Amid Much Pomp and Celebration, Synagogue of Szeged is Restored

Fifty years after the outbreak of the war that brought the Holocaust, the splendid Great Synagogue of Szeged has once again come to life.

In a moving and spiritually uplifting ceremony Sunday, the domed and turreted turn-of-the-century synagogue was dedicated after an extensive restoration job financed by a former Szeged Jew who is now an American citizen.

The donor, who insists on strict anonymity, was presented a medal by the city for his efforts — but in a private ceremony totally barred to outsiders.

“This is a very important day for us,” said a woman who traveled the 110 miles from Budapest for the ceremony, and whose young daughter formed part of the 40-member children’s choir which sang for the occasion. “My daughter has never seen such a beautiful synagogue in Hungary,” she said.

Seven busloads of people came from Budapest for the celebration, which was advertised in wall posters in Szeged itself.

Well over 1,000 people in all attended, including the town’s deputy mayor, government representatives from Budapest, Hungarian Jewish community leaders, officials from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Israeli representative in Hungary, Shlomo Merom.

The Joint Distribution Committee administered the anonymous donor’s contribution — estimated by sources at about $300,000 — and helped arrange restoration.

“This will be a most memorable day for me and for everyone who was here,” said Ralph Goldman, JDC honorary executive vice president.

“We all take back with us the beauty and the dignity of the service for the dedication of the synagogue,” he said. “Beyond these memories, it is a historic day — for the Jews of Szeged, for the Jews of Hungary and for world Jewry as a whole.”

MAINTAINED BY GOVERNMENT

He stressed that the Szeged synagogue would be the first in the world which will remain as a synagogue but be maintained in perpetuity by the Hungarian government and the local city authorities.

Under an agreement reached with the government, the temple will also be used for secular concerts and cultural events.

“The fact that the synagogue has not only been restored but also will be maintained is of critical importance,” commented Samuel Gruler, director of the New York-based Jewish Heritage Council.

“We hope that this will provide a model for the subsequent restorations of synagogues in Europe.”

Before the war, 5,000 Jews lived in Szeged, which is in southern Hungary on the Yugoslav border.

Most of them were deported to Auschwitz, under the direction of Adolf Eichmann, and today only 300 Jews live here.

About half of those deported died in the Holocaust: Their names are inscribed on the walls of the entry area of the synagogue.

In all, 600,000 Hungarian Jews were killed by the Nazis. Today, there are at least 80,000 Jews in the country–the third largest community in Europe outside the Soviet Union.

The Szeged synagogue was built at the turn of the century by architect Lipot Baumhorn, under the inspiration of the city’s chief rabbi, Immanuel Loew.

Loew, an enthusiastic botanist, collaborated closely with Baumhorn and had the architect incorporate innumerable intricate floral and plant designs into the detail of the extraordinarily ornate decoration of the shul.

Baumhorn was the most successful synagogue designer of his time, designing 24 synagogues during his career — Szeged being his masterpiece.

The temple is breathtaking. From the outside, it shoots up pale brick domes and tin-roofed turreted towers in a heavenward construction.

Inside, marble and glass shimmers, highlighted by gold fillings, together with beautiful chandeliers and brilliant stained glass windows.

An enormous dome, in an intricate design of blue glass and gold stars representing heaven, soars up above the center of the hall, supported above the ceiling by 24 columns.

Restorations on the dome, the stainled glass windows and the tin-work cupolas outside were among the major works carried out, along with clearing out what was once a weed-choked, overgrown yard.

The main seating area is flanked by two side aisles below the women’s galleries. Facing the hall, behind the candelabra-flanked bimah, is an ornate interior facade framing the Ark and allowing the pipes of a magnificent organ to peep through.

The dedication ceremony, parts of which were broadcast nationally on state-run television, began with a solemn procession, with men carrying Torah scrolls to the sounds of the powerful organ.

It then featured songs from children’s teenagers’ and adults’ choir from the Budapest Jewish community, such as “Shalom Aleichem” and “Hatikvah.”

There was an emotional performance by Cantor Joseph Malovany of New York’s Fifth Avenue Synagogue, who sang a selection of liturgical and secular Jewish music.

“Can you imagine,” a member of the congregation was heard to marvel, “how long it has been since a cantor has been heard singing like this in this shul?”

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