SUBOTICA, Yugoslavia (Mar. 17)
Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic visited Subotica’s historic synagogue this week and pledged government support for efforts to restore the run-down structure as a symbol of tolerance and multiculturalism.
“This building is so beautiful,” he said Sunday, following a performance by Jewish pupils inside the dilapidated sanctuary.
“I look forward to coming back here for the inauguration ceremony when the restoration work is complete,” he said.
The visit was Djindjic’s first to a Jewish community since he became prime minister.
Accompanied by Serbia’s Religion Minister Voja Milovanovic, he met with leaders of the 225-member community and with members of the board of a new foundation aimed at restoring and reviving the synagogue.
Djindjic pledged government assistance in obtaining the detailed plans, blueprints and cost evaluations needed before restoration work could commence.
“It means that there will be state participation in the project, and that is important,” said the Jewish community’s vice president, Mira Poljakovic.
Subotica is on Serbia’s border with Hungary. Its population includes ethnic Serbs, Hungarians, Croats and others, and Hungarian is widely spoken.
Before the Holocaust, the town was home to about 6,000 Jews, almost all of whom were deported to Auschwitz in 1944.
Built in 1902, the synagogue is considered one of Europe’s finest examples of art nouveau architecture, featuring ornate decoration based on Hungarian folk motifs.
Though owned today by the city, it is part of a complex of buildings that otherwise are still owned and used by the small but active local Jewish community.
The new synagogue restoration foundation, called SOS Synagogue, includes Jewish representatives as well as local political figures. It is headed by Jozsef Kasza, a former mayor of Subotica who is currently a deputy prime minister of Serbia.
The restored synagogue is to have both a memorial and a cultural function. Like Djindjic, organizers hope the synagogue will be seen as a symbol of both Jewish history and the town’s multicultural identity in a country slowly recovering from the war, dictatorship and ethnic strife of the 1990s.
Djindjic’s visit coincided with celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of the Subotica Jewish Women’s Association, which culminated Saturday night with a gala ceremony in the ornate city hall — a building designed by the same Jewish architects who designed the synagogue.
Guests of honor included Princess Katarina, the wife of Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia, and June Jacobs, the outgoing president of the International Council of Jewish Women.
Jacobs said she hopes Djindjic’s high-profile support for the synagogue restoration would help the project come to fruition.
“I’ve always felt that we should get as much help as possible to fulfill the dream of the Jewish community for this incredible building to be used and enjoyed by all citizens of Subotica and hopefully visitors from abroad,” she said.
“It will have many potential uses that can help strengthen Jewish identity and Jewish culture, and also enable Jewish young people to understand and love their history,” she said.