+ Introduction to Polish Wooden Synagogues

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Overview:  This page provides an overview of Polish Wooden Synagogues, primarily based on the Piechotka [1959, 1996, 2004] books, which serve as an introduction to and survey of the variety of wooden synagogues in Poland whose documentation survived WWII.

For a compelling look at one synagogue and survey of the complex interactions of the Jewish community, the townspeople, the builders, the "interior decorators", etc., you need the Hubka [2003] book. The book gives you a way to think about what must have happened in numerous other towns in Eastern Europe. I only became aware of the latter at the end of 2011, and it now has its own page in this section of the website.

Polish Wooden Synagogues
To many people, the Polish Wooden Synagogue represents the only indigenous Jewish architecture, that is, a style of folk architecture that is both unique to the Jews, and not primarily adapted from something else.

The wooden synagogues in Poland were entirely destroyed in WWII, although a handful seem to have survived in Lithuania, Ukraine, and perhaps Belarus. (Some of these have been discovered only recently, as when a barn was explored in detail, and its roots as a synagogue were uncovered by Albert Barry in 1999.)

1. I read somewhere (Heaven's Gates?) that it was against the law for a synagogue to be as high in elevation as the town's churches. But Hubka [2003, pg. 6] (see next footnote) says that in central and eastern Poland it wasn't unusual for synagogues and churches (or at least monasteries) to be near or even next to each other. Perhaps the first quote was only true in certain regions or times, e.g., under certain lords or owners.

On the other hand, Hubka points out (pg. 46) that the mikva (ritual bath), usually near the synagogue, needed a source of water, so it would logically be located near a stream, river or lake. The church, not needing a mikva, could be located on higher ground. On page 52 he also gives examples about synagogues which are located at the opposite end of town from the churches, and/or on lower ground or at the fringes of the town. His photo of Druja [his fig. 52] seems to parallel the Przedbórz situation.

2. Other wooden synagogue websites include:
  1. Joyce Ellen Weinstein's essay, The Wooden Synagogues of Lithuania, in http://www.zeek.net/feature_0510.shtml(Zeek, October 2005). (This link had been broken as of Dec. 2011, but was working again as of 25 Jan. 2012.), and at http://www.hagalil.com/archiv/2005/06/lithuania.htm The latter site is in German, but there is an English version available using Google translate. (The synagogue images took a very long time to load.) At the bottom are some links to pen and ink collages inspired by her wooden synagogue exploration. There may be others on her website, http://www.joyceellenweinstein.com/.
  2. Handshouse studio's website on its exhibition, Wooden Synagogues of Poland – An Exhibition: "A Lost World Revisited". The exhibition traveled the East and Central US during 2004-7. There's also a link to Terry Allen's National Yiddish Book Center article on Wooden Synagogues and the exhibit.
    Handshouse's 85%-scale replica of the Gwoździec synagogue roof and ceiling, now installed in Warsaw's Museum of the History of Polish Jews, is described in a 2011 New York Times article. (My granddaughter Kayla Ginsburg was briefly a part of this replica project. I'm exceedingly proud of her, as I am of the rest of our kids and grandkids.)
    The link is to the JewishGen site on Gwoździec (sometimes called Gvozdets, now Hvizdec', at 48°35' N, 25°17' E.) There is some confusion and ambiguity: According to Wikipedia (to which the following links point), there are also a Gwozdziec, Malopolska (Lesser Poland) Voivodeship, at 49°53' N 20°45' E, and Gwozdziec, Podkarpackie Voivodeship. But poking around the internet points to the now-Ukrainian Gwoździec.

    This synagogue is the subject of a 2003 book in the Tauber Institute Series for the Study of European Jewry. The book is Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth-Century Polish Community, by Thomas C. Hubka. (The link is to his Wikipedia article.)

    Hubka's book is one of two books reviewed by David Gelernter in "A Tale of Two Synagogues" in the Winter 2012 issue of the Jewish Review of Books.

    An internet search on "Gwozdziec synagogue" turns up all sorts of interesting material, including what I believe to be a syllabus and illustrations for Hubka's paper on shtetls given at the Early Modern Workshop on Jews and Urban Space, at the University of Maryland in 2005. (The link is to Hubka's material, but all the EMW programs are easily accessed.)

  3. Handshouse Studio also constructed a 1:12 scale model of the Zabłudów Synagogue. The link to part of the Handshouse website opens a new window.
  4. Peter Maurice donated his entire output of ten models of Polish Wooden Synagogues to the Jewish Museum of Florida, at Florida International University in Miami Beach. While I couldn't find much "web-space" on the Museum's website, or even more detail on the models, Hadassah magazine did a review of the Museum's Wooden Synagogues of Poland & the Florida Connection exhibit. (Thanks to my wife, Rose Ginsburg, for showing me the review.)
  5. The Center for Jewish Art's website on the Preserved Wooden Synagogues in Lithuania; (also see http://cja.huji.ac.il/Architecture/architecture.html)
  6. and of course, Wikipedia's article on Wooden Synagogues, which includes links to
    • Samuel Gruber's Jewish Art & Monuments Sept. 2008 blog lamenting the on-going deterioration of the Pakruojis, Lithuania Wooden Synagogue. (I think his wife is Ruth Ellen Gruber, author of the NYT article mentioned above.)
      An internet search may find many more. Some of this website's Jewish Links may also be helpful.

© 2009-16 Sam Ginsburg. Last modified  3 Apr 2016