konrad, a noted Hungarian writer, journalist, and intellectual, who died last year. A small exhibition on Judaism and the Torah will also be exhibited, geared for schools and children.
The synagogue will have a small area dedicated to prayer close to the entrance, where an Ark will be installed (a replica of the one at the Pásti street synagogue in Debrecen).
There are two Jewish cemeteries in the town, the Old and the New cemetery. The Old Jewish cemetery stands close to the center of the town, hidden behind the garden of the local middle school.
The cemetery was fenced in recent years by the Israel-based organization Agudas Ohalei Tzadikim — earlier it was used as part of the school’s garden, where the youngsters used to play. The cemetery contains around 30 tombstones, two thirds of which lie on the ground. At the center of the cemetery, inside a small building, stands the tombstone of a prominent local Rabbi.
The New cemetery was fenced in 2015 by the Heritage Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries (HFPJC), but it remains property of the municipality. It is well-maintained and has a Holocaust memorial as well as an ohel with the grave of Rabbi Amram Blum (1834–1907), visited by hundreds of pilgrims each September.
After the synagogue restoration is completed, the municipality, together with the Jewish community of Debrecen, plan to create Jewish heritage routes to attract tourists from inside and outside Hungary – the Debrecen International Airport, which offers low cost flights to and from Israel, is only 20 km away.
No official plans have been announced, but a first route would be an internal one, related only to the Jewish sites of the town; a second one would be related to Debrecen and its Jewish heritage; and a third — transborder — one, would include the Jewish heritage in Oradea, Romania, where six synagogue buildings still stand, several of them recently restored. Two are used by the Jewish community, one is a major city landmark, and one is now a Jewish museum.