Žilina synagogue designed by Peter Behrens

Artwork of the Month, November 2020: The Neolog Synagogue in Žilina by Peter Behrens (1928–31)

In May 2017 a new art exhibition and concert venue opened in the Slovak town of Žilina. The result of a six-year restoration project that had been partly crowd-funded and also partly funded by the EU, the Slovak government and the town council, the building won a number of awards on the basis not only of the quality of the restoration but also for its mobilisation of grass-roots support and funding. Just around the corner from the Puppet Theatre and the substantial municipal theatre, the new centre provided a valuable addition to the cultural life of the provincial town, located some 200 kilometres northeast of Bratislava. The organisation that manages the centre, Truc Sphérique, also organises cultural events in the Stanica Žilina-Záriečie, in the town’s still operational railway station, and provides an instructive example of the productive regeneration of sites as cultural venues.[1]

The reopened synagogue in Žilina

The reopened Synagogue in Žilina – photo: Patrik Kunec / Wikimedia Commons

The centre was located in perhaps the most important architectural monument of the town: the former Neolog synagogue.[2] The synagogue had ceased to be in use since 1942, when most of the Jewish population of the town was deported; since then it had served a number of purposes, such as a theatre, a concert hall, a hall for the Academy of Transport (now the University of Žilina) and a cinema. It had been listed as a national monument as early as 1963, but lack of funding meant that it had fallen into disrepair. The synagogue was originally designed and built by Peter Behrens (1868–1940) between 1928 and 1931, and the restoration sought to capture as many of the original design features as possible.

Žilina synagogue designed by Peter Behrens

Peter Behrens: The Neolog Synagogue in Žilina, 1928–31 – photo: Nová Synagoga, Žilina

The Neolog synagogue in Žilina has been referred to as the last synagogue of Slovakia.[3] This is not quite correct; a small Hasidic synagogue was built in Prešov, near Košice in eastern Slovakia, in 1935. Nonetheless, it was the last synagogue of any architectural significance to be constructed. Considering its history is revealing both about synagogue architecture in central Europe during the twentieth century, and also about the fate of the Jewish community in Slovakia.

It comes as a surprise that as prestigious an architect as Behrens should have chosen to design the synagogue. Behrens was renowned as one of the most important modernist architects in the first two decades of the century; his turbine hall in Berlin for the AEG electrical company (1909) remains a landmark of modern architecture, but this makes it all the more unexpected that he should have entered the competition for the synagogue. For he made his name above all as the designer of industrial buildings, and it is his activity as an industrial designer that still shapes contemporary understanding of his work.

Aside from the crematorium he designed for the city of Hagen (1906–1908), there was nothing to suggest he might have any interest in designing a place of worship, and it is not clear why he chose to draw up and submit the design. Furthermore, he undertook commissions almost exclusively in Germany and Austria. The only exceptions to this were the Imperial German Embassy in St. Petersburg (1911–13), the private house ‘New Ways’ in Northampton for the toy railway manufacturer Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke (1926), and the Feller-Stern department store in Zagreb (1928).

At the time that Behrens undertook the project, he was head of architecture at the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna, which may go a certain way towards explaining his involvement in a project in one of the former Habsburg territories. Indeed, he was not the only Austrian architect to enter the competition to design the synagogue in Žilina; Josef Hoffman (1870–1956), one of the leading members of the Vienna Secession, had also submitted a design, as did Lipót Baumhorn (1860–1932), a Budapest-based architect of Jewish origin, who was the most prolific synagogue builder in central Europe, responsible for some 20 synagogues in Hungary, including those in Nítra (1911, Slovakia after 1918), Eger (1913), Nyíregyháza (1923), Budapest (Páva Street, 1923), and Lučenec (Slovakia, 1925).[4]

Lipót Baumhorn, The Synagogue in Lučenec

Lipót Baumhorn: The Synagogue in Lučenec, 1925 – photo: Ladislav Luppa / Wikimedia Commons

The fact that the Jewish community could attract the interest of Behrens and Hoffman is perhaps indicative of the larger developments in the history of Jewish settlement in Slovakia. Until the mid-nineteenth century the Jewish presence in the town was negligible. Yet from 1850 onwards it grew rapidly, as Jews migrated to the town. This reflected the wider process of urbanisation in Europe, whereby rural populations moved to urban centres in search of work, but it also was a sign of the mobility of Jews in Hungary after legislative emancipation. In 1849, the revolutionary regime of Lajos Kossuth granted full citizenship to Jews. This was short-lived; the regime was defeated in the same year, and the restored Habsburg monarchy imposed punitive fines on Jewish communities for their perceived support for the abortive revolution. Nevertheless, the idea of emancipation had gained currency and in 1867 was reintroduced. The Jewish community of Žilina expanded rapidly; a synagogue had already been established in 1861 and was followed by a Jewish school in 1873 (greatly expanding into a new building 1907). By the 1940s, the population, admittedly swollen by Jewish refugees expelled from Bratislava, numbered several thousand, and Žilina had become one of the most significant Jewish centres in Czechoslovakia outside of Prague, one that evidently had both the financial means and the social connections to gain the interest of prominent, successful architects.

