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Exhibition Planning for Two Balkan Synagogues

This past May, I traveled to Serbia and Croatia with my colleague Stephanie Ortiz. She's overseeing WMF's Jewish Heritage Program, and together we went to meet with stakeholders and survey potential locations for exhibitions at two synagogues. Educational and informational presentations—both onsite and online—are often the final phase of work at a WMF project, highlighting the work that has been completed, and putting it in context with the history and significance of the site.

The first synagogue is in Subotica in northern Serbia, about 15 miles from the Hungarian border. We traveled by train from Budapest accompanied by Dr. Rudolf Klein, one of the foremost scholars on European synagogue architecture, who—conveniently for us—also speaks English, Hungarian, Serbian, and five or six other languages as well.

The synagogue was designed by two Hungarian architects and built between 1908 and 1912. Along with Subotica’s city hall and several other buildings in the area, it’s an example of the Hungarian Art Nouveau style, an interesting combination of organic form and peasant iconography—a style conceived as a gentle but deliberate rebellion against the official architectural forms favored by the ruling Habsburg empire. Decimated by the Holocaust, the local Jewish community couldn’t maintain the synagogue, and in 1979 donated the building to the city under the condition that it would be restored and used for cultural events.

Since 2001, World Monuments Fund—working with the city of Subotica, the Serbian state, and the EU—has been restoring the synagogue. We began by consolidating the roof and dome to address water infiltration issues, then conserved the east and west façades. Conservation of the south façade is now underway, with the final side to follow.

As exterior conservation is finished, focus will be shifted to the interiors, and the entire project is expected to be completed in about two years. With that timeline in mind, Stephanie and I met with city officials, consulted with Dr. Klein, and thoroughly explored, photographed, and measured the synagogue to determine the most appropriate location and format for the exhibition I’ll be designing in the coming months.

The second synagogue is in Split, Croatia, on the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic. Split is an ancient city, beginning as an expansion of the Roman emperor Diocletian’s retirement palace, built in the fourth century A.D. The synagogue, conjectured to have originally been located within the royal walls, moved to its current location shortly after a fire destroyed a section of the palace in 1507. It’s one of the oldest Sephardic synagogues still in use.

Since 1996, WMF has overseen several conservation projects in Split. Work at the synagogue began last year, when we conserved the building’s facades—repairing and repointing the masonry, replacing rotting or missing wooden elements, and installing new copper gutters and downspouts. Stephanie and I met with Ana Lebl, President of the Jewish Community in Split, to learn more about the synagogue, its history and surroundings, and to strategize about the form, scope, and location for the exhibition that will summarize the project and tell the history of the Jewish community in Split.