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Architect Wins Second Award for Synagogue Restoration Projects

July 28, 2005
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Back in the early 1980s, the abandoned synagogue in the village of Apostag, south of Budapest, was in such bad condition that local authorities wanted to tear it down. The village’s Jewish community had been wiped out in the Holocaust, and the synagogue, built in 1822, had been looted, ransacked and seriously damaged during and after World War II.

But Peter Wirth, an architect and monument-preservation expert called to the scene, fell in love with the building and became convinced that it must be saved.

He inspired village leaders with his own enthusiasm and, in a rare example for the time, convinced local and country officials to pitch in on the total restoration of the building for use as a library and cultural center.

The sensitive reconstruction project, which restored much of the original interior decoration, won a coveted international award in 1988 from Europa Nostra, the pan-European Federation for Heritage which represents over 200 heritage nonprofits.

Since then, Wirth, who is Jewish, has made synagogue restoration something of a specialty and has overseen the restoration of about 10 synagogues in Hungary. Some are still owned by the Hungarian Jewish federation, but only one of them, in Vac, is located in a town with a living Jewish community and is still used regularly as a house of worship.

This year, Wirth, working with his wife, Agnes Benko, won his second Europa Nostra Award — this time for the full-scale restoration of the 18th-century baroque synagogue in Mad, a winemaking village in the northeastern part of Hungary.

Built in 1795, the Mad synagogue is one of the oldest in the country. Rising on a gentle hill, it forms a triangle with the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches nearby, demonstrating the religious balance that once characterized the village.

No Jews live in Mad today, and the restoration, completed in 2004, incorporates plaques listing the names of the nearly 800 local Jews who were deported to Auschwitz. The restored synagogue, which will serve as a memorial as well as a museum, is also suitable for religious services.

“The Jewish community in Miskolc, about half an hour’s drive from Mad, has promised to lend a Torah for services, if needed,” said the architect Andras Roman, who served as professional adviser to the project.

Outside, the synagogue has an elegant, scalloped facade decorated with false pilasters. Inside, the walls and vaulted ceiling are covered with intricate floral and geometric designs painted in soothing pastel colors.

Everything is focused on a central dais, where four pillars support the vault, and on the ark, which is richly decorated with carvings of flowers, the Ten Commandments, and gilded lions and griffins.

“It is a pearl in Hungary’s cultural heritage and an important precious stone in the heritage of all Europe,” Europa Nostra’s executive president-elect, Andrea Schuler, said during a recent ceremony that honored the architects and affixed an award plaque to the synagogue’s outer wall.

The Mad synagogue is owned by the Hungarian government, which funded 90 percent of the $800,000 project. A grant from the New York-based World Monuments Fund, which years ago had listed the synagogue on its watch list of endangered heritage sites, provided the remaining funds.

As part of the restoration, a small exhibit mounted in a side room tells the story of the local Jewish community.

Wirth said he and his wife had sought to recreate the way the synagogue looked when it had a thriving congregation — using historical sources, memories, photographs and the surviving traces of decoration to guide their work.

Authorities in Mad say the synagogue restoration has already boosted tourism to the village. They have pledged to maintain the building and hope to find funds to restore the L-shaped yeshiva and rabbi’s house that form part of the synagogue complex.

“We want to install a culture-and-exhibition center there, as well as other facilities for the synagogue,” said Mayor Imre Galambosi.

“We are striving to revive Jewish traditions here,” he said. “The Jewish community always played an important role in the village. They owned vineyards, wineries, fine homes. And the prominent position of the synagogue in relation to the two Christian churches shows the way the various faiths coexisted here in peace.”

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