The synagogue itself is a reinforced concrete cube mounted on a rusticated brick base, terraced, due to the sloping nature of the site on which it is located. Each side of the cube has eleven narrow vertical windows, and the corners rise up slightly. In the centre is a domed roof. A wide entrance staircase is placed on the north side where the synagogue faces downhill, thereby providing the building with an imposing presence at street level. To the south, on the other side from the main entrance, is small prayer house.

The Neolog synagogue in Žilina has been described as one of the most significant examples of modernist architecture in Slovakia; for reasons to be given shortly, one might express certain reservations at this description.[5] One can nevertheless claim that the building of the synagogue was part of a larger programme of modernisation of the town; the most important outcome of this was the functionalist quarter of Svojdomov, a residential estate of 48 houses built in the 1930s to the northwest of the town centre and consciously modelled on the examples of the Weissenhof housing estate in Stuttgart (1927) and the Nový Dům colony in Brno (1928). Indeed, the larger development for city had been drawn up in 1929 by Josef Peňáz (1889–1956), an associate of the modernist architect Bohuslav Fuchs (1895–1972) who had already played an active role in town planning in Brno earlier in the decade.[6] Alongside the synagogue, other new functionalist buildings erected in the city centre included the Grossmann residential building and department store (1929) and the Financial Palace (1928-30), both by Michal Maximilián Scheer (1902–2000).[7]

We might not initially consider sacral architecture as having much of a role in urban renewal and development in the twentieth century, given that modernization has so often been equated with secularization. Yet, as Henrieta Moravčiková has emphasised, new places of worship, including synagogues, were prominent features of towns in interwar Czechoslovakia. In Košice, for example, two new synagogues were built in 1927, one designed by Lajos Kozma (1938–2007), and the other by Ľudovít Oelschläger (1896–1984); evangelical churches were constructed in Trnava in 1924 and in Bratislava in 1933.[8] In Žilina, too, an evangelical church designed by Milan Harminc (1839–1964), was completed in 1935.[9] These reflected changing patterns of urban settlement and the growing importance and confidence of Jewish communities; they could also be politically charged, for the Czechoslovak president Tomáš G. Masaryk had openly expressed anti-Catholic sentiments, viewing the Catholic Church as a medieval relic. In the new Republic, therefore, the growth of evangelical churches in could be seen as an indicator of modernization in the field of religious belief; we might also view the New Synagogue in Žilina in this light, given that it was to serve the community of Neolog Jews in contrast to their orthodox co-religionists in the town. Neologs were one of the two principle groupings of Jews in Hungary (alongside Orthodox Jews) and being supporters of integration into Hungarian society, were seen as progressive.

It was noted earlier that even though the building of the Neolog synagogue in Žilina was one of the indicators of urban (and religious) modernization, the design of the building is not such a break from tradition as has sometimes been claimed. In contrast to the Catholic and protestant churches, synagogues were never governed by explicit ordinances regarding their design. As Rudolf Klein has demonstrated in his monumental study of synagogue architecture in Hungary, there was no set type to which synagogues had to conform. Certain features, such as the bimah (the raised platform from which the Torah would be read) or the Ark, for storing the Torah, were necessary, but while the Ark was usually placed on the Eastern wall, and its relation to the bimah determined the overall arrangement of the synagogue, there was considerable scope for variation.[10]

Ludwig Förster: The Great Synagogue on Dohány Street, Budapest

Ludwig Förster: The Great Synagogue on Dohány Street, Budapest, 1854–59 – photo: Rene Boulay / Wikimedia Commons

For much of their history, synagogues in Europe were built on a square plan, with the bimah located in the middle, enclosed within four central columns supporting the roof, topped with a dome. This made for a clear differentiation from Christian churches which were, for the most part, longitudinal structures based on a single nave (as in the basilica) or a nave and aisles. By the nineteenth century, however, this was by no means universal, and many synagogues increasingly took on a longitudinal form. Indeed, during the course of the 1800s such differentiation was achieved in a different way, namely, by adoption of an eclectic architectural idiom often referred to as Moorish revival. Some of the most prominent synagogues in Europe were built using this idiom: the Dohány Street synagogue by Ludwig Förster (1797–1863) in Budapest (1854–59), Izidor Hegner’s Neolog synagogue in Kolozsvár (now Cluj, Romania) (1886–87), or the Jerusalem Synagogue by Wilhelm Stiassny (1842–1910) in Prague (1906).

