Renaissance of the Salgótarjáni Street Jewish Cemetery

¶ The fist reference to Jewish funerary culture appears in the Old Testament when Abraham buried his wife Sarah (Genesis 23:1-20). However, that does not mark the beginning of Jewish funerary art, since due to its reluctance to visuality Judaism does not have a collective language of forms supported by ideas like the sacral art of other denominations. The depiction of the burial of Sarah by Gustav Doré is most likely erroneous. This visual representation was rendered on the basis of Christian art. Jewish fine arts – if it is at all possible to use this expression in this context – was most often born as a result of contacts with neighbouring peoples and cultures, and fairly often it was created by artists of those peoples. For example, Solomon’s Temple was designed by Hiram, a Phoenician ‘guest worker’, although Jews also worked on the great edifice too.

¶ Yet the works that were created on the basis of outside influence were gradually codified and became part of Jewish culture. To put it more freely, it is possible to say that the fine art regarded as Jewish was born via Jewish-antique pagan, Jewish-Christian and Jewish-Muslim dialogues. These dialogues involved not only reception but also response and selection. The alien elements which were unacceptable for Judaism were first separated then changed, and the works of art thus created became specific and harmonized with Judaism. Yet it is an exaggeration to refer to them as Jewish art because they do not represent positive Judaic contents – that would have been unacceptable with the image ban – but a collective treasure of forms and motifs born via a selecting and codifying mechanism evoked by Judaism. Thus I believe it is more correct to speak about Jewish cemetery culture rather than funerary art until the period of the Enlightenment and somewhere even later. In this context funerary culture is a more liberal and wider notion than funerary art, which is sacred and in close connection with faith.

¶ As the relationship and dialogue of the Jews with neighbouring cultures changed, so did their funerary culture. In the case of ancient Jewish graves, the separation of pagan elements was slight. The late Roman Jewish tomb in the Hungarian National Museum depicts the deceased on a relief, similarly to the pagan steles displayed next to it. The specific feature of ancient Jewish tombs is not manifested in terms of form or the way of depiction, but in Jewish symbols and Hebrew writing. However, when the situation of the Jews turned significantly worse in medieval Europe compared to that in ancient times, both synagogue architecture and funerary culture distanced themselves more from their Christian counterparts. Synagogues abandoned the nave plus two isles arrangement of basilicas, while tombs dispensed with rendering human figures were abandoned, although the shape of the tombstone could remain similar to those of Christians, as can be seen in the tombstones of medieval Jewish cemeteries in Prague, Frankfurt and Worms. In the Middle Ages, human figures were only occasionally rendered on Ashkenazi Jewish tombs, for example in the Battonstrasse Jewish cemetery in Frankfurt, though only in a few cases. The depiction of animals (lions, bears, birds, deer, etc.) was an important element of high-standard Jewish tombs right up to the Age of Enlightenment. Unlike the German/Ashkenazi Jewish culture, the effect of the ban on images was not so strong in the case of Spanish or Sephardic Jewish culture, as can be seen in the Sephardic part of the Jewish cemetery in Hamburg-Altona.

¶ Another period when Jewish and Christian tombstone art came somewhat closer was the age of the Renaissance and especially the Enlightenment. All this is important for us in order to understand synagogue architecture and Jewish tombstone art in 19th century Hungary, notably the Salgótarjáni Street Jewish Cemetery. The above shows that the history of Jewish funerary culture looking back to nearly 4000 years was not uniform. Rather it was full of changes and the embodiment of prevailing effects of the surroundings. Interestingly, during those 4000 years cemetery art is remarkable not only for its age and long continuity, but also for being a field of Jewish material culture which can be most of all referred to as Jewish, since it includes writing and religious symbols as compared with architecture and painting, and to a smaller degree ritual objects. Thus in this genre the least had to be borrowed from neighbouring peoples and cultures.

