The Synagogues of Szeged and Subotica

If you’re bicycling through southern Hunganry and the adjoining (formerly Hungarian) province of  Vojvodina in northern Serbia, you can’t but be aware of the terrible displacements and atrocities that have been committed in the region by one ethnic, religious or cultural group against another over the last several centuries, and even quite recently, nearby.

One such atrocity, the Nazi murder of the Jewish population of the region, stands out. So, still, do the beautiful synagogues of Szeged and Subotica, both of which I saw earlier this week. They are a stark reminder of the sheer size of the Jewish communities in these two cities, communities which, as I understand it, are virtually non-existent, or very small, today.

The synagogue in Szeged (1907) is the fourth largest in the world, and the second largest in Hungary, after the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest. It is in good condition and is used as a concert hall as well as for worship.

The synagogue in Subotica (1902), inspired by the great Hungarian architect Odon Lechner, was built for a community that numbered around 3,000 at the time. It’s another great example of Hungarian art nouveau.


Both great buildings are evidence and poignant reminders of the Jewish life and culture that must have been part of everyone’s everyday life in these and other cities in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans until the 1940s.

But I write about this mainly because I am intrigued by the language of the memorial tablet placed outside the Subotica Synagogue:


The  Jews, it says, ‘perished in fascist death camps.’ So, it seems to imply, that had nothing to do with the local populations, or local hatreds. It all happened in a faraway place.

The description places the blame on ‘fascism’, as if anti-Semitism was, and is, principally a matter of political ideology, rather than something with darker, less intellectual origins (an irrational hatred that lay at the heart of Christian European culture for centuries)- something that can be ‘educated’ away, and blamed on specific political leaders rather than on the population at large. Of course, I may be maligning the people of Subotica. I don’t know if they were exemplary in their protection of the Jewish community (as Serbia was, in general) or not. Even if so, the description is misleading. The murder of the Jews was not a ‘fascist’ crime. It was not a German crime. It was a Nazi crime, inspired by the leaders of the Nazi party and supported by millions of others, in Germany and elsewhere, who shared their hatred.

The inscription dates from 1994, a time perhaps when Communist ideology was still lingering in the country (Yugoslavia still?) and it was convenient to wipe the slate clean and claim that in the absence of ‘fascism’ the danger no longer existed.

But I remember a train journey I made from Belgrade to Budapest in the summer of 1987, when both Hungary and Yugoslavia were still nominally communist. I talked for an hour or so with a pleasant middle-class lady who was eager to practise her excellent English. For some reason we got onto the events of the Second World War and I asked a few questions about Jewish survivors, and about the scale of the transportation and murder of the region’s Jews.

‘I know it was awful,’ she said. ‘And it’s awful that the Jewish communities were almost entirely destroyed, but you know we never really liked them.’

So much for the eradication of the irrational by political re-education! Anti-Semitism was not specifically a fascist phenomenon.




One thought on “The Synagogues of Szeged and Subotica

  1. Adam, in my experience, the Balkans were a mystery and quite different from what occurred across “civilized” Europe during the Nazi occupation.

    First you have the Muslim populations doing quite a lot of good deeds to save Jews and their customs including the famous Sarajevo Haggadah.

    Then you have this:

    From August 1941 to April 1945, hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Romas, as well as anti-fascists of many nationalities, were murdered at the death camp known as Jasenovac. Estimates of the total numbers of men, women and children killed there range from 300,000 to 700,000.

    Jasenovac was known for having been one of the most barbaric death camps of the Holocaust for the extreme cruelty in which its victims were tortured and murdered. Mostly the Croats (no Nazis involved) hacked their victims to death with axes and knives

    Nor was Jasenovac the only death camp in fascist occupied Yugoslavia, but it was by far the largest and the one in which a majority of the some one million victims of racial genocide in World War II fascist Croatia were exterminated.

    The fact is also true that the majority of the victims were Serbs who were killed simply for being Serbs, the perpetrators included the Catholic Church.

    It would be comforting to think that the deaths of 6 million Jews and millions of other victims of genocide were killed by just Nazis or fascists. They were not.

    They were killed by people with hatred in their heart.

    On Slovak TV tonight, I watched a subtitled version of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, where at the end, Chaplin gave a speech which included this:

    ” I should like to help everyone – if possible – Jew, Gentile – black man – white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.”

    It was a great speech, but then, sadly, it was not true. Not one word of it. Written in 1940 with the deaths of the Holocaust still to come.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s