During a stroll in the summer of 1993, Gabor Baross noticed a crumbling building in southeast Hungary.
Baross, director of the National Hungarian Choral in Budapest, was leading a first-time musical festival in Kunszentmarton, a farming village of 11,000.
The two-story building was the Kunszentmarton synagogue, not used as a Jewish house of worship for some 30 years. The grass outside was as tall as him.Baross went inside. "The roof was broken. Everything was down. Only fragments remained intact."
Baross decided to renovate the building.
"It was a sacred building. It has to be sacred again," he says.
After receiving small grants from the Hungarian government to repair the outside of the synagogue and fix the roof, Baross turned last year to the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation, an affiliate of Reader’s Digest that sponsors international cultural exchanges.
The foundation brought Baross and an interpreter to New York last week for a round of meetings with Jewish communal leaders, other philanthropic foundations, and politicians.
His goal is to raise $200,000 to repair the interior of the synagogue and establish it as a performance and exhibition center, as well as a pilgrimage site for Jewish tourists.The synagogue, built in 1911-12 in Art Nouveau style, was sold by the Jewish community in 1964. It was used for a while as a stable and a warehouse, appears to have lain dormant for a few decades, and has been designated a historic monument by a government authority, Baross says.
"Music is sacred," the self-described "ecumenic" Catholic says of his interest in making the building, which seats about 140 people, into a cultural center.
The village, which had 600 Jewish families before World War II, has had no Jewish residents since the two elderly Holocaust survivors who resettled there after the war died about 40 years ago: it makes no sense to rebuild the site as a functioning synagogue, Baross says.
The restored building, to be named for the onetime Jewish community, will house permanent and temporary exhibits on the area’s Jewish life, and will be marked with a plaque explaining the Jews’ wartime fate, he says.
The Kunszentmarton municipality, which has no funds to contribute, as well as the leaders of Hungarian Jewry support his project. "I am saddened by the fact that there are no Jews remaining in the town of Kunszentmarton," Gusztav Zoltai, managing director of the Central Board of Hungarian Jewish Communities, wrote in a fund-raising letter. "However, we do not wish to see our heritage also vanish from this region."
Baross says he is the first private citizen in Hungary to initiate such a project to renovate one of the scores of deserted synagogues in the country. What will happen to the deteriorating Kunszentmarton synagogue if he is not successful?
"It will not remain as this," he says.
Baross hopes to reconsecrate the building when he returns to Kunszentmarton this summer for his eighth annual music festival. He will turn 70 on July 1. "This will be my birthday present."