This year marks the 160th birthday of the Hungarian architect Lipot Baumhorn, the most prolific synagogue architect in pre-WW2 Europe. (He died in 1932.) His life and work this year are a focus of the EU-funded Rediscover Jewish Heritage project, a network of nine small cities in eight countries, cooperating on ways to reveal and promote their often hidden Jewish history. Earlier this year, representatives of three of the partner cities –Timisoara, Romania; Subotica, Serbia; and Szeged, Hungary – met in Timisoara – a city where Baumhorn was very active. The first building he designed in Timisoara was the so-called Fabric District Synagogue, built between 1897 and 1899. The Fabric today stands in dangerously dilapidated condition and is closed to the public, but it is still magnificent, and one of the most distinctive and original buildings in town. The Rediscover group was able to make a rare visit. Here is what they saw.
Visiting a sad but magnificent Baumhorn gem – The Fabric Synagogue in Timisoara
By Eszter Nagy-Tóth and Gábriel Szekély
Standing on the street in front of the Fabric Synagogue, listening to a description of it by Gábriel Szekély, an architect and member of the local Jewish Community, and looking up at the beautiful, rich decorations of the building, we could easily imagine the prosperity, optimism, and ambitions of the Jews living here back in the day.
It was the community’s rabbi, Jakab Singer, who promoted the construction of the new building, soon after he took up his post in 1896. He served as rabbi there until his death in 1939.
The synagogue has a square floor plan with a central dome, connected to the outer walls by deep semi-circular arches. The central dome is high, raised on an octagonal drum, and made of a plastered and painted wooden structure, supported by four pillars.
Baumhorn incorporated several elements of Moorish style, which were widely used in those days to decorate synagogues, but he also added other elements inspired by traditional European architecture, especially by Gothic and Romanesque styles. In many ways, Gabriel noted, the Fabric synagogue thus was “a prototype for his later plans” – including what is considered his masterpiece, the majestic New Synagogue in Szeged, dedicated in 1903.
Our visit allowed us to appreciate the sad grandeur of the building.
We entered through the main entrance, passed through the vestibule, and moved on into a hall where wooden benches should be arranged, but now we only found dust, debris and waste.
The roof had been badly damaged by severe water leaks, destroying one side of the balcony completely. However, with the financial help of the local Orthodox Church the roof was fixed, and the interior remains dry. Several of the once grandiose stained glass windows are broken, the beautifully carved furniture is almost all gone.
Still, in spite of the decay, we could recognize neo-romanesque elements (double windows, small decorative column rows), neo-gothic elements (the sculpted rosette windows, the entrance), some Art Nouveau elements (arched volumes, flowers on the windows), and of course the Moorish decorative elements (brick decorations, oriental arches, wrought iron).
An organ built by the local organ builder Lipót Wegenstein was installed in a balcony behind the ark in 1904. Some adventurous colleagues climbed upstairs to the balcony to see it — it’s ruined, of course; the pipes are there, but many of the keys are missing. The synagogue choir used to sing from a space in front of the organ.
Standing there, we could see the gorgeous, but sadly damaged, cupola with eight colored stained glass rosettas; the dominant color here is blue, like the color of the sky.
The Fabric synagogue is one of four synagogues still standing in Timisoara – only one of them, the Iosefin synagogue, is still in use for worship.
Members of the local Jewish Community and Rabbi Zvika Kfir told us how the Fabric stopped serving its original purpose half a century ago, after the local Jewish population dwindled because of the largescale emigration to Israel and elsewhere. In the 1980s only a small prayer room, situated in the yard of the building, continued to open its gates to worshippers. Now it’s all deserted.
After visiting the synagogue, the rabbi invited us to the community headquarters. He wanted to show us a very interesting picture on the wall of the entrance hall.
It is a painting, but the heads of the gentlemen depicted are cut out photographs inserted onto the picture. The scene, dated 1905, represents the president and leadership of the Jewish community, all seated around a big table, discussing the plans of the future community headquarters building, which also was designed by Baumhorn.
The only person in the picture who is standing is the honorary member of the Neolog Community of Central Timisoara — architect Lipót Baumhorn. On the wall behind them looms a full-length portrait of Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph.
In recent years, a project was drawn up to transform the Fabric synagogue into a theatre, but funds could not be raised for the reconstruction, and the synagogue has continued to deteriorate.
One of the most beautiful buildings of Timisoara is still awaiting a better fate in the future.
We dearly hope so – but meanwhile, we want to use our resources and our networks to highlight its history – and its architect – and make sure this still magnificent synagogue is not forgotten.