The Changing Role and Function of Synagogues in East European Communities Today
by Sandra Siano-Weinreb, Synagogue Research, Beth Hatefutsoth, Museum of the Jewish Diaspora
© 1998 Sandra Siano-Weinreb. Not to be quoted without permission of the author.
Note: ©All rights reserved. All the pictures here are property of the Visual Documentation Center of Beth Hatefutsoth, The Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, Tel-Aviv, Israel.

The Synagogue and its meaning in Judaism and Jewish Art

1) The prevailing role of the Synagogue as a spiritual center in East-European Communities before and during the Holocaust Period
Historical background

    a) Destroyed synagogues in Poland and Lithuania

2) East-European Synagogues in the post-war period and today: their changing role and function

    a) Surviving premises and remnants of unused synagogues: Where to?
    b) The "Restitution of Communal Jewish Property" issue
    c) Synagogues used as such
    d) The historical process of changing function and becoming a Jewish cultural institution today: a Jewish Museum

3) The Jewish Museum in the former Synagogue as a basis for the:

    a) Preservation of the Jewish heritage and tradition
    b) Development of a Jewish and non-Jewish awareness toward the preservation of synagogue sites and their meaning for society and environment
    c) Reconciliation of communities and social or religious groups in conflict in the past

In this paper, I will draw attention to the ambiguous role and function of the synagogue in E. European communities today. On the one hand, some synagogues in the former USSR are being rediscovered and revived by their own communities after decades of religious oppression. A renaissance of the Jewish heritage and tradition is taking place and synagogues are recovering their former glory, being renovated and restored and functioning as such. Thus regaining their prevailing role as a place of worship.

Parallel to this revival, strong efforts are being made in order to restitute the former synagogue sites to their owners or their heirs, to restrain their misuse, their deterioration through neglect and to restore them as close as possible to their former appearance.

In other countries like Poland, after the aftermath of the Holocaust and the fall of Communism, restitution negotiations are taking place as in the former USSR, but due to the lack of Jewish communities there is a tendency to change the function of the former synagogue site into a Jewish museum, depicting the history of the former community through its site and its exhibits, as an expression of the continuity of the Jewish heritage.

The changing of function of the former synagogue site into an active synagogue or a Jewish museum, will only be possible with the restitution of the former Jewish historical sites to their righteous owners and the proper restoration and conservation of the site. This is a mission to rescue Jewish heritage as well as to preserve Judaism in Europe. And in the future it will both enable us to preserve their Jewish identity and to build a bridge of reconciliation between different religious or social groups.

The Synagogue and its meaning in Judaism and Art

Since the destruction of the Second Holy Temple of Jerusalem in the first century c.e., the synagogue remained as the symbol of the Jewish continuity and focus of spiritual life. Wherever Jews went, synagogues were established by them and the biblical phrase "little sanctuary" or "small temple" indicates the role of the synagogue in the spirits of the people. The synagogue together with the Temple and what remained from it are the oldest, holiest and most important institutions in Judaism. With the destruction of the Temple the synagogue remained without a rival as the main institution of worship for the Jews.

In the shtetl - small village or Jewish quarter in Eastern Europe, there was usually the Shullhof -The Synagogue square and there stood the synagogue and other Jewish institutions. The synagogue belongs to the congregation and to those who contributed to its construction. As such, it fulfills a variety of functions:

1) As a center for communal faith and house of worship and praying where religious devotion for both, individual and community found its deepest expression.

2) As a house of study (for Torah and Talmud) where prayer was joined with discussion and study as the Torah replaced the ancient sacrifice (prayer was regarded as a substitute for sacrifice).

3) As site of meeting of the local religious courts and as a house of instruction and assembly, playing an increasingly conspicuous role in the communal and social life of the people; public communal issues were announced: eg.: results of lawsuits, announcements of lost or found properties and articles or even proclamations of stolen goods.

4) Sometimes served as a hospice for travelers - (not existing anymore)

5) As Community House or Center and Synagogue in a single complex dating from the earliest period, and fully accomplished architecturally, in the 1950’s and 60’s mainly in the USA and Western Europe (e.g.: The Gemeindehaus in Dortmund, Germany 1956).

The architecture and design of synagogues in general, are always attached to the requirements of the Jewish Law (Halakha) and at the same time are a full expression of the constant interaction and relationship between the Jews and their changing environments. That is to say, their form varied from place to place and from period to period, sometimes restricted by the laws dictated by the local authorities and mostly fashioned by artistic currents and styles. Their building materials range from timber to stone, brick and marble. Sometimes, their styles are local and modest and sometimes they reflect the influences of the time and place. Some synagogues throughout the world are build like, Chinese pagodas (eg:. Kai Feng Fu, China), Polish folk churches, Greek temples etc. In certain cases, the synagogue exteriors were modest and ordinary while their interiors were enormously rich with elaborate furnishings and decorations and their types varying from monumental to fortress and to modest wooden huts.

