Located in the North of Serbia, a few kilometers South of the Hungarian border, I visited a beautiful town called Subotica. The town is known in Hungarian as Szabadka as it belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the First World War. The arrival of the railway in 1869 was an important development for the town as it connected the city to the world and provided easy access to export markets for local commodities, like wheat. The period that followed, is often called Subotica’s Golden Age.
By 1880 the town had actually become só wealthy that architects and engineers from all corners of Hungary arrived to transform the city with lavish tenement buildings and palaces in Central European, fin-de-siècle architecture.
In 1896 an electrical power plant was built, further enhancing the development of the city. As a result, some of the most important Art Nouveau buildings by Ödön Lechner, Ferenc Raichl, the Vágo brothers, Marcell Komor and Dezső Jakab were built in Subotica in the early 20th century. Jakab and Komor also designed the large town hall and the buildings at the lovely park in Palić, a few kilometers outside of town.
The Art Nouveau Synagogue of Subotica
One of the most outstanding buildings from that period of growth is the Synagogue. It is said to be the only surviving Hungarian Art Nouveau Jewish place of worship in the world and apparently the second largest Synagogue in Europe. The Synangogue was erected by a prosperous Jewish community between 1901 and 1902 according to the plans of Budapest architects Marcell Komor (1868–1944) and Dezső Jakab (1864-1932), and consecrated during the autumn holidays in 1903. The design though, was originally the second prize in an architectural competition for the Szeged Synagogue, 50 kilometers North.
Being a member of the Réseau Art Nouveau Network, I was able to visit this beautifully restored Synagogue in 2018, during one of the RANN’s annual get-togethers. After decades of restoration works, the Synagogue finally reopened to the public. And now at long last I can share my pictures of it with you all.
Contemporary architects studied folklore, folk art and vernacular architecture, to create a unique architectural language with national characteristics: the Hungarian Secession. As a result, we can recognise heart elements, tulip flowers and peacock feathers in Zsolnay ceramics and pyrogranite terracotta, in wrought iron fences, wooden furniture and in stained glass windows.
According to Viktorija Aladžić (Professor at the University of Novi Sad’s Faculty of Civil Engineering in Subotica, Serbia) “the two architects (who were disciples of Ödön Lechner) created a very modern building for its time. Komor designed pioneering structures for the vaults and central dome, while Jakab contributed the decorative scheme, inspired by Hungarian folk art. The Synagogue structure is supported by eight steel columns, encased in plaster. The columns are connected at the top by steel beams, which support an octagonal perimeter wall.”
“This forms the barrel to support the central dome, which is made of concrete reinforced with steel wire mesh, a technique called Rabitz mesh. The dome is reinforced by external concrete ribs ten centimetres thick, providing it with stiffness and stability and eliminating the lateral load on the outer walls, despite its 23 metres in height and 12.6 metre span. The building comprises an exceptional and unique architectural structure which creates the impression of being inside a huge tent. This was in fact the architects’ intention: to recall the tent as the original setting in which ancient Jews had worshipped.”
In March 2017 Viktorija Aladžić prepared a complete report, available online, detailing four decades (between 1976 and 2017) of restoration successes and setbacks.
The Interior of the Subotica Synagogue
The interior decorations include lots of floral motifs, reminiscent of the stylized folkish felt cloak (Suba) embroidery, so typical for the region. Due to the abundant use of creamy colours, I also couldn’t suppress the feeling that I was walking around inside a giant wedding cake with buttercream and sugar coated flowers.
The monumental look of the building is highlighted even more by the huge stained glass windows, each forming an eye of a peacock’s feather. These stained glass windows, though originating from the studio of Miksa Róth (1865-1944) in Budapest, were crafted by Miksa’s younger brother Manó, who also worked as a glass painter.
In the 1920s, architect Jakab commented on the Synagogue’s concept in the Jewish weekly Szombat: “We designed the whole temple to be a light, bright place in lively colors, where sorrow passes away and believers, after having finished their prayers, leave it with peace in their hearts, as an opposition to the gloomy intimacy of Gothic churches.”
Above photos of the stained glas windows by Iveta Sproģe Dzimusi Tumpele
The Exterior of the Subotica Synagogue
The external decoration on the façade and the glazed ceramic roof tiles came from the famous Zsolnay factory in Pécs. The central part of the creamy plastered wall sections between the corner turrets is vertically articulated in three parts: their surfaces are divided by red brick strips, and the windows are bordered with terracotta ornaments.
Restoration of the Subotica Synagogue
The Synagogue is very big. It could seat up to 1,400 people – 850 men on the ground floor and 550 women in the galleries. However, after World War II, the small number of surviving Jews from Subotica could neither fill nor maintain the building. Especially after the elimination of private property in the new communist Yugoslavia. And in 1979, they donated the building to the city under the condition that the municipality would maintain and rehabilitate it. Since then, the Synagogue has been a site of construction, only to reopen to the public in 2018 after a full restoration.
Restoration works, including repainting and reinforcing the inner cupola and dome, were carried out between 1976 and 1994, but the work was not completed, due to the impact of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
In 1996 (and again in 2000, 2002 and 2006) the World Monuments Watch placed the Synagogue on its Watch List of 100 most endangered sites. And in 2000 the WMF granted $60,000 financial aid for the repair of the most damaged parts of the roof. Europa Nostra put it on its Seven Most Endangered List in 2014. And eventually, the Synagogue became a WMF priority project, with funding from several donors.
The Hungarian government for instance, provided nearly €3 million for the restoration of the interior of the building, which was carried out between November 2016 and December 2017.
As the Synagogue is still owned by the municipality, it will be managed as a tourist attraction and concert venue. But it will also be used by the small local Jewish community, when they wish, for services and on other occasions. The Jewish community will be able to veto concerts or other events deemed inappropriate. And there are plans to install a permanent Jewish exhibition.
The most important lesson we can learn from the report Viktorija Aladžić wrote is that this example of the long-term struggle for restoration of the Synagogue demonstrated that sustainable management and continuous maintenance are essential for preservation of every heritage building.
If you wish to visit Subotica and the Synagogue after all travel bans have been lifted, you should prepare your visit well. The city is crammed with Art Nouveau edifices and your wouldn’t want to miss any of the highlights. Best start your preparations at Visit Subotica and at Our Borderless Art Nouveau Culture.
An Art Nouveau Walk Through Szeged (PDF)
Coup-de-Fouet Magazine (PDF)
Google’s Arts & Culture
Brochure Art Nouveau In Subotica And Szeged
History of the Jewish Community in Subotica
Jewish Virtual Library: Dezsö Jakab and Marcell Komor
Magnificent Subotica Synagogue officially reopened
Our Borderless Art Nouveau Culture
Réseau Art Nouveau Network – Member City Subotica
Rudi Klein’s book on Subotica (Szabadka) Synagogue wins award
Serbian Ministery of European Integration
Subotica Synagogue – is it the most beautiful Synagogue in the world?
Visit to the beautiful, restored art nouveau Synagogue in Subotica
Wikipage Subotica Synagogue
World Monuments Fund on the Subotica Synagogue