In the space of just two generations the Jews of Rijeka went from triumph to tragedy. At the turn of the 20th century, there were approximately 2,000 Jews living in Rijeka (known as Fiume at the time). Today there are less than fifty. An entire ethnic group was almost completely obliterated. First the Holocaust and then communism put the death knell in a culture that had flourished for hundreds of years in Rijeka. The destruction was so extensive that it is a wonder anything was left. Despite the destruction visited on the community, there are some places where a visitor can feel the presence of Rijeka’s lost Jewish community. The most prominent of these is at the Orthodox Synagogue. Built in 1928, the modernist structure still stands today. That makes it only one of three synagogues in Croatia that survived World War II and its immediate aftermath intact. That should be cause for celebration, but the Orthodox Synagogue was not the primary house of worship for the prewar Jewish population in the city.
Status Seeking – The Grand Illusion
Orthodoxy was losing adherents, while Neolog Judaism was the faith of choice for those looking to integrate and assimilate with mainstream society in the Kingdom of Hungary. This branch of Judaism was the spiritual home of the prosperous, upwardly mobile Jewish commercial class. Many of those adhering to the faith had been transformed by the acquisition of equal rights in 1867 after the compromise that created the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They used this opportunity to gain status, build wealth and establish themselves as staunch supporters of development in the booming port city. Reformed Judaism shunned the eastern exoticism and quasi-orientalism of Orthodoxy for a more tolerant and moderate strain of Judaism. One that sought to achieve full integration into Austro-Hungarian society.
At the turn of the 20th century, the adherents of Neolog Judaism decided to put their money towards the building of a synagogue that would symbolize their newfound prestige and what they must have assumed at the time would be a permanent presence in the city. To that end, public donations were solicited and collected for the building of a grand edifice by none other than the most famous synagogue architect of the age, Lipot Baumhorn. Collecting enough money for the synagogue’s construction turned into a multi-year funding drive. Assistance was sought and procured from the city of Rijeka which donated 70 square meters of land. The Hungarian governor Laszlo Szapary contributed 2000 crowns from his private register to help fund the synagogue. Such community support was essential to its construction. Work on the large and lavishly styled structure was overseen by another native son of Rijeka, engineer Carlo Conighi. He did an incredible job, as construction started in 1902 and was completed a year later.
A Short Pilgrimage – Rediscovering Jewish Rijeka
Sadly, the dream of permanence would prove illusory as Baumhorn’s creation would only stand for forty-two years. It lived and died in tandem with the Jewish community that commissioned its construction. The life and death of the synagogue would have been lost on me if not for the information panels that now stood in its place. I happened across the site by accident one sultry afternoon. entirely due to a mix up while going to visit a museum. For some reason, I got the Rijeka City Museum confused with the Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Littoral. The upshot was that I had almost walked to the City Museum before I realized that my preferred destination was the Maritime Museum, which just so happened to be in the opposite direction. This would mean having to retrace my footsteps until I suddenly decided that we should not walk the same route back. The new route took me up several flight of stairs that eventually led to a street with large buildings on either side.
Many of the buildings were apartment houses that looked as though they were constructed during the period of Austro-Hungarian rule. These reminded me of similar ones found in the residential areas of the city center in Budapest. While proceeding along the street I first noticed the information kiosk telling the synagogue’s story. The panels were large, with long descriptions of text. I was interested to see what they had to say. From the information given on the panels, I immediately recognized this was a special place. Behind the information kiosk was where the Neolog Synagogue had been located. Today, there was nothing left of it. If not for the copious amounts of information given on the panels, I would not have even known the Neolog Synagogue ever existed. A hybrid photo/painting taken from a postcard image showed the synagogue with pedestrians out on the sidewalks and street in front of it. If the synagogue had still been standing today, there are no telling how many people would have made the short pilgrimage from the Korzo or Old Town to visit it.
Spiritual Resonance – A Progressive Statement
At the time of its construction there was nothing in the city like the Neolog Synagogue. The truth is that over 75 years after its destruction, there are still very few buildings today in Rijeka that could have competed with its style and aesthetics. Baumhorn’s design was an unsurpassed work of sacral art. He integrated Romanesque and Gothic architectural elements, decorative Moorish flourishes and Hungarian vernacular style into a singular structure. The whole of this design was much greater than its parts. The upshot was an astonishing example of Hungarian eclecticism. Even the building materials used were unique. The synagogue was mainly made of brick, a material vastly underrepresented in Riejka architecture at the time. The use of iron by Baumhorn mitigated issues with wide span arches. This also allowed light to flood the interior.
Reading this information helped paint a picture in my mind, one that hovered in an exalted mental space somewhere between fantasy, imagination, and reality. A service conducted in the synagogue would have had a significant emotional impact, architecture infusing spirituality with a resonance that would have left the worshiper awestruck. The synagogue was the pride of Jewish Rijeka, a truly progressive statement that enhanced the city’s architectural aesthetics. During the first half of the 20th century, it would have been impossible not to notice the synagogue for those visiting the city. Tragically, that turned out to be precisely the problem when the Germans occupied Rijeka during the latter part of World War II. In an act of cultural destruction that laid bare their vile contempt for the city and its Jewish population, the Germans mined the structure and destroyed most of it on January 25, 1944. Yugoslav Authorities had no interest in restoring the synagogue and the rubble was cleared away in 1948.
The Face of Oblivion – An Incalculable Loss
Due to the destruction of the Neolog Synagogue, Rijeka experienced a loss of near unimaginable proportions. The only thing left was an empty space, a spiritual void in the city center. Eventually the space was filled with buildings that lacked any redeeming aesthetic qualities. As I stood reading the information panels, I tried to imagine what once was and what might have been. I could have been standing outside the walls of one of the great, early 20th century synagogues if history had taken a turn for the better. Instead, I was standing on a sidewalk in an otherwise anonymous part of Rijeka staring into an abyss. Now I knew what the face of oblivion looked like. It was all but invisible, just like the Neolog Synagogue of Rijeka.
Click here for: Sighs, Silence & Stoicism – Rijeka To Split: Train Station Spotting (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #45)