1. The prevailing role of the Synagogue as a spiritual center in East-European Communities before and during the Holocaust Period

Historical background

Jews had lived in Europe for 2000 years. Mostly East and Central European Jewry was denominated "Ashkenazi" which became an important intellectual, cultural and spiritual center in the Jewish World. The American Jewish Yearbook states the total Jewish population of Europe only, at about 9.5 million in 1933. From which the largest concentration was in Eastern Europe 6,760,000 m. including mainly: Poland 3,000,000 m., the former Soviet Union 2,525,000 m., Czechoslovakia 357,000 and Lithuania 155,000. Jews first settled in Poland in the 11th c. This country leaded with the largest concentration of Jews until the Holocaust. By the eve of WW2, the Jewish population there reached 3.3 million people. By the end of the Holocaust, only 300,000 Jews remained in Poland and today there are 8000.

Before the Holocaust E. European communities had countless functioning synagogues, built both in wood and in masonry, from the late 16th to the early 20th century.

At the beginning of the 20th century, synagogues served different official spiritual trends in Judaism: Hasidism, Anti-Hasidism and the Reform movement. Furthermore, "clandestine" Zionist synagogues were also established, and later recognized by the official trends. There were separate synagogues with totally different architecture and design according to the religious conceptions of each trend. Sometimes on the contrary, members of the various religious currents prayed and learned under the same roof. This happened usually owed to the lack of financial resources of the community.

At the turn of the century, grand synagogues were built on the main avenues of a considered number of cities, next to other important institutions, as symbols of the successful social status of the Jews among the local communities.

In the prewar period, East-European Jewish communities were well-organized and enjoyed prosperity and creativeness, a large number of synagogues were already constructed in monumental forms and in a wide variety of historical styles. Showing the cultural mingling of Jews and their environments and bearing the manifestation of the eclectic style and tendencies of that time. Through the architecture and style of the synagogue we could learn a chapter on the emancipation of Jewish communities.

Thus, synagogues became the finest expression of a cultural interaction process and Jews as well as non-Jews profited from it. Numbers of synagogues increased as the Jewish population grew. The prevailing role of the synagogue remained as the center of spiritual life of the community and its members, fulfilling all the functions mentioned above.

During the Holocaust, about 6 million Jews were brutally massacred by the Germans and their collaborators. In addition to this terrible genocide, Jewish sacred sites: synagogues and cemeteries were desecrated, destroyed and looted. The synagogue, the second home of the Jew, was gone. An institution that for centuries had become a witness of the suffering and happiness of the community and of the individual, as well as serving as a medium through which Jewish tradition and heritage is transmitted from generation to generation as a golden chain. Thousands of synagogues were completely destroyed. The desecration and destruction of synagogues was a carefully planned operation, executed with utmost throroughness.

Usually, synagogues were burned out or bombed by the Germans immediately following the occupation of the city. Frequently Jews were obliged to remain in the synagogue undernourished and tortured for several days or weeks, and then burned together with the synagogue. Often Jews themselves were forced to burn their own synagogues or to dismantle them stone by stone. In several cases synagogues served as first-aid hospitals and hospices for Jewish and non-Jewish refugees and deportees.

Countless synagogues were turned into warehouses, bordellos, stables etc. by the Germans and their collaborators. Some of the partly destroyed synagogues survived in different stages of damage and just a few remained relatively complete. The building materials of the destroyed synagogues or their remnants were used for other purposes like for instance, stones served as material for paving of roads or for building

house apartments; iron too was utilized and served for the weapon industry.

As for the vast numbers of ritual or synagogical objects, these were looted, stolen or completely destroyed. Sometimes ritual objects were hidden by members of the community and finally saved. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, it is estimated that 98% of movable Jewish art treasures in Poland disappeared during the war.

Besides the famous collection of Judaica items confiscated from Bohemia and Moravia by the Germans, who sent it to Prague for storage, systematical cataloging and exhibition. They intended to utilize this collection for a "Central Museum of the defunct Jewish Race".

a) Destroyed Synagogues in Poland and Lithuania

Most of the synagogues in East-European communities were destroyed during the Holocaust. It's difficult to grasp the number of these "architectonic victims" of vandalism.

The destroyed synagogues "live" still in the memories of the survivors. Some of them still recall with tears the moment whenever they saw their synagogue burning or bombed.

Some synagogues remain forever registered in visual or written records: historical photographs, post cards, drawings or engravings, marked on maps or city plans or mentioned in different historical or literary sources. These are mute testimonies to once proud and affluent communities. These recordings are the sole remnants of the synagogues that disappeared.

