(JHE) — Renovation of the long-abandoned 19th century synagogue in Kőszeg, in western Hungary on the Austrian border, has finally begun, following years of false starts and failed announcements.
The work represents the first phase of a larger plan that foresees the restoration of the entire synagogue complex, including the Rabbi’s house, courtyard, garden, and fence. Work on the synagogue is expected to be completed by the second half of 2021, while the Rabbi’s house should be completed by spring 2022.
The complex has been owned since 2016 by the state, which is reported to have allocated 649.745.697 forints (around €1,784,490), for the project.
The Hungarian Public Procurement Authority said the first phase of restoration of the synagogue will include removal of mold, reinforcing the structure, carrying out masonry and other work on the roof, and installing mechanical and electrical systems. Restoration of the interior of the building will focus particular attention to the delicate paintings on the walls and ceiling.
In February, János Fónagy, deputy minister of Innovation and Technology, was quoted as saying that the complex will become “a multi-purpose center – a cultural and religious site with space for exhibitions, trainings, and small conferences – that will be attractive for the city’s residents, scientific and educational institutions, and visitors.” It also will fulfill a commemorative function.
An article posted on the web site of MAZSIHISZ, the main Jewish umbrella group, said the synagogue had been taken over by the contractor in August and preparatory works such as landscaping, and restoration surveys have been carried out since then.
The restoration is being carried out by the company VM Construction Fővállalkozó Kft, within the framework of the KRAFT program, working to plans by the architecture firm Tripartitum Építész Műhely Kft. KRAFT is a regional development program that includes economic, municipal and academic actors that work together for the development of small and medium-sized cities. The Kőszeg-based Institute for Advanced Studies (iASK) coordinates activities in its KRAFT center.
Built in 1859, the synagogue is a distinctive red brick structure with two crenellated towers flanking the main part of the building, a sort of upright cylinder with a flat dome. The interior has a recessed Ark, a Bimah is set off by a wrought iron grille; and a women’s gallery, set on slim iron pillars.
Construction of the synagogue complex was financed by Philip (Fülöp) Schey (1798-1881), a Jewish philanthropist born in Kőszeg, who had grown rich as a textile merchant and later became a banker for the Hapsburgs.
In 1859, Emperor Franz Joseph raised Schey to the Hungarian nobility — he was the first Jew to receive this honor and took the title Philip Schey von Koromla.
Amid the lovely paintings on the inside of the cupola of the synagogue was written, in German: “Zur Ehre Gottes erbaut von Philip Schey von Koromla” — For the honor of God, this was built by Philip Schey von Koromla.
The synagogue has stood empty and in deteriorating condition for decades.
Of the 109 Jews living in Kőszeg in 1941, only 7 survived the Shoah; they left the city in the years following WWII.
From 1944 to 1996, the synagogue was owned by the state, and afterwards it was bought by a private investor who wanted to establish an Irish pub in it. This project failed, and in 2004, the synagogue was auctioned again, but none of its new owners carried out renovation works. With the creation of the KRAFT program, renovation work on the synagogue should have started in 2014 under its supervision, with the aim to be completed by 2015, but this failed to materialize.
In 2007, the Hungarian filmmaker Zsuzsanna Geller-Varga produced a 47-minute documentary film about the building called “Synagogue for Sale” which chronicles the failed attempts to save it.
Privatization, Irish pub, mortgage, auction. Who would guess we’re talking about a synagogue in Kőszeg, a small town in Hungary? The synagogue is in the center of town. Officially under landmark protection, it’s falling apart; the walls are rotting. The Cultural Heritage professionals throw up their hands and hope for the best. Meanwhile, the property owners wait for their investment to pay off. The Jewish community in a neighboring town joins the local government in setting up a foundation. A married couple rolls up their sleeves and attempts to save the building.