Moorish revival architecture drew on an eclectic range of sources, with elements such as round Romanesque arches and windows (Gothic was deemed to close to Catholicism), Islamic ornamentation, polychrome brickwork, minarets in place of spires. The style did not originate in synagogues; the first, famous, example was the Royal Pavilion in Brighton designed by John Nash and completed in 1787. Nevertheless, a variant of Moorish revivalism migrated to synagogue architecture, first in Germany and then across Austria-Hungary. We might now express reservations about its use of orientalising stereotypes, which were in turn informed by clichés in gentile society about the ‘oriental’ origins of the Jews. It was, however, embraced by Jewish communities; as Ivan Davidson Kalman has pointed out, there was a distinct stream of Zionist thinking that asserted the ‘oriental’ separateness of Jews with considerable vigour.[11] One of its most notable representatives was the Vienna-based architect Wilhelm Stiassny. Alongside the Jerusalem Synagogue in Prague mentioned above, he designed a number of other Moorish revival synagogues, in Malacký, just north of Bratislava (1889), Stanisławów (now Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine) (1894–99), Čáslav in central Bohemia (1897–99) and Jablonec nad Nisou, in northern Bohemia (1891–92).

After 1918, however, the position of many Jewish communities in Czechoslovakia was changed. The declaration of confessional difference had fitted well in an Austria-Hungary that took cosmopolitan plurality as the basis of its identity. In the First Republic, however, which was based on the notion of a Czechoslovak national identity, the place of Jews was not clear cut. In Slovakia, where the greater number of Czechoslovak Jews lived, a majority of Jews were Hungarian-speakers, due to the fact that they had assimilated so readily to Hungarian culture. Others who had migrated from Polish Galicia, Austria or Moravia spoke Yiddish or German. Their loyalty to the new state was thus put in question by zealous Czech and Slovak nationalists. In 1918, following a spate of anti-Jewish violence in Slovakia, Chaim Weizman, president of the World Zionist Organisation, complained to the new Czechoslovak government. The response from Vavro Šrobár, Czechoslovakia‘s first Minister Plenipotentiary for Slovakia, was not encouraging: he accused the Jews of being willing accomplices to the oppression of Slovaks through their support for the polices of enforced cultural assimilation (Magyarization) of the previous Hungarian government.[12]

Interwar Czechoslovakia ultimately proved to be far more hospitable to Jewish communities than its neighbours Austria or Hungary. Nevertheless, in an atmosphere where loyalty could come under suspicion in some quarters, persistence with Moorish revivalism might be deemed problematic. It is in this context that we might wish to interpret the synagogue in Žilina, for it was an attempt to formulate a design language that respected Jewish tradition and identity, while abandoning the problematic associations of Moorish revival historicism.

In comparison with other synagogues built between the wars in Czechoslovakia, such as, for example, the synagogue in Lučenec (1925), the new synagogue in Bratislava (1926) or the synagogues in Košice (1927), the pared-down design of the concrete cube in Žilina was a notable departure from their historicist character. Lipót Baumhorn’s design for Lučenec was an eclectic combination of Romanesque, Byzantine and Classical features, Artur Szalatnai’s (1891–1962) design for the Bratislava orthodox synagogue envisioned it as a neo-classical temple, while those in Košice were based either on neobaroque or, in the case of Oelschläger orthodox synagogue, a mélange of historical motifs. On the other hand, Behrens’s concern for tradition is visible if we place it alongside Otto Eisler’s (1893–1968) radical design for the Agudas Achim synagogue in Brno, completed only a few years later in 1935.

Artúr Szalatnai: Bratislava Orthodox Synagogue, 1926

Artúr Szalatnai: Bratislava Orthodox Synagogue, 1926 – photo: Bratislava Jewish Community Museum

There are a number of ways in which Behrens invoked the history of synagogue architecture. The raised dome in the centre of the roof is clearly a reference to earlier synagogue design, but which had now lost its symbolic function, since the bimah was not located in the centre of Behrens’s structure. Approaching the synagogue from the North and towards the main entrance, the dome, set back from the edges of the building, and with the latter at an elevated level, is slightly occluded from vision to the viewer at street level; one of the most notable aspects are the raised corners. These give the synagogue a tent-like character, which recalls the prototype of the tabernacle, the tent within which the Ark was originally housed.

Peter Behrens: The Neolog Synagogue in Žilina, 1928–31

Peter Behrens: The Neolog Synagogue in Žilina, 1928–31 – photo: Nová Synagoga, Žilina

Inside, Behrens has maintained the bands of polychromic brickwork, a graphic reminder of the older tradition of Moorish revivalism. It has also been suggested that the cubic structure is an allusion to the domed Tomb of Rachel by Bethlehem, one of the holiest sites in Israel.[13] The synagogue is thus replete with symbolic references to Jewish tradition and history, which therefore put it at odds with a purely functional reading of modernist architecture. Even the way that the concrete cube of the main body ascends out of the rusticated lower brick levels can be read, perhaps, as an attempt at an allegorical depiction of the emergence of the Jews from ‘primitive’ oriental origins towards the present.

