PRAGUE (Jun. 16)
In the central Slovak town of Lucenec, a rare synagogue is crumbling apart, its walls destroyed after decades of use as a storage house for fertilizers. Town officials want to save the monument as a testament to its thriving Jewish past, while ensuring it has a viable future by turning the synagogue into a center for higher education.
The building numbers among just four synagogues built by Hungarian architect Lipot Baumhorn (1860-1932), whose other structures grace Amsterdam, Brussels and Tel Aviv.
The mayor of Lucenec, Jozef Murgas, who is spearheading the fund-raising drive, estimates the cost of the synagogue’s reconstruction at between $1.3 million and $2.1 million.
Other than its foundations and a recently added roof, the synagogue is in poor condition. To make matters worse, local children have taken to stealing the new roof’s copper tiles for scrap.
None of this deters Murgas.
“The city wants to conserve the synagogue as a remembrance of the Jewish community that contributed to the city’s development during the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s the last of five synagogues we used to have in Lucenec,” the mayor says.
Built in 1924-1925, Baumhorn’s synagogue housed religious services until 1944, when the Jews of Lucenec were transported to Nazi concentration camps in Poland and Germany.
Only 80 to 100 of the town’s 2,200 Jews survived World War II.
“Today, there are only 14 of us left,” says Gertruda Sternlichtova, head of the Lucenec Jewish community.
Sternlichtova is sad because her tiny community simply does not have the money to reconstruct the decrepit synagogue, whose main hall can hold more than 1,000 people.
In 1948, the synagogue’s fate was sealed when Czechoslovakia’s Communist authorities took the synagogue into state hands and used it to store artificial fertilizers, whose corrosive chemicals destroyed the walls.
“It just makes me want to cry when I think about it,” Sternlichtova says.
In 1980, the authorities removed the fertilizers, but they let the synagogue crumble with disuse.
In a further blow, some squatters inadvertently set fire to the building in the late 1990s, Sternlichtova says.
“But the synagogue was in such a bad state that even the fire could not do much more damage to it,” she adds.
Many plans have been put forward to save the synagogue.
Originally, the city had wanted to reconstruct the synagogue to be used for religious purposes alone, but because the local Jewish community is so small, the plan foundered.
Another plan was to turn it into a rabbinical seminary.
Then the town authorities hit on the idea of using the reconstructed building as an educational center for seminars and lectures. Under this plan, students from universities in other Slovak towns will converge on the synagogue for studies in everything from economics to pedagogy.
While the city is currently negotiating with a group of Hungarian businessmen, Lucenec’s mayor is reluctant to reveal details.
“From bitter experience, I know that if I reveal information the deal does not happen,” Murgas says.
“Many organizations and institutions came to us offering help to raise funds, but it soon became clear they were not able to gain the financial resources.”
Fero Alexander, executive chairman of Slovakia’s Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities, has met with people interested in the synagogue reconstruction.
“But the moment they looked at it and found out how financially demanding the reconstruction would be, they abandoned their intentions,” Alexander says.
The renovation of the Lucenec synagogue would cost as much as the maintenance of all of Slovakia’s other synagogues all together, Alexander says.
Juraj Turcan, the head of the Jewish community in nearby Banska Bystrica, estimates the current cost needed for Lucenec’s reconstruction at $3.2 million. The mayor’s lower cost estimate is eight years old, Turcan points out.
“We can help with our organizational skills, but money-wise we cannot afford it,” Turcan says.
His organization is currently taking care of about 10 synagogues and 620 cemeteries — and 95 percent of the latter are in very bad condition, he says. Meanwhile, Lucenec’s mayor is wary of being left with a beautifully reconstructed synagogue, but no means for its future maintenance.
Making the synagogue’s operation self-financing after its reconstruction is a priority, and that’s where turning it into a lecture hall will help.
“Our plan is to at least break even,” Murgas says.
While historians and preservationists may insist on returning the synagogue to its original state as a place of religious service, Murgas is wary.
“Doing that might limit the activities that can take place here,” he says. “A synagogue in Hungary had to be preserved by turning it into a shop.”