Famous Jewish religious centers where once stood large magnificent synagogues were completely destroyed. I will present here just two examples:

1. The Tlomacka Synagogue (figs. 1,2)

The most important and representative synagogue in Warsaw, Poland.

A Neo-Classical style monumental building erected in 1874-78 by the Reform Jewish community. Designed by the Italian architect L. Marconi. It could hold 1100 people. Destroyed in 1943 by the Germans as a symbol of the oppression of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

2) The Wooden synagogue of Chodorow, the Ukraine, built in the second half of the 17th c. and its interior was hand painted by Mordechai Lisnitzky, the ceiling shows floral and animal theme decorations and the zodiac in the very center of the ceiling accompanied by inscriptions of the Bible.

2. East-European Synagogues in the post-war period and today: their changing role and function

In the post war period, the recovering and rehabilitation process began for all European victims of war and especially for the survivors of the Holocaust. It was a painstaking and slow process, which took decades to overcome, and for some it never ended. Among other historical and religious sites, synagogues went through the same process. But then, nobody could imagine the great deal of damage done both to people and historical sites. Magnificent Jewish sites were in ashes, if only stones could speak…

During the war, most of the synagogues in Poland, Lithuania and the Ukraine, were destroyed nearly without trace, from thousands of synagogues just a few escaped destruction. The newly established Communist regimes of E. Europe after WW2, denied access from the outside (West) to the surviving synagogues or their original sites as well as to the historical archives and resources. In the former Soviet Union from the end of the 40’s and through the 60’s, as Jewish communal life had been almost destroyed and Jewish institutions had been obliterated, former synagogues often passed to the hands of the Soviet authorities. Although some of them reopened in the former Soviet Union and Poland, most of them were close down and sequestrated by the authorities as an expression of the suppression of the Jewish religion. ;Later, they were misused to serve as "worker’s clubs", cinemas, factories, silos, warehouses, stores, garages etc. Some of them function as cultural or sports centers, historical archives, schools libraries, etc. Several of the remaining former synagogues which still have potential for use, are now Memorials, and have on their walls, boards bearing inscriptions of Jewish victims that perished during the Holocaust e.g.: the "Pinkus" synagogue in Prague.

Many of the surviving ruins of synagogues that could be reconstructed after the Holocaust were completely demolished and razed by the Soviet regime e.g.: The Shulhof synagogue in Vilnius.

Synagogues then became "double victims" - suffering under Nazism and Communism, no longer fulfilling their prevailing role, no longer serving the survivors that came back with new hope to their natives towns and cities to rebuild their lives again.

After the fall of Communism and the end of the cold war in general, questions about the possibility to rebuild Jewish life in E. European communities arose. Today, the status of former synagogue sites remains still ambiguous. Some of them function as local and main synagogues for small or large communities but their state is dilapidated although some are being rebuilt. The majority is functioning as local public institutions belonging to their states or municipalities and many stand partly destroyed, from others remain just premises and remnants.

Due to the awareness of official municipal historical societies some were restored and declared historical monuments. But by all means, they became attractive tourist sites, mostly visited and recorded by Jewish tourism.;

a) Surviving premises and remnants of unused synagogues: Where to?

When we speak of surviving premises and remnants we refer to synagogues partly destroyed either by the ravages of war or by the effect of time. After WW2 some synagogues escaped demolition in communist-sponsored building projects, but have deteriorated through neglect or misuse.

Many former wooden or stone synagogues that survived the war are in different stages of damage, some remain as severely damaged premises, roofless, where entire walls are missing. Some of them are close to collapse. Numerous synagogues are in such state of disrepair that even their short-term future cannot be assured. Others remain partly destroyed retaining their original exteriors, the specific location of the entrances, their architectural style and form and even some elements of ornamentation like colored stone or stucco carvings and inscriptions.

Their interiors are abandoned, with no ritual objects, just the painted niches where the Ark stood and the windows around are still to be seen in several counted synagogues. Some of the surviving remnants, show stylistic periods disclosing the different building stages of the construction. Some of these synagogues are being restored as historical monuments and some are projected for restoration in the future by the local authorities. But meanwhile, these remnants stand like an unturned stone. Their interior decorations encompassing wall paintings, wood and stucco carvings, sculpture and stained glass windows have been neglected.

Before damage continues the necessary preservation measures should be taken soon and a great deal of persistence, good will and financial assistance are also needed to succeed in this noble task. The sites need structural repairs and looting of the interior fittings poses a constant threat.

In recent years the Polish authorities have embarked on restoration programs of certain synagogues in different regions of Poland, restoring their structure and decoration in order to return to the synagogue site its former glory and beauty, regardless of its future function. Nevertheless they are aware of the fact that they will remain as historical sites which will bring tourism to the region, however Jews believe that perhaps in the future they will become synagogues again.

Many Jewish and non-Jewish organizations and activists are making efforts for the conservation and documentation of synagogues in E.European communities, worldwide. One of these organizations is the CJA - Center for Jewish Art in the University of Jerusalem, which is engaged in major projects to research, study, record and document extant synagogue sites throughout the world.

There are endless examples of unused and abandoned synagogues; many of them in poor condition, some surprisingly have been conserved.

Some have already collapsed, like the 18th c. stone synagogue of Berezhany, (the Ukraine) which stood partly destroyed since the end of the war and through the 1980’s. It finally collapsed in 1994 and reduced to rubble.

In Poland, the 18th c. synagogue of Bobowa stands empty and abandoned with surviving fragments of wall paintings.

The beautiful stone-carved synagogue in Dombrova-Tarnowska (fig.3), built between the 19th and 20th centuries stood abandoned and empty until 1995 when the authorities started restoration.

Only the painted thick walls with inscriptions, the four heavy pillars of the bimah and the watch tower survive from the roofless 17th c. fortress synagogue in Rymanow, Poland (figs. 4,5) burned during the Holocaust. Inside and outside, wild vegetation covers the site.

In Belorussia, the Great Baroque synagogue in Slonim from the 16th-17th centuries, built in a Baroque style, injured during WW2, served as a machine warehouse and in the 1970’s was as a shop complex. Today stands abandoned and dilapidated, though it is the best preserved synagogue of its kind in Belorussia. The synagogue is included in the list of endangered sites with priority for preservation to be restored soon by the WMF, that reports that in most instances, local governments and Jewish communities, have pledged their support.

b) The ‘Restitution of Jewish Communal Property’ issue

The Holocaust almost annihilated European Jewry, their properties and possessions accumulated over a lifetime had been burned, looted and taken. Now its time to return these properties to their owners.

Great and remarkable changes were brought with the end of the cold war in Central and E.Europe and the advent to power of governments committed to the Democratic process, many of which became parties to International Human Rights Conventions.

Climate was suitable for the foundation of the claiming and restitution of Jewish communal property: former synagogues and other Jewish historical sites. Jewish property was first confiscated by the Germans then nationalized by the Communist regimes. The plunder of Jewish property remains still an unresolved problem. In 1992, members of leading world Jewish Organizations decided to establish the WJRO created for the purpose of negotiating the return of Jewish property in the countries of E. Europe. Many other organizations and institutions are involved in this task. This painstaking process has been handled with major difficulties. Most of the thousands of communal and public former Jewish sites (including synagogues) are still properties of their governments and misused by them for other purposes rather than synagogues: schools, libraries, discotheques, restaurants, stores, cinemas, art galleries, garages, warehouses, office buildings, sport or concert halls, apartments, factories, archives, etc.

Herein some examples: In Poland, the Great synagogue of Poznan serves as a municipal swimming pool that was formerly redesigned by the Germans.

One of the two surviving synagogue buildings in Przemysl (former Sheinbach synagogue) is a library, the other (former 1890 synagogue) is a current office.

In Olesnica, the early 15th c. synagogue, serves as an Evangelical church since 1695. In Zamosc, the two remaining former synagogue sites, one of the 17th c. and the other of the 19th c. are functioning as: a library and a nursery school.

In Belorussia, the Great Neo-Classical style synagogue of Minsk (fig. 11) was closed down by the Soviet authorities, later remodeled and since the 1930’serves as the Belorussian National Theater.

The efforts of negotiating and lobbying are intended to offer significant support to aid reviving Jewish communities and their members to reclaim properties that are actually theirs, so they will have the basic resources necessary to resettle, rebuild and maintain an ordinary communal life. Revival if not support of Jewish life, depend a great deal on the return of enough communal properties. Some agreements had been reached between the mentioned organizations and institutions and the representatives of E.European countries and governments (including the former Soviet Union), to assure legislation concerning restitution of property to the Jewish people but unfortunately, little has been achieved. This process involves mutual conflicts and tensions between all parties involved, however justice must be done.

Today’s E.European governments have a hard time facing claims and restitution of property. As communist regimes are going into a transition process to democracy, so former synagogue sites should regain their original Jewish identity, long suppressed.

Only recently, was the Kamenets-Podolski, Jewish community (in the Ukraine) able to reclaim one of the two former synagogues still left in the city. The other synagogue was recently turned into a restaurant. Though the reclaimed synagogue is less glorious than the restaurant/synagogue, it is more centrally located to the community. Just a few years ago, the reclaimed synagogue was a police station. When the police were forced to move out by the Ukrainian government, they totally trashed the interior of the building. The building is nothing but an exterior shell now, and in need of large amounts of money to restore it. In 1997, the Kamenets-Podolski Jewish community was negotiating with the government to share the costs of the restoration of the synagogue. Another example of synagogue misuse is the fortress synagogue of Shargorod, that serves since a long time as a beverage factory.

Obviously, this problematic issue is a question of justice, human rights and a mission to rescue Jewish heritage as well as to preserve Judaism in Europe.

c) Synagogues used as such

Despite the above mentioned difficulties regarding, conservation, restitution and restoration of former synagogue sites and remnants of abandoned synagogues, as well as former synagogue sites functioning as other institutions rather than synagogues, there is a significant increasing number of synagogues in use.

With the awakening, rebirth and revival of the Jewish community life in E.European countries today, 50 years after the end of WW2 and almost a decade since the fall of Communism, synagogues began to reopen and be active again.

At the beginning of the 90’s, signs of growth and reunion of E.European Jewish communities were already visible, their members themselves are still struggling to recapture their Jewish identity long suppressed and deprived. Jewish organizations are making a great job in cooperation with the lay and religious leadership of the communities in trying to accomplish these goals.

Prague, the Czech Republic, one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe, has four main synagogues concentrated in the complex of the Jewish Museum located in the old Jewish quarter. The oldest is the famous Gothic-style ‘Alte-Neue-Schul’ or Old-New Synagogue (fig.7,8) is the oldest synagogue in Europe still in use, established in the mid 13th c.

Lately, efforts are being made by the Jewish local communities in order to reopen synagogues and make them function as such. There are numerous striking examples all over the former Soviet Union. In the Ukraine for example, the Vinnitsa synagogue was closed down in 1957 by the authorities to serve as a warehouse, and recently its being restored by the Vinnitsa Region Jewish Community. The Zhitomir synagogue built at the beginning of this century was used as a movie theater under the communist regime, in 1991 it was returned to the Jewish community. Recently, the Chabad Lubavitch Jewish religious organization helped to reopen the synagogue. Now, Jews gather there for prayers at least twice a day and in the evenings the synagogue also serves as a Jewish Heritage learning center.

The 17th-18th c. beautiful Neo-Renaissance style synagogue of Berdichev functions as a synagogue, rabbinical academy and Hebrew school since 1991-2 serving a community of 800 Jews.

In Kiev, The 'Podil' St. synagogue the oldest and most central of the two synagogues there, was originally built in the 19th c. as a prayer hall in a private house, since at that time it was not permissible to build synagogues. Converted into a stable by the Germans during the Holocaust, in 1970 functioned as a synagogue and today continues to be active and has regular services.

The 19th c. ‘Brodsky’ synagogue in Kiev was turned into a Puppet Theater by the communist regime, functioning as such for a long time despite the current requests of the Jewish community to return it for use as a synagogue. For several years, the Jews shared the place together with the theater. There was a decree stating that the property should be returned to the Jews but it was ignored. Just recently this year, this problem was solved, the Puppet Theater left and the complete synagogue is finally in use.

In the prewar Odessa, 60 synagogues served the community, today only one 19th c. synagogue is recently open for use; damaged in a fire and renovated in 1971.

In Belorussia, from the 100 functioning synagogues in Minsk in the past, the majority disappeared and the rest were confiscated by the authorities between the 1920’s-60’s and their Torah scrolls sold abroad. In 1994, three former synagogues sites remained and only one synagogue is in use: the Central synagogue in Kropotkina St.

In Russia, synagogues that were closed down in the 1950’ and through the 70’s started to function in the 90’s and even before: in Moscow, the Great Choral synagogue from 1891, was the focus of Jewish identity in Soviet times, now it’s the focus of Jewish religious life in the capital.

In Siberia, a new synagogue in Krasnoyarsk was consecrated at the beginning of the year with the generous support of the Kras Aluminium Plant (one of Russia’s major aluminium manufacturers).

Among the few functioning synagogues in Lithuania: The impressive Vilnius Choral synagogue (fig. 9) built in 1903 by the Reform Jewish community, is one of the few to survive the Holocaust. A Romanesque-Moorish style monumental building, restored in 1994 serves a community of approximately 5000 Jews. In Kovno during the prewar period existed about 40 synagogues, the only one in use today is the 19th c. Choral blue-white Neo-Baroque synagogue, renovated in 1992. Both Lithuanian synagogues were looted and damaged during WW2.

