International Survey of Jewish Monuments
ISJM Jewish Heritage Report
Volume II, nos 3-4
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ISJM-backed Conservation Team Assesses Condition of Endangered Subotica Synagogue

The former Synagogue in Subotica, Yugoslavia, located in the Vojvodina, a formerly autonomous region of Serbia, near the Hungarian border, continues to deteriorate despite extensive efforts at repair undertaken by the municipality in the 1980s, and more recent international recognition of the building's importance as an architectural and cultural landmark.

The magnificent Secessionist style synagogue, built in 1902, is listed in accordance with a decision of the Parliament of the Republic of Serbia as a cultural property of extreme importance - the highest designation and level of protection possible. The Jewish Community deeded the building to the Municipality in 1976.

The Secessionist (or Jugenstil) architecture in Yugoslavia is still relatively unknown and unexamined. Architectural historians have just begun to discover the wealth and variety of new engineering achievements and architectural forms of this period. In Vienna, the style was an alternative to the heavy 19th-century classicism preferred by the monarchy. Throughout the Austro-Hungarian empire, the style was used to express reviving national awareness, often incorporating elements recalling national, or regional, folk traditions.

The buildings of Subotica rank among the best examples of Secessionist architecture. Foremost among these is the synagogue. The Budapest architects Marcel Komor and Dezso Jakab submitted the design in 1899 for the Szeged (Hungary) synagogue design competition, in which it placed second. The plan was rushed into construction be the Jewish community of nearby Subotica, and the synagogue was dedicated in 1902. Jakab's niece, Ms. Estera Votaw of Washington, D.C., has helped lead the campaign to save the structure.

Architecturally and Technically Inovative

The basic functional conception of the building is expressed in its exterior architecture. The building has five domes with the central dome dominating in its exterior appearance and the interior space of the synagogue. The interior dome looks like a bell and it was made of light concrete following the system of shell construction, not common until the second half of the 20th century. As such, it is a forerunner of the development of the constructive systems of the 20th century architecture at the time when reinforced concrete was in its experimental applications. The main entrance leading to the ground floor and the balcony is from the west. There are two side entrances - north and south for men on the ground floor. An east entrance for women also leads to the balcony.

The central plan is determined by eight steel columns distributed inside the synagogue in a circle and serving as starting points for the formation of the dome. These columns bear the weight of the outer dome with an interior wooden skeleton on which the inside dome membrane, made of Rabitz wire netting, is suspended. The dome is the primary aesthetic and structural feature of the building. The Rabitz net membrane forms a tent-like canopy over the central part of the synagogue. The height of the inside dome is 23 meters and it spans 12.6 meters. The static safety of the central part enabled the outer wall jackets to be carried without additional supports. Instead of bearing the weight of the dome, as is typical in classic construction, they lean onto the central steel columns. This feature gives the building a sense of weightlessness.

The whole structure is complemented by exquisite decorations: mural paintings, stained glass windows and woodcarvings inspired by Hungarian folklore and Secessionist floral ornaments. The Zsolnai ceramics from Pécs (Hungary) adds special beauty, splendor and character to this building. The exterior walls were made of a combination of red bricks and decorative elements of mold-made relief tiles of Zsolnai. The roof cover was made in colorful decorative glazed tiles (Zsolnai as well). The tops of the domes are made of copper (originally in zinc). The interior polychrome wall decoration joins with stained glass windows of the same style. The window design took into account the sun's movement throughout the day.

Building is Now Deteriorating

A ruined economy, due to war and sanctions imposed against Yugoslavia, has hit the country hard, even in places such as Subotica, situated far from the conflict centers. Since 1990, there has been no money to continue restoration of the synagogue, a project begun by the in the 1980s. No work has taken place in the past two years.

In September, 1998, however, local individuals and organizations organized events in the building hoping to revive interest in its restoration, with the immediate goal of securing the structure against further deterioration. The synagogue was slightly cleaned for the opening of the first program organized by the recently formed "Synagogue Chain" designed to focus attention on a number of former synagogues in Central European countries including synagogues at Subotica (Yugoslavia), Nagykanizsa, Gyor, Szeged (Hungary), Somorja (Slovakia) and Kolozsvar (Romania). Other events have been organized in the past few months and more are planned.

Synagogue in Subotica, Yugoslavia. Photo courtesy of WMF.

The building is worse than two years ago. The water handling system is seriously compromised. Missing roof tiles allow water penetration into the building. Snow was inside the roof, directly on the vault. Cupola windows are broken so water penetrates into the walls, deteriorating recently repainted decoration. The roof over the building entryway has holes, with wood beneath the tiles decayed, and vaults in bad condition, with holes. There is danger of collapse above the entry between the exterior and interior main doors. Gutters have been removed allowing water infiltration. Doors at the building corners are almost falling out. Unprotected stained-glass windows have holes. The drum walls have loose and falling bricks. Decorative and floor tiles removed during earlier work have not been replaced. The gallery ceiling is in bad condition, plaster has fallen off exterior walls and the exterior wall of south-east staircase has a fissure.

The immediate need for the building is repair and restoration of the building envelope and exterior water handling system to prevent further deterioration due to water penetration. Roof, gutters, drains, windows, and doors all need attention.

ISJM Helps Send Conservation Team

Working with the World Monuments Fund, which in 1996 placed the Subotica synagogue on both its list ten Jewish Heritage Preservation Priorities and on its World Monuments Watch list of 100 Most Endangered Sites, and ICOMOS/Hungary, ISJM helped organize a team of conservators from Budapest that visited the site in February of this year. Funding was provided by a grant from the Samuel H. Kress European Preservation Program of the World Monuments Fund. The team, led by Dr. Andras Roman, head of ICOMOS/Hungary, included Dr. Tamas Fejerdy, an expert in structures; and Ms. Klara Deak a wall painting conservator. The team was accompanied by Subotica architect Viktorija Aladzic. Their report may provide the basis for an international effort to save this remarkable structure.

WMF dropped the synagogue from its 1998 list of endangered sites not because of improvement on the site, but because no progress has been made. ISJM president Samuel Gruber and Subotica Mayor Jozef Kasza have, at WMF's invitation, nominated the building for re-listing for the year 2000 in the hope of qualifying the site for grants.

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last update: 1/25/99