Peter Behrens: The Neolog Synagogue in Žilina, interior view

Peter Behrens: The Neolog Synagogue in Žilina, interior view, 1928-31 – photo: Nová Synagoga, Žilina

The Neolog synagogue in Žilina encapsulates in architectural form, perhaps, the complex situation that Jews had to negotiate, and which, in many respects, persist into the present. Indeed, the town may play a particular role in the historical memory of the Holocaust. In April 1944 two prisoners in Auschwitz, Rudolf Vrba (born Walter Rosenberg) and Alfréd Wetzler, escaped in order to alert the outside world to events taking place there. It was in Žilina that they compiled their account, known as the Vrba-Wetzler Report, now regarded as a crucial historical document. The restoration of the synagogue is a welcome sign that Žilina’s place in Jewish history, its lost community, has been recognised and embraced by the municipality. Yet contradictions remain. Just around the corner from the synagogue, one of the main squares of the town is named Andrej Hlinka Square (Námestie Andreja Hlinku). A prominent voice of Slovak nationalism, Hlinka (1864–1938) was founder and chair of the Slovak People’s Party. He died before the creation of the short-lived First Slovak Republic in March 1939, a fascist client state of Nazi Germany. However, the party he founded played a leading role in the state. In particular, the name ‘Hlinka’ is indelibly associated with the Hlinka Guard, the militia that enthusiastically rounded up the Jewish population of Slovakia in 1942 and deported them to the death camps. The co-presence of the restored synagogue with the name of the square is a timely reminder, perhaps, that the past still poses awkward questions for the present.

Matthew Rampley

[1] See Katarzyna Jagodzińska, ‘Do the Buildings Really Matter? Czech, Polish and Slovak Museums and Centres of Contemporary Art in Adapted Buildings,’ Central Europe, 16.2 (2018) pp. 112–133.

[2] Jana Močková, ‘Nikdy ich neopustila naivná viera, že to nakoniec dajú. Po 6 rokoch otvárajú žilinskú synagógu,’ Denník N, 10 May 2017.

[3] Matúš Dulla,’ Posledná synagóga: vznik a podoba synagógy neológov v Žiline od Petra Behrensa,’ Architektúra & urbanizmus 38.3-4 (2004) pp. 103–120.

[4] Max Eisler, ‘Entwürfe für eine Synagoge,’ Menorah 2.7 (1929) pp. 86–95. Anna Ďuriníková, ‘Neologická synagoga v Žiline’ (Masaryk University Brno, Unpublished BA thesis, 2012) is a valuable source of information on the synagogue.

[5] See, for example, the article ‘Neologická synagoga’ on archiweb, or the entry on the synagogue of the Register of Modern Architecture of the Historical Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

[6] Dušan Mellner, ‘Regulačný “územný” plán mesta Žilina 1929,’ in Žilina a Svojdomov: moderná architektúra a urbanizmus mesta (1918–1948) (Bratislava, 2010) pp. 21–33. Peňáz outlined his ideas in ‘Das Brünn der Zukunft’ in Karel Tomeš, ed., Brünn: Hauptstadt von Mähren (Prague, 1928) pp. 37–42.

[7] On the Grossmann building see Klára Kubičková, ed., Michal Maximilián Scheer: Architektonické dielo. Katalóg výstavy (Bratislava, 1993) pp. 11 and 20; on the Financial Palace see Anna Zajková, ‘Finančný palác,’ in Architektúra & urbanizmus 29.1–2 (1995) pp. 70–73.

[8] Henrieta Moravčiková, ‘Zrod moderného mesta: zmeny obrazu slovenských miest druhej polovici 19. a prvej polovici 20. Storočia,’ Forum Historiae 10.2 (2016) p. 7.

[9] Janka Krivošová, et al., Evanjelické kostoly na Slovensku (Liptovský MIkuláš, 2001).

[10] Rudolf Klein, Synagogues in Hungary 1792–1918 (Budapest, 2019).

[11] Ivan Davidson Kalmar, ‘Moorish Style: Orientalism, the Jews, and Synagogue Architecture,’ Jewish Social Studies 7.3 (2001) pp. 68–100.

[12] Rebekah Klein-Pejšová, ‘Building Slovak Jewry: Communal Reorientation in Interwar Czechoslovakia,’ in Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 30.4 (2012) pp. 28–30.

[13]Neologická synagoga’ on archiweb.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/FU2CH

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply