Once They Were Synagogues – Now This

By The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot

The Jewish population of Europe has declined from about 10-million at the eve of World War II to about two million today. The primary reason being the Holocaust, but immigration and assimilation in the years following the War reduced the Jewish population even further. One sign of this phenomena present itself in many former synagogues around Europe that have now been transformed to other uses. Hungarian-Israeli Photographer Bernadett Alpern has traveled 15 countries throughout Europe documenting these buildings.

In her work you will find grand building in famous cities as well as countryside synagogues. In some countries the authorities have tried to assign the building a cultural function, while in others you may find the former synagogues used for trivial purposes. They remain a silent reminder of a civilization that was part of the European fabric for many generations.

Furniture store (Békéscsaba, Hungary)

Judaism appeared in Békéscsaba around 1800’s. In 1883, the synagogues split into Neolog and Orthodox wings. According to Dr. Tibori János historian, 770 Jewish families, altogether 2200 people, were forced to wear yellow stars in Békéscsaba in the 40’s. From the deported people only 182 of them returned to the town. Following another source, 2400 Jews were crowded into a wagon in 1944 and only 400 of them came back. Many of them had moved to Budapest or migrated to Israel. In 1965 the synagogue in Budapest counts 147 members.

The one-time Neolog synagogue was built in 1893 in the place of the first Jewish house of prayer. The design of the church with 2 towers and Moorish style was constructed by an architect called Lipót Langer from Budapest. Its eight-angled towers were closed by onion domes with stars of David on their aces. The rand-archer front between the towers was enriched by stone tablets. The Hungarian Hebrew Community sold the building in the 60’s. The synagogue has been transformed: the towers were taken off, its openings were converted and the building was covered. Nowadays it functions as a furniture store. Owing to the transformation, the internal space has also lost its beauty. Only the remained portico and frescos saved on the loft give a hint of what the building was used for before. The orthodox synagogue built in Romanticism, which was established in 1894, stands opposite. The Hungarian Hebrew also sold this building. A coffee shop is located on the first floor and there are offices for rent on the second floor. The synagogue of Békéscsaba built a new synagogue next to the Hebrew cemetery. It was handed over in 2004.

Old swimming pool (Poznan, Poland)

Poznan’s Jewish community began to flourish in the mid-sixteenth century. At that time, it numbered approximately 1,500 and was situated in the northeastern part of the city. The Jewish quarter’s densely packed, largely wooden buildings made it vulnerable to fires (as in 1590 and 1613) that spread to other parts of the city. These fires resulted in long and costly lawsuits brought by municipal authorities, who used them as a rationale to demand the expulsion of Jews from the city.

With WWII looming, Poznan’s Jewish population stood around 1,500 – a number that would vanish soon after the city was annexed into the Third Reich in 1939.

The Synagogue in Poznan was built in 1907 but in 1942 it was transformed into a swimming pool for Hitlerjugend, as part of the celebration of the destruction of the Jewish community from the city. The swimming pool was inaugurated on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. It functioned as public bath up to 2007.

Police station (Slany, Czech Republic)

As part of the original Czechoslovakia, and before that the Austro-Hungarian Empire the Jews had a long association with this part of Europe. Throughout the last thousand years there have emerged over 600 Jewish communities in the Kingdom of Bohemia. According to the 1930 census, Czechoslovakia (including Subcarpathian Ruthenia) had a Jewish population of 356,830.

The Royal town of Slaný is a town in the Central Bohemian Region of the Czech Republic, located about 25 km northwest of Prague. The town is part of the Prague metropolitan area and is situated in the Slaný Plain (the northwestern part of a geomorphologic whole called the Prague Plain).

A Jewish community was sporadically settled in Slany during the 14th and 15th centuries until in 1458, Jews were expelled from the town. A small Jewish community reestablished in the first half of the 19th century, with 207 Jews in 1880. 81 Jewish residents of Slany were deported to Terezin in 1942. No Jews returned home after the war.

A Jewish community built the synagogue in 1865. The synagogue had two parts – the entire house of prayer and a two-story residential section used by the rabbi. The synagogue was decorated with a massive facade with Tablets of Moses.

After the war the city achieves were in the building for a while before it was transformed into a police station. The police commemorate the Jewish history of the building with a small Israeli flag.

Printer Shop (Cluj, Romania)

Jewry appeared in the history of Cluj-Napoca by the beginning of the 16th century, nevertheless for a few centuries the community had no direct interference with the life of the town, because due to restrictive regulations no permanent Jewish population could develop. The first law to make their settlement in towns possible, was passed in 1840, consequently the Israelite population in Cluj started to increase such as in 1846 the number of Jewish families was 58. The social structure of the Jewish society in Cluj reveals a middle-class community actively engaged in the economic and cultural life of the town. For example, in 1930, form among the 435 companies registered at the Trade Registry, 246 were owned by Hebrews and the central stored were almost without exception owned by them. Writers, poets, journalists of Jewish origin emerged in the cultural life of Transylvania and Cluj mainly after the Treaty of Trianon.

The city had many synagogues. One of the first was established in 1851 which later became the religious and cultural center of the orthodox community. Only the outside the building was maintained and it now houses many media companies.

At the present only a few hundred Jews live in the city.

Natural History Museum (Nijmegen, Netherlands)

During the first half of the fourteenth century, the Jewish community at Nijmegen was the most important in all of what is today the Netherlands. At the time, the Jews of Nijmegen were mostly involved in money-lending. Local Jews had a cemetery of their own, located to the southeast of the town. The community was destroyed in 1349 during the widespread persecution of Jews committed by Christians during the plague epidemic of the time.

By the decades of the twentieth century, the Jewish population of Nijmegen still comprised what was a mid-sized community by the standards of Dutch Jewry. At the time, most Jews in Nijmegen worked in the textile industry or as shopkeepers, vendors, or slaughterers. Several Jews came to serve as members of Nijmegen’s city council. A Jewish recreational society and a theater society were founded and a Zionist youth movement arose late in the 1930’s. Nijmegen’s location near the Dutch-German border attracted a large number of German-Jewish refugees to the town following the rise of Hitler. This caused the local Jewish population to grow to its highest level in a century.

In 1913, the community consecrated a new synagogue on the Gerard Noodtstraat. The building served Nijmegen’s some 500 Jews from 1913 to 1943, when the Nazis killed nearly all of them. Nijmegen’s few Holocaust survivors could not afford the costs of keeping the synagogue and the building was sold. In 2015 the city decided to fund the restoration of the building as a Synagogue.

Mosque (London, United Kingdom)

This one-time synagogue functions as a mosque near Brick Lane – the famous Indian neighborhood that is now one of the trendy areas of London. From the late 18th century to the mid-20th century this was a thriving Jewish area known for its textile trade.

The Jamme Masjid Mosque is different from others as it was originally built as a Huguenots Protestant Church. In 1888 the newly settled Jewish immigrants took control of building and it was known as the Great Synagogue of Spitalfields. In 1976 the building became the property of the Muslim community and has been working as a mosque ever since.

House of Science and Technology (Kecskemet, Hungary)

This is a very surreal site from a Jewish religious perspective is what was the main Jewish Synagogue of Kecskemét in Hungary. An imposing building – taller than the town’s church! It was built for the Neolog community in 1871, designed by architect János Zitterbarth, destroyed by an earthquake and re-built in 1913.

It now hosts a permanent exhibition of Michelangelo replica statues. Including his famous Moses – with the horns on his forehead (a misunderstanding by the artist of Hebrew translation) that became a typical anti-Semitic stereotype.

A statue of Moses is in total contradiction to the 2nd commandment and to the Jewish religion.

Church (Osijek, Croatia)

Osijek is a Croatian city of more than 100,000 inhabitants with a strong Hungarian influence. Sadly, it had suffered badly during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s – leaving it poverty stricken to this day.

The areas suffer from about a 40% unemployment rate. But the old synagogue is thriving as an evangelist church – complete with a newly built metal-and-glass theological seminar for all religions. Funded by American Evangelical organizations that are creating a large following in the predominantly Catholic Croatia. The building was erected in 1902 for a Jewish community almost entirely destroyed in the Holocaust.

Mr. Branko Lustig, producer of “Schindler’s List” was raised in the city, before sent to Auschwitz at the age of 10. The building served as a Neolog synagogue for a few years after the war – then sold to the Evangelicals by the tiny Jewish community that still lives in the city. Its new owners make every effort to preserve its origins and respect is Jewish tradition.

Courtesy Beit Hatfutsot, The Museum of the Jewish People.