The Wooden Synagogues of Eastern Europe

The surviving wooden synagogues are now all that remains of a completely unique piece of European architectural history.

Wooden synagogues were one of the most peculiar elements of the pre-war cultural landscape of Eastern Europe. Accordingly, in 1939 still around a hundred of such buildings, some of which dated from the 17th and 18th centuries, were preserved. Numerous others had deteriorated, been burned down, replaced by stone buildings or destroyed during the First World War. The most impressive synagogues rose above the roofs of the village and constituted the most capturing visual element of their panoramas. The interiors startled with their original roof vaultings, decorative carvings, frescos, rich furnishings. Today only a dozen of the simplest wooden synagogues are still standing, mainly in Lithuania. Most of them are in a deteriorating condition, abandoned, and used as barns. Thus, none of the astonishing 17th and 18th century examples of such architecture and hardly any from the more contemporary and humble ones have escaped the ravages of time and war (take a look The Wooden Synagogues of Central and Eastern Europe from The European Routes of Jewish Heritage).

Our knowledge of the Eastern European wooden synagogues owes much to the photographic surveys undertaken from the end of the 19th century by Jewish, Polish, German and Russian scholars and art, heritage and history amateurs. Interestingly, several among the earliest academic photographic surveys undertaken in this region focused exclusively on wooden synagogues. It was the original style and architecture that attracted the attention, enforced by the awareness of their fragile nature and deteriorating state of preservation. Accordingly, during the course of the 19th century alone hundreds of historic wooden synagogues were burned down, simply collapsed or were replaced by stone ones. Zygmunt Gloger, a Polish ethnographer, archaeologist and folklorist from Podlasie, a region rich in examples of Jewish architecture, was one of the first to start the survey of wooden synagogues. As early as in 1870 he made drawings of the oldest synagogue in his region, which he published in a popular Polish illustrated magazine, calling its editors upon a consistent documentation of these vanishing monuments. Just a few years later Mathias Bershon a Jewish banker, collector and amateur historian living in Warsaw commissioned various provincial professional and amateur photographers to document the wooden synagogues in their neighbourhoods. He used it as a source for a richly illustrated history of wooden synagogues. At around the same time in Cracow, the art history section of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Russian art historian and artist, Grigorij Lukomskij, organized two independent surveys of the Jewish synagogues in Eastern Galicia. Wooden synagogues can be also found in the pictures of Solomon Iudovin, the photographer of Anski?s Jewish Ethnographic Expedition in the Pale of Settlement. During the years of the First World War, Hermann Struck, a German officer and military artist of Jewish origin, not only prepared suggestive lithographs presenting Jewish life, types and buildings on the Eastern Front, but also made a photographic survey of the most valuable synagogues.

This fascination with wooden synagogues sprang certainly from their original architectonic form. While Jewish scholars and artists searched for their own cultural identity, the Russian and German ones looked at them through a colonial focus, the Poles saw in the synagogues the reflection of their own ?prehistoric? architecture, known only from written sources. All these surveys were inspired by a strong presevationism in ideas. Drawing, and in particular photography were seen as the only tool able to preserve for the future the vanishing Jewish cultural landscape. This is why, for example, Alois Breyer, an architecture student from Technical University of Vienna, returned in his survey of the wooden synagogues in the Austrian Empire to the technique of photogrammetry, which enabled him to estimate the exact measurements of buildings.

The same ideas were at the base of several photographic surveys conducted in the interwar period in Poland and Lithuania. The most impressive and famous one is certainly that of Szymon Zajczyk, a Jewish art historian and photographer. This was a professional survey, sponsored by the Polish state and conducted in collaboration with the students of architecture from the Polytechnic School in Warsaw, which produced the most detailed and largest documentation of East European wooden synagogues consisting of several thousands of plans, watercolour drawings, photographs.

Szymon Zajczyk shared the tragic fate of the wooden synagogues, to which he dedicated so much of his life. He was killed by the Nazis in Warsaw in 1943, a few months later the Institute of Architecture of the Warsaw Polytechnic School, which had kept his survey documentation was destroyed. Thus, the sweeping away of the Jewish cultural landscape of Eastern Europe became inextricably connected to the Holocaust.

A small part of the photographs and of the drawings and watercolours from Zajczyk's survey survived the war and constitute today the most important testimony to the bygone cultural landscape of Eastern Europe. Just after the war, a marriage of two Polish architects, Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka, undertook the project of publishing Zajczyk's recovered documentation as one of the main initiatives of the re-established Polytechnic in Warsaw. Importantly, just after the war the memories of the bygone cultural landscape were still alive and vivid. The book Wooden synagogues, published for the first time in Polish in 1959, was seen as a recovery of a 'martyred heritage'. Piechotka's book, richly illustrated with Zajczyk's survey photographs and drawings, should be viewed in exactly this terms. Its influence went well beyond a good piece of architectural history scholarship. Moshe Verbin, one of the founders of the Yakum kibbutz, inspired by this survey documentation, carried out the projecting of them in a tri-dimensional form of wooden models. Verbin was born in 1920 in the land of the wooden synagogues, in the town of Sokó?ka in the Podlasie region and he moved to Israel at the age of 15. Arguably, his models must be seen not as a scientific or artistic project but rather as a process of detaining a fading memory, of repatriating a cultural identity embedded in the lost world of wooden synagogues. Verbin's models, which were exhibited at numerous exhibitions in Israel and abroad, contributed greatly to the popularisation of a hardly known cultural heritage and to its importance for the construction of a Jewish identity. Piechotka?s book made also a great impression on the renowned American artist, Frank Stella. His Polish villages series is, however, a totally different revocation. Stella was not an East European Jew and his view was that of an outsider. He was deeply impressed by the constructive elements of the synagogues, which he used as an inspiration for his form-building experiments. Thus, as Stella made clear, his series was not a memorial, but as Cliffor Chanin rightly noticed: "a reminder of the vitality of the Jewish life in Poland, captured in this single instance of synagogue construction".

Piechotka's book and Zajczyk's photographs are still today an essential element of projects and initiatives based on digitalisation centred on the recovery of the lost world of Eastern European Jewish Heritage. The EU founded educational project Shtetl Routes aims at reconstructing the lost world of Jewish small towns of Eastern Europe by establishing real and virtual touristic routes through the borderlands of Poland, Belarus and the Ukraine. Its webpage offers several virtual tours, like the route in the footsteps of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Anski?s route, the paths of photographers and of painters, an in-depth presentation of 60 selected towns and settlements. Historical survey photography plays a foreground role in these reconstructions. This virtual exhibition, which presents some examples of the pre-war survey photography of wooden synagogues in Eastern Europe intermingled with pictures of Jewish life and Jewish types, aims at initiating a larger discussion on photographic collections, digitalisation and the repatriation of cultural heritage. The pictures shown here come both from the Institute of Art as well as from several Polish and Ukrainian public and private collections. They are known to the world of scholars of Jewish history and architecture, however they have been almost unused in projects and initiatives addressed to a larger pubic. Our project thus aims at their popularisation and attempts to establish a platform connecting similar collections and projects worldwide. First and foremost, it hopes to start a wider discussion on the role of such collections within contemporary society. In particular we would like to distinguish the particular inheritors of such a heritage and to research the best ways of addressing various groups with this. Moreover, we would like to describe the process of the pre-war documentation and its post-war exploitation in terms of preservation in the case of the intentional destruction of cultural heritage. We equally wish to explore how these experiences could be applied to the contemporary world, one filled with ethno-nationalist conflicts.

Article from Heuright (The Right to Cultural Heritage)

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