Swimming Pool, Furniture Shop and Police Station: The Sorry Fate of Europe's Old Synagogues

After the Holocaust and the subsequent emigration of many of Europe's Jews, synagogues were transformed for other uses. A Hungarian-Israeli photographer set out to document them

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A former synagogue in Poznań, Poland, which the Nazis converted into a swimming pool.
A former synagogue in Poznań, Poland, which the Nazis converted into a swimming pool.Credit: Bernadett Alpern

Europe’s Jewish population has declined from about 10 million on the eve of World War II to about 2 million today. The main reason of course is the Holocaust, followed by emigration and assimilation afterward.

As the Jews disappeared, many of their synagogues were transformed for other uses. Hungarian-Israeli photographer Bernadett Alpern has traveled around 15 European countries documenting these relics. Her work features grand buildings in famous cities as well as countryside shuls.

In some countries the old synagogues now play a cultural role, while in others they’re used for trivial purposes. They remain a silent reminder of a civilization that was part of the European fabric for many generations.

1. Furniture store, Békéscsaba, Hungary

Jews first moved to Békéscsaba in significant numbers in the 1800s. According to historian Tibori János, members of 770 Jewish families in Békéscsaba, or 2,200 people, were forced to wear yellow stars by the Nazis and their Hungarian allies in the 1940s. Of those deported, only 182 returned to the town.

According to one source, 2,400 Jews were crowded into cattle cars in 1944 and only 400 came back. Many survivors moved to Budapest or immigrated to Israel.

The synagogue, which was built in 1893 and sported two towers in Moorish style, was designed by Budapest architect Lipót Langer. Its eight-angled towers were enclosed by onion domes with Stars of David on top.

The Hungarian Jewish community sold the building in the 1960s. The synagogue’s towers have since been removed, and the building now serves as a furniture store. Inside, only the portico and frescos on the loft hint of the past. Opposite stands a synagogue built in the Romantic style in 1894, but now a café inhabits the first floor and offices the second.

2. Old swimming pool, Poznan, Poland

Poznan’s Jewish community began to flourish in the mid-16th century. Back then it numbered around 1,500 people in the city’s northeast. 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 conflagrations resulted in long and costly lawsuits by the municipality, which used them to demand the expulsion of Jews from the city.

With World War II looming, Poznan’s Jewish population stood at 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 the Hitler Youth as part of the celebration of the destruction of the city’s Jewish community. The pool was inaugurated on the second day of Rosh Hashanah and kept its function until 2007.

3. Police station, Slaný, Czech Republic

Over the last millennium more than 600 Jewish communities emerged in the lands of the Kingdom of Bohemia. According to the 1930 census, Czechoslovakia (including Carpathian Ruthenia, now in Ukraine) had a Jewish population of 356,830.

The town of Slaný is about 25 kilometers (16 miles) northwest of Prague. Jews settled there during the 14th and 15th centuries until 1458, when they were expelled from the town. A small Jewish community reestablished itself in the first half of the 19th century, with 207 Jews in 1880. In 1942, 81 Jewish residents of Slaný were deported to Theresienstadt (Terezín), and no Jews returned after the war.

The town’s synagogue, built in 1865, had two parts – the house of prayer and a two-story residential section used by the rabbi. The synagogue was adorned with a massive facade featuring the Tablets of the Law – the Ten Commandments.

After the war the building hosted the town archives and now a police station. The police commemorate the building’s Jewish history with a small Israeli flag.

4. Printer’s shop, Cluj-Napoca, Romania

Jews arrived in Cluj-Napoca at the beginning of the 16th century, but for a few centuries the community had no direct role in the life of the town due to restrictions against them. The first law to officially allow their settlement in towns was passed in 1840, and by 1846 Cluj had 58 Jewish families.

The Cluj Jewish community was largely a middle-class one active in the town’s economic and cultural life. In 1930, of the town’s 435 registered companies, 246 were owned by Jews. Writers, poets and journalists of Jewish origin particularly played a role in Transylvania and Cluj after World War I.

The city had many synagogues; one of the first was established in 1851 and later became the religious and cultural center of the Orthodox community. Only the outside of the building has been maintained; the building now houses media companies. Only a few hundred Jews still live in the city.

5. Natural History Museum, Nijmegen, Netherlands

During the first half of the 14th century, the Jewish community of Nijmegen was the most important in what today is the Netherlands. At the time, Nijmegen’s Jews were mostly money-lenders, and the Jews had a cemetery to the southeast. The community was destroyed in 1349 during the persecution of the Jews during the Black Death.

In the first half of the 20th century, Nijmegen had a mid-sized Jewish community by the standards of Dutch Jewry. Most Jews in Nijmegen worked in the textile industry or as shopkeepers, vendors or slaughterers. Several Jews served on Nijmegen’s city council.

Local Jews founded a recreational society and a theater society, and a Zionist youth movement arose late in the 1930s. Located near the German border, Nijmegen attracted many German-Jewish refugees following Hitler’s rise; the Jewish population grew to its highest level in a century.

In 1913, the community consecrated a new synagogue on Gerard Noodtstraat. The building served Nijmegen’s 500 or so Jews until 1943, when the Nazis killed nearly all of them. Nijmegen’s few Holocaust survivors couldn’t afford to keep up the synagogue and sold the building. In 2015 the city decided to fund the building’s restoration as a synagogue.

6. Mosque, London

This former synagogue now serves as a mosque near Brick Lane, the famous Indian neighborhood now one of London’s trendy areas. 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 was originally built as a Huguenot Protestant Church. In 1888, Jewish immigrants took over the building and called it the Spitalfields Great Synagogue. In 1976 the building became the property of the Muslim community.

7. House of Science and Technology, Kecskemét, Hungary

A surreal fate has befallen the main synagogue of Kecskemét, Hungary. An imposing building – taller than the town’s church – it was built in 1871, designed by architect János Zitterbarth. It was later destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt in 1913.

It now hosts a permanent exhibition of Michelangelo replica statues, including his famous Moses with the horns on his forehead (a misunderstanding in the translation from the Hebrew) that became an anti-Semitic stereotype. A statue of Moses totally contradicts the Second Commandment about graven images.

8. Church, Osijek, Croatia

Osijek, a town of more than 100,000, suffered badly during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, leaving it poverty-stricken to this day; the area suffers from unemployment at about 40 percent.

Still, the old synagogue is thriving as an evangelical church, replete with a new metal-and-glass theological seminar for all religions, funded by American evangelical organizations that are generating a large following in predominantly Catholic Croatia. The building was put up in 1902 for a Jewish community almost entirely destroyed in the Holocaust.

Branko Lustig, producer of “Schindler’s List,” was raised in the city before he was sent to Auschwitz when he was 10. The building served as a synagogue for a few years after the war, and was then sold to the evangelical church by the city’s tiny Jewish community. Its new owners make every effort to preserve its origins and respect its Jewish tradition.

The Beit Hatfutsot blog tells the story and makes accessible materials from the history of the Jewish people, in Israel and the Diaspora, from its distant past until our times in the modern State of Israel. It tells the story of culture, people, curiosities, new angles on phenomena and well-known cases, or turns the spotlight on those we have never known about.

For the Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People website go to www.bh.org.il.

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