Very few synagogues in Poland are in use today as such. In the 1920’s there were about 442 synagogues and prayer houses in Warsaw for a population of 350,000 Jews, and in the pre-war period the synagogue’s number raised to a total of 450. Today a small organized Jewish community has managed to survive until the present. The only synagogue in use in Warsaw is the Neo-Romanesque and Byzantine ornamented ‘Nozyk’ synagogue (fig. 10,11) in Warsaw from the beginning of the 20th c. It was partly injured during the war later used by the Germans as a stable and then a barn, renovated between 1977-1983 and consecrated in 1983, since then in use.

From the eight synagogues in the old Jewish quarter (Kazimierz) in Cracow, only two are active today: the first is the Renaissance style ‘ReMo’ synagogue acronym of his founder: Rabbi Moses Isserlis, dating from the 16th c., serving the remaining community of about 100 Jews was reputedly the first masonry synagogue in the Polish Renaissance style, burned in 1940 and later rebuilt.

The second is the 19th c. Neo-Gothic-Renaissance, Moorish ‘Temple’ synagogue owned by the local Jewish community which is being restored since 1994. When finished, the synagogue continue functioning as a place of worship for local and visiting Jews and will host cultural events for the entire population of the city.

d) The historical process of changing function and becoming a cultural Jewish institution today: a Jewish Museum

In the former Soviet Union synagogues were both, a synonym of Jewish identity: visited during Jewish National events, community assemblies and meetings, and a place of worship: where orthodox Jews gather for prayers in their Major holidays and festivals. Notwithstanding the fact that for decades religion was under oppression, and a great part of the extant communities had assimilated, the rest struggles to keep Jewish identity and to transmit the Jewish heritage and tradition to further generations. This way, the original and prevailing role of the synagogue as a place of worship is still essential, since small communities are increasing and Jewish spiritual leadership is now recovering from a long recess.

In Poland, present conditions there made the renewal of Jewish life and cultural heritage possible, but due to a lack of organized Jewish communities, surviving synagogues and Jewish historical sites no longer fulfill their religious functions. Paradoxically, some have been revived, renovated and restored to serve as synagogues or historical and cultural sites telling the story of a glorious past of a people, and thus becoming Jewish museums.

This fact has transformed the former prevailing role and function of the synagogue into a new form of expression and transmission of the Jewish heritage to Jews and non-Jews alike.

I distinguish three types of Jewish Museums in former synagogues sites:

1) Those displaying the synagogue site and Judaica or documentary collections (photographs, maps, documents).

2) Those displaying only the site itself.

3) Those declared Jewish Museums that also function as synagogues.

All of them are under the category of local historical sites or monuments and may include a Memorial section as well.

Consequently, the Jewish Museum in the former synagogue site has several functions:

First, to display Jewish heritage through the architecture and design of the former site, that should be restored as close as possible to its original appearance.

Second, to display the Jewish heritage and tradition conveyed through its ritual Judaica collections

A third function would be to display in the site itself the historical way of life of the former Jewish community in prewar period through an exhibit of objects, photographs and documents.

A fourth function would be rather ideal: to show ‘the living heritage’ in the right and original historical site and to display the synagogue and the Judaica or other collections inside the building of a functioning synagogue.

In Cracow for instance, there are four synagogues amongst the oldest in Poland. The oldest one of them, the Old Synagogue Alte Shul-Stara Boznica in Kazimierz, is a Gothic style building originally dating from the 15th c. After a fire it was rebuilt as a Fortress type synagogue in the 16th c. by the Florentine Matteo Gucci in a Renaissance style. During the war it was desecrated and looted together with its synagogical treasures by the Germans, that murdered there thousands of Jews and use its courtyard for torture. Then, they used the synagogue for storage before it ultimately was set on fire. After the war it was returned to the Jews, later renovated and today it houses the Judaica Historical Museum of Cracow. Containing a collection of Judaica from the 17th, 18th and 20th centuries. This permanent exhibition covers the pre-war history of the Jews in the "Jewish town" in Kazimierz. The site still preserves its general structure and original wrought iron Gothic bimah.

There are other Jewish Museums in former synagogues sites in Poland:

The Great fortress synagogue of Lancut (figs. 12,13) from the 18th c. built in a Baroque style. Partly damaged during WW2 then, used as a store and later as a barn. After the war Dr. Balicki persuaded the town of Lancut not to destroy the synagogue as it had intended but to create a provincial museum to celebrate the city’s 600 anniversary. Functions as a Jewish Museum since the end of the 1950’s, was renovated again in 1981. In 1987 the entire synagogue site was impressively restored in a common project with the University of Jerusalem and the Cracow Institute of Jewish Research.

In Tykocin, stands proudly the early-Baroque masonry synagogue from 1642. During WW2 it was partly damaged: the interior and the women’s section was ruined by the Germans and later served them as a warehouse. Renovated in the 1970’s, today it serves as a Jewish Museum and Historical monument. Inside are displayed original Judaica synagogical items.

From the five remaining synagogues in the complex of the Jewish Museum in Prague, four of them are today Jewish museums containing Judaica collections. Here I will show three of them: the 16th c. Neo-Gothic ‘Maisel’ synagogue which was restored in 1995 and shows a permanent exhibition of Jewish traditions and customs. The Baroque style ‘Klaus’ synagogue built in 1694 and partly rebuilt in 1910, was restored in 1996. The Moorish style ‘Spanish’ or ‘Old’ synagogue (fig.14) in Dushni St., served as a storehouse of items stolen from the Jews, after the war up until 1948 served as a synagogue. Between 1960-79 it was a museum, then it was closed because of its poor state. The building neglect worsened in the following years to a point where its very existence was in danger and finally renovated in 1995-6. It will continue to be a Jewish museum. After the completion of the repairs it is planned to house a permanent exhibition dedicated to the history of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia from the 18th c. to the end of WW2.

3. The ‘Jewish Museum’ in the former Synagogue as a basis for the:

a) Preservation of the Jewish heritage and tradition

Sadly, as we remember the Holocaust and the Communist regimes, their policies and their outcome on humanity its surroundings and environments, we grasp the enormous extent of tragedy and we share a feeling of loss and helplessness. At the same time, we share a sense of responsibility toward the legacies of the past.

We have a duty toward extant historical sites that were damaged or that are close to extinction or to collapse, either by time or by negligence of the local environment and with the knowledge of the possible danger posed by the uncertainty of the future.

The task of renovation and restoration is of great importance since it enhances the opportunity for all to be part of the revival of a cultural past. The old synagogues among other historical sites, are part of a common cultural and historical heritage shared both by the Jews and non-Jews.

If these tasks are carried out, on the one hand, the prevailing role of the synagogue is preserved as well as the Jewish heritage. On the other hand, the peculiar architecture of each synagogue (as an active one or as a Jewish museum) will continue to enrich the urban surroundings of cities and towns as an inseparable part of the cultural heritage of the cities and countries where they were erected.

Once the synagogue is originally restored it is an historical monument as well as a Jewish museum, which sprang from local roots.

Within this context, the Jewish Museum in the former synagogue site serves as a medium through which present and future generations of Jews and non-Jews, can learn about values of the Jewish heritage that was once transmitted by legendary and knowledgeable scholars to past generations on the same spot. This way we can properly deal with the memory of the Holocaust and the legacy of the pre-war life of Jewish communities in these countries. Thus, to keep Jewish heritage alive is to preserve its religious and cultural values through the Jewish Museum especially in the cities where there are no Jewish communities anymore. Regardless the future function of the historical site, people should know that it belonged to a Jewish community.

b) Development of a Jewish and non-Jewish awareness toward the preservation of synagogue sites and their meaning for society and environment

Everything starts with awareness, responsibility, tolerance and of course, financial support. A strong sense of awareness to preserve the religious or cultural heritage in the historical site, is the basis for a full and complete understanding of the needs toward the conservation, restoration and revival of the site.

Moreover, the development of a cultural and social awareness of our environment is necessary in order to understand these needs. Compilation of written and photographed material, testimonies of living survivors and of former Jewish inhabitants of E. European communities living abroad, can be the first step in order to document, and in the future, to preserve and restore the former synagogue site.

Organizations worldwide have taken part in the task of awakening also non-Jewish awareness toward the preservation of endangered sites and historical monuments.

Once aware of the site’s importance to our environment and society, steps should be taken to accomplish restoration and preservation. Furthermore, the time will come for the site to be recognized as an official historical monument. This fact will improve our cultural and historical environment and will enable us to share with other social groups the meaning of being part of a past and at the same time of a future.

The Jewish Museum in the former synagogue site as a basis for the:

c) Reconciliation of communities and social or religious groups in conflict in the past ; ;

Anti-Semitism found its awful expression in the Holocaust and its aftermath: the genocide of millions of Jewish lives and the destruction of entire Jewish communities, their homes, institutions, synagogues and cemeteries, etc.

Sam Gruber, president of the ISMJ says that the willful destruction

of Jewish sites in Eastern and Central Europe is still a cause of concern.

In addition to harmful actions taken by local authorities, arson attacks on synagogues and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries have taken place across the region in recent years. Now time has come for reconciliation.

Paradoxically, this step is in my opinion the hardest of all. Considering human nature and diversity of cultural, religious, ethnic and social values, as well as dynamic historical processes, it is a real challenge to reach equilibrium and an accepted approach for all. Specially, when surviving former synagogue sites that belong to Jewish communities, were misused, neglected and threatened by commercialization.

Reconciliation can be possible by respecting and preserving the genuine and authentic nature of the former historical synagogue site.

One of the museum’s missions is to establish a dialogue between them, their collections and their publics or communities of Jews non-Jews.

This dialogue marks a starting point in the public-museum-relation that can lead also to a process of reconciliation, between different social, ethnic or religious groups that were in conflict in the past for a long time.

Another museum’s mission is to show the extent of enrichment of its cultural or religious heritage exhibited and its impact in the present collective culture and environment. This is another way to reconcile, since another dialogue is established.

The Jewish museum in the former synagogue site has the potential to attract and reach-out Jewish and non-Jewish publics alike and offer them the opportunity to dialogue through the site itself and its permanent or temporary exhibitions and to reconcile truly between groups in conflict in the past.

The Jewish museum must serve as a common roof under which religious and cultural heritage may destroy barriers of belief, color or race. This new role of the former synagogue site will foster an historic al link between past and present, as well as links can be established between the different publics visiting the site, its art and architecture, its Judaica collections, photographs and documents attesting the former way of life of the Jewish community, its institutions and members.


Recommended stages for further research

First of all I would like to make a distinction between the old synagogue site as an active synagogue and the former synagogue site as a Jewish museum. Old former synagogue sites (among other historical sites) must be returned to their genuine owners, that is to say, to the Jewish communities, then restored and rebuilt as such in order to function either as synagogues or as Jewish museums. For this purpose I would suggest a three-face project in order to return to the synagogue its role and function:

a) Identification and localization of the historical site.

b) Documentation of the site

c) Preservation, restoration and conservation of the site to be used as a synagogue, as a Jewish museum or as both; following the restitution of the site to its genuine owners.

Identification, localization, documentation, restoration and conservation must be carried out anyway, for the sake of the site. The Jewish community is the only one to decide what kind of function the site will be restored for, whether to use it as a place of worship or to change its function into a Jewish museum. For the Jewish community to decide what kind of exhibitions will be shown: Judaica collections, photographs or other documentary material reflecting Jewish life in the former shtetl or maybe artworks by local Jewish artists, etc...

Hopefully, the prevailing role of the synagogue as a place of worship will be maintained along with its function. Another way to revive the Jewish cultural heritage is to see the former synagogue site functioning as a Jewish museum. Both functions will keep the Jewish identity of the building and will preserve it.


Note: The Italics refer to words in Hebrew or Yiddish (the language of the Ashkenazi Jews)

Aron Hakodesh: meaning Ark in Hebrew, place in the synagogue where the scrolls of the Law are kept.

Ashkenazi (pl. Ashkenazim): German or West, Central or East European Jew(s) as contrasted with Sepharadi Jews that originated mainly from in Spain, Porugal, Greece and Asia

Beit Din: rabbinical court of law

Bet Knesset: synagogue in Hebrew

Bet midrash: school for rabbinical learning, often attached to or serving as a synagogue

Bimah: platform from which the Torah is publicly read in the synagogue

Cheder: Jewish school or classroom for teaching children Jewish religious observance.

Diaspora: Jewish dispersion outside of Israel

Ezrat Nashim: women’s section in Temple and thus in synagogue

Gaon (im): a title of honor meaning ‘eminence’. Heads of the rabbinical academies in the post-talmudic period.Halakhah: rabbinic law

Hasidism: Pietist religious movement originating in E. Europe in the 18th c. Its adherents were called Hasidim

High Holidays: these are the three Pilgrim Festivals of Pessah (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost or Weeks) and Sukkot (Tabernacles) plus Rosh-Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).

Karaites: a Jewish sect originating in the 8th c. which maintain the literal meaning of the Bible and rejected rabbinical interpretations. The still exists today.

Kloys: name given in Central and E. Europe to an institution, usually with synagogue attached were Talmud was studied. Term applied by Chassidim to their synagogue.

Kristallnacht: (Ger. Crystal night, meaning ‘night of broken glass), organized destruction of synagogues, Jewish houses and shops, accompanied by mass arrests of Jews, which took place in Germany and Austria under the Nazis on the night of November 9-10, 1938

Kunah: ring attached to wall for Jewish prisoners. Usually located in the synagogue.

Linat Tzeddek: hospice for travelers or for poor

Menorah (pl. menoroth) candelabrum: seven-branched oil lamp used in the Tabernacle, Temple and synagogues. Also eight-branched candelabrum used on Hanukkah.

Matzah: unleavened bread eaten during the Passover

Mikdash Meat: little sanctuary or small Temple

Mikve: ritual bath

Parokhet: curtain in Aron Hakodesh

Pinkas: community