¶ Unlike synagogues, which were methodically ruined in times of the persecutions of Jews during the past 2500 thousand years, thus making it relatively difficult to reconstruct them archaeologically, substantially more Jewish tombs exist, since they represented smaller targets (although graves were also vandalised) and the soil often protected them for future generations. After expelling Jews, Christians often used tombstones as building materials and thus they inadvertently protected them for future generations in still existing medieval walling. This must have also happened to some of the stones of ruined synagogues, but since they lacked Hebrew writing their history became more difficult to follow. In so far as an ancient, medieval or even an early modern Jewish cemetery still exists, its value as a source is outstanding.


19th and 20th century Jewish cemeteries – from the golden age up to the Holocaust


¶ During the long 19th century, Jewish cemetery culture radically changed. Emancipation and assimilation created an independent tombstone art to a Christian pattern, yet the Jewish elements and contents survived and have an exceptional documentary value. Large 19th century Jewish cemeteries are like the pages of an enormous chronicle or the hand written pages of the Scriptures, in which tombs are lined up as characters, and paths, little squares, bushes and trees represent the spaces between words and lines. It was a time when the narrow, strict order of traditional Jewish graves was succeeded by a subtle, looser and more talkative, sometimes park-like arrangement.

¶ The ground-plan arrangement, the shape and material of tombs, their relationship to one another, the language, content and typography of the inscriptions, the elements of the landscape – trees, bushes and small plants – and the lesser and larger play with the topography of the terrain in these cemeteries faithfully represent the consolidation of Jews within Christian society. This is the “text” which describes most spectacularly how the enclosed communitas iudeorum, i.e. the traditional “kehila” in the 19th century, opened up and turned into the “Jewish religious community”. The organic Jewish community which stood in front of God as one, in which knowledge of the Scriptures represented the greatest value, was replaced by a more liberal, socially more mobile and differentiated community, which adjusted itself to new values shared with Christians.

¶ Observing it on a historical scale, this process took place incredibly rapidly in altogether only a century – even faster in some places – especially in large European cities and their catchment areas, but the Jewry of farther away provincial towns also modernised gradually.



The Salgótarjáni Street Jewish Cemetery – the burial place of Hungarian Jewish Elite


¶ In the above context, the significance of the Salgótarjáni Street Jewish Cemetery regarding its artistic values, its sociographic power and its Jewish and local historical role is exceptional. In this it is arguably among the first in the world. The year of its establishment – 1874, a year after the unification of Pest, Buda and Old Buda – is symbolic. It was the first large Jewish burial place of the developing metropolis, in which the newer, larger tombs towering in front of the old tombstones clearly represent emancipation, its desires and dreams, as well as its pitfalls.

¶ A further unique feature of the Salgótarjáni Street Jewish Cemetery is that the artistic language of assimilation experienced a turnaround already during the age of Art Nouveau. Not only did Jews adopt Christian forms, but Béla Lajta and his followers revived the matzevah tradition of Jewish tombstone art (a simple tombstone with a semi-circular top), revived Hebrew typography and Jewish iconography, which had generally been forgotten in the heat of 19th century assimilation. This partial return reappeared in the Jewish cemeteries of Germany in the 1920s, as shown by the tombs of Bin Chorin and Hermann Cohen in Berlin’s Weissensee Jewish Cemetery. At that time the Jews rather withdrew and secluded themselves in the Hungarian Kingdom following the Numerus Clausus of 1920. The German Nazis came to the fore 
only in 1933.

¶ Important industrial magnates and families which became prominent in the Gründerzeit in Hungary, such as Mandfréd Weiss, Baron Hatvany-Deutsch, Knight Ignác Wechselmann and others, are buried in the Salgótarjáni Street Jewish Cemetery. In addition, the mortal remains of outstanding figures of Hungarian Jewish cultural life and rabbinic studies can also be found here.

¶ The art historical significance of the cemetery is also exceptional. Great figures of Hungarian architectural history designed tombs and mausoleums here, including Béla Lajta, Emil Vidor and Ignác Alpár. Lajta is the most significant architect in the world history of funerary architecture. His 45 tombs and mausoleums comprise several stylistic periods between 1904 and 1918, and the artist integrates Hungarian folklore into his extremely original combinations of form.

