Wooden Synagogues of Poland
An Exhibition: "A Lost World Revisited"
"Wooden Synagogues: A Lost World Revisited" is an exhibition about the 17th and 18th century wooden synagogues from the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth with a particular focus on the Zabludow and Gwozdziec Synagogues.
These magnificent buildings were destroyed during the Nazi invasion of Poland in World War II. Fortunately, an extensive collection of architectural drawings and photographic documentation has survived in several Polish archives. The exhibition displays reproductions of this historic documentation as well as scale models of the buildings themselves. Through this exhibition, the public will gain an understanding and appreciation of the architectural significance of the wooden synagogues and the nearly lost cultural heritage of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe.
The exhibition is a collaboration between Handshouse Studio and Tom Hubka, professor of Architecture and author of Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth Century Polish Community.Exhibition Contents
The exhibit includes six large scale B&W prints of photographs of the interior of Gwozdziec Synagogue; a large 1/2 scale colored painted replica of a portion of the Gwozdziec Synagogue ceiling and wall painting; a large-scale wooden model of the Zabludow Synagogue; reproductions of drawings (mostly produced by faculty and students from the Institute of Polish Architecture of the Polytechnic of Warsaw in 1920s and 1930s); and photographs of 14 additional synagogues along with descriptions of their Polish Jewish communities. There is also a full scale replica of a hewn timber framed brace, the roof truss and log wall connection from the Zabludow Synagogue structure.
In 2006, additional replicas produced by Handshouse Studio projects will be added to the exhibition. These include the south ceiling and wall paintings of the 17th c. Gwozdziec synagogue and a full scale section of the carved and painted wooden bimah.
To date, this growing exhibition has been at the Polish Center of Wisconsin (2004), University of Wisconsin (2004), Oberlin College (2005), and is currently at the National Yiddish Book Center until March 2006. With funding from the Massachusetts Foundation for Humanities, we have organized the exhibition with lectures and events at the Vilna Shul, the oldest existing synagogue in Boston (opening spring 2005).
In addition, the Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry at Brandeis University proposes to present "Wooden Synagogues: A Lost World Revisited" at Brandeis University's Shapiro Campus Center during the school year 2006-2007.
During the period between the two world wars, the approximately 3.5 million Jews living in the Polish Republic constituted the largest Jewish community in the world outside of the United States. The Jews of Poland had a tradition of many centuries of peaceful existence alongside the other inhabitants – Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Belarusians, Germans, Armenians, Gypsies – creating a culture of richness and diversity. During the Nazi invasion of Poland and the Holocaust, this part of Poland's cultural richness was lost. Over two hundred wooden synagogues were completely destroyed and only through photographs, drawings and documentation compiled before the war are we able to envision a handful of the hundreds of synagogues that once existed.
Wooden architecture is a dominant element in the historic landscape of Poland. Before World War II synagogues were a significant visual component throughout the countryside in the villages and towns of Poland. Their exterior massing was reflective of Polish vernacular tradition while the interior designs, including elaborate wall paintings and a highly crafted bimah and ark signify a distinctly Jewish art form. The paintings, which often covered the entire wall surfaces, depict zodiac symbols, arabesques, animal images, floral designs and Hebrew text. Upon entering the main sanctuary, the space is organized and dominated by two significant objects, an ark, a highly decorated towering cabinet used to store the Torah scrolls, and the bimah, a raised platform with an ornamental roof held up by wooden posts covering a table where the torah scrolls were read.
There has been an abundance of research and scholarly discourse concerning Jewish society and religious beliefs, but up until recently, little has been written about the subject of the Jewish art and architecture particularly of this period and region. Scholars have suggested this may be a reaction to the second commandment that prohibits the making of and worshipping of idols.
A common misconception is that the Polish Jewish communities who built wooden synagogues were blighted by poverty. This image may be an appropriate 19th and 20th century description, but Zabludow and similar synagogues from the 17th and 18th centuries were built by cosmopolitan, relatively affluent communities who could afford the highest regional standards of construction and craftsmanship. These wooden synagogues are an extraordinary phenomenon, worthy of high artistic standing among the wooden architecture of Europe and the world. They represent a high point in Jewish architectural art and religious painting, a tradition that was later abandoned by Eastern European Jews. This gives greater importance to the study of the subject. Today, these historic wooden synagogues remain only in the memories of a handful of survivors and in the limited but significant documentation.
Most fortunately, between the two World Wars, Professor Oskar Sosnowski of the Department of Architecture of the Polytechnic of Warsaw, and photographer and art historian Szymon Zajczyk directed architects and architect students to produce extensive documentation of these wooden structures through architectural drawings, replica paintings, and photographs. Recognizing the historical importance and artistic value of this architecture and fearing its impending destruction with the rise of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, this team compiled extensive data and produced architectural drawings, color and detail studies and photographs of many synagogues. Much of this project was destroyed during World War II but a substantial amount survived. Today the documentation is all that remain of the wooden synagogues of Poland.
"Wooden Synagogues: A Lost World Revisited" addresses the common misconception of Polish Jewish communities that build wooden synagogues as blighted by poverty. The image of the impoverished shtetl is an appropriate 19th and 20th century description but these buildings are monuments of the 17th and 18th century, a time referred to by some scholars as "a golden age" of shtetl Jewish history. These wooden synagogues were built by cosmopolitan, relatively affluent communities who could afford the highest regional standards of construction and craftsmanship. Conforming to the style of that period, wooden synagogues were an extraordinary architectural phenomenon, worthy of high artistic standing among the wooden architecture of Europe and the world.