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  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.)
M. & K. Piechotka  trace the development of the wooden synagogue, and document about seventy of them in detail ranging from one illustration to sixteen. 47 others are identified on a map.
The Piechotkas' map shows the synagogues as having ranged from Kornik and Cieszowa on the west, past Kiev on the east (Kozin and Makoshino). Perhaps it is more accurate to say that's the range in which the Institute of Polish Architecture documented synagogues. For example, the first synagogues built in Siberia were probably wooden as well.
For about 45 years, their 1959 Wooden Synagogues book was the most detailed and comprehensive English-language work on the subject.
However it has been partially superceded by their 2004 book, Heaven's Gates, in English. The text has been expanded, the book reorganized, and the illustrations have been greatly improved, presumably through painstaking work with modern computer software such as Photoshop™. (Many photos are better in the 1959 edition than in the 2004 edition; there may be some areas in which the 1959 text is better as well. The serious student may want them both.)
This documentation is only possible because the Institute of Polish Architecture of the Polytechnic of Warsaw had started documenting the synagogues in 1923 or shortly thereafter. Importantly, even though the Institute was destroyed in 1944, much of the archives were successfully hidden from the Nazis during WWII, and recovered soon thereafter. (The rest is lost forever, along with the synagogues themselves.)
According to the Piechotkas, most of the original synagogue documentation and photography was done by Szymon Zajczyk, who perished in the holocaust on 27 May 1944. (His photo, on the right, is from the Piechotka's 1996 book.)
The Piechotkas trace both the development of the Jewish Community in Poland and the development of synagogue architecture.
Some commonly seen features were:
A very ornate raised bimah (platform from which the torah and prayers are read) with a high canopy above it.
A women's section at the side, in a balcony, or both.
Interior decoration that was often, but by no means always, quite ornate,
with very complex and professional carvings, especially on the bimah
Interiors that were often fully and ornately painted with colorful decorations,
often very professionally done. Some synagogues were painted in a more
Often the interior view was quite different than the external appearance, because interior cupolas, curved ceilings, etc. See for example the Gwozdziec discussion in Hubka , pg. 56 ff and elsewhere.
(In the 2015 documentary Raise the Roof, I believe it's the lead
painter, Jason Loik, who says something like "A wooden synagogue is like a geode: rough on the outside, but the inside may be full of gems"
[I'm not doing the quote justice, but I caught only an image, not the exact words.])
Although there were large wooden churches, the wooden synagogues were unique in having large spans essentially spanning the entire width of the building without interior columns.
The synagogues were usually on a street heading away from the main church in town.
In Przedbórz, for example, the church is up on a hill above the town square; the synagogue is down by the river, on the opposite side of the square.
See them on the
See 34 of Moshe Verbin's wooden synagogue models. (You have to scroll way down the page to see the model thumbnails. Click on a small picture to get to the larger pictures. The page includes various additional historical comments by the Piechotkas and others.)
Read about Albert Barry's synagogue video, available from Florida Atlantic University in English, Hebrew or Yiddish, with narration by Theodore Bikel.
Boris Feldblyum has restored photos of the Przedbórz synagogue among others.
(You have to browse his city list to find the others.)
See other wooden synagogue websites and resources. I especially recommend Thomas Hubka's 2003 book, Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth-Century Polish Community, noted in footnote 2 below as well as the bibliography. Initially relegated to footnote 2, now Hubka has his own page.
Footnotes: 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.
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.)
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.
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.)
Samuel Gruber's Jewish Art & MonumentsSept. 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.