¶ The Salgótarjáni Street Jewish Cemetery is also special in the context of monument protection. It is one of the few European Jewish graveyards which has almost perfectly preserved its original condition, for only a few tombstones were built after the 1920s and only family members were buried in the already existing ones. Disregarding the ravages of time, looting and ruination, there has not been any architectural or really significant horticultural intervention. In the cemetery there is opulent, mostly spontaneously growing vegetation, which also contributes to the remarkable aesthetic effect.

¶ In addition to the cemetery’s tombs, its entrance section represents a special value in art and cultural history. The narrow, tall, stone covered gate building with the caretaker’s lodge recalling a medieval castle gate and basically Scandinavian national romantic tradition was designed by Béla Lajta, as was the early modern ceremonial building enriched with Oriental references, between the forecourt and the sector of honorary graves. While the architecture of the gate building is unique in the history of Jewish funerary architecture, the ceremonial building connects, on the one hand, with the new orientalism of the Holy Land and, on the other, with early modernism in Europe.



Tombs designed by Béla Lajta


¶ Several designs by the most significant Hungarian architect of the period connecting Art Nouveau and early Modernism can be found here. These tombs are very original and innovative regarding their composition, motifs and typography. Taking a short walk in the cemetery the visitor can see the most important stages of Lajta’s entire oeuvre and experience the changes in forms of expression and their historical reference points, as well as their connections with contemporary fine arts.

¶ In Lajta’s basically surface sensitive funerary art, his classicizing interlude peters out gradually and the world of decorative forms of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Wiener Werkstätte appears, i.e. gravity of ancient architecture is gradually replaced by elegance. In the master’s oeuvre the transition between Classicizing and pre-Modern periods is not as sudden as between Art Nouveau and Classicizing periods, but tectonics as a main force of expression gradually gives place to the surface and its decoration. The ornamentation of surfaces, however, is essentially different from that of the Art Nouveau period. In the pre-Modern period the individual motifs were stylized, their integrity of form was lost and they became subordinated to an overarching geometry. This geometrization was gradual, being initially limited to the joints between the stones. Later it became the organising principle of ornamentation.

¶ The most important developmental tendency from a semiotic viewpoint is presented by the transformation from image to symbol and then from symbol to sign in the more or less one and a half decades of Lajta’s tombstone design. We can talk about some kind of re-Judaisation, which runs in parallel with the abstraction of Modernism. Naturalistic representations appear on the art nouveau Schmidl Mausoleum – cherub wings, a Levite jug, etc. – later the visual rendering becomes strongly stylized, such as a chalicelike tulip shape, menorah-tree of life-bush; symbols often with several meanings and possible interpretations. In his last designs signs (written characters), from time to time a symbol used as a character (i.e. both Hungarian and Hebrew writing) gradually assume the leading role. This procedure is clearly a textualization, a return to the intentions of the Jewish heritage and represents a U-turn in post-Enlightenment and post-haskala Jewish funerary culture.

¶ Besides reviving Jewish traditions, Lajta remained Hungarian and for him this double identity was the cultural basis which became the vital element of his artistic career. His greatness lies in exactly this duality, the promotion of the opportunity for cultures enriching one another, in a deep belief and not in a superficial and frivolous manner, as was the case with some of his contemporaries. Most of his work was also modern in the sense of the word that it corresponded to contemporary tendencies. Lajta’s synthesizing ability to forge identities perhaps did not appear anywhere as beautifully as in his tombs, which are outstanding stages in the many thousand year old Jewish funerary culture.



After the Holocaust


¶ The concentration camps, forced labour and Second World War atrocities decimated Hungarian Jewry. Budapest Jewry – which suffered a smaller loss compared to Jews living in the provinces – diminished during the war, as it did to a lesser extent in 1948 when the state of Israel was founded, and there was a larger loss after the 1956 revolution. The material legacy of the minority formerly comprising one million people in the lands of the Hungarian Kingdom is preserved by town houses, mansions, synagogues and, most of all, by the more than one thousand Jewish cemeteries.

¶ After World War II the Salgótarjáni Street Jewish Cemetery was taken away from the Jewish community by the state and passed into the ownership of the Budapest Funeral Institute Plc. (and its legal predecessors), remaining like that until May 2016. The Budapest Jewish Community was only its maintaining body, but since June 2016 it has not even been that. The strongly centralised “socialist state” was not a good master and the graveyard suffered incredible damage. The Budapest Jewish Community has been able to somewhat relieve the situation in recent years: to repair the decrepit wall and employ a skilled caretaker after several graves were looted and several tombs fell down or collapsed. The cemetery is in a sad state of affairs. The ramifying trees and branches deform or destroy the tombs. Many tombs should be urgently strengthened and repaired so that they can be rescued for future generations.

¶ Not only public administration has been harsh to the cemetery so far, so has monument protection, which has not been concerned until recently. Historians have not been involved much either, although it is a close, albeit smaller, ‘over the wall’ neighbour of the Fiumei Road National Graveyard and is similar to it with regard to age and compilations of forms and message. It also promotes the understanding and tolerance of the accepting nation. The wonderful cemetery has not been nominated for the World Heritage List.



The expected rebirth of the cemetery


¶ In the 21st century the Salgótarjáni Street Jewish Cemetery has gradually started to become known in the Jewish community and among architects. In the international professional literature Fredric Bedoire, a Swedish protestant historian, wrote about it in 1998. It seemed to me that the cemetery could only be satisfactorily promoted if foreign partners were found. I hoped that publicity would help the profession wake up in Hungary and that further deterioration of the cemetery’s condition would be halted. There were not only tactical reasons for this. The most mobile element of Hungarian modernisation was the Jews who represented links within European culture not only in modern arts and literature, but also in the world of graveyards. Many such metropolitan Jewish cemeteries reinforce one another and they tell a great deal about the history of the Jews and Europe.

¶ The endeavour was successful. A delegation of the Berlin Office for Historic Buildings and Monuments visited Budapest and raised the issue of opportunities for a serial nomination to UNESCO’s World Heritage List together with the Weißensee Cemetery in Berlin and the Wrocka Street Cemetery in Lodz. The German ICOMOS Committee also organised scholarly conferences (in Berlin and Fürth) where European specialists met. In 2014 I was commissioned by the Berlin Office for Monument Preservation to prepare a comprehensive study about the 15-20 similar large Jewish cemeteries of the last third of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century still existing in Europe, which would help the three most exciting 19th century Jewish cemeteries become part of the UNESCO World Heritage. (This material extended in a book format will be published in Berlin in 2017.)

¶ Meanwhile interest has swollen in Hungary. Not only an increasing number of volunteers have visited the cemetery and helped the caretaker clean individual tombs, but the architecture profession has also paid special attention to the cemetery. Fort the first time I ‘officially’ guided Hungarian visitors around the cemetery two years ago. They were Ph.D. architecture students and lecturers of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. One result was an extremely exciting diploma project for the renovation of the liturgical building designed by Béla Lajta, undertaken by Sarolta Hüttl under the supervision of Professor Mihály Balázs. Another was that a survey started in 2015, the idea for which goes back some time. An inter-university multidisciplinary research project involving the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives, Szent István University, Budapest University of Technology, Eötvös Loránd University, Corvinus University and the Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design was outlined as early as in 2014. The students and lecturers of these universities conducted pilot research in the summer of 2015.

¶ In September 2015 the National Heritage Institute expressed its intention to acquire the right of ownership of the cemetery from the Municipal Cemetery Company in order to renovate it. In May 2016 the endeavour was successful. A comprehensive geodetic survey was conducted in autumn 2016 and the gradual renovation of tombs can be expected in 2017. Besides its role of reverence, the cemetery will have educational, cultural and touristic goals, together but not united with the National Graveyard. Thus it may be possible to make up the lost ground of 70 years compared with similar European Jewish cemeteries, which, although not as outstanding with regard to art history, are better explored and maintained, and being mostly in Jewish community ownership, were more easily able to obtain donations from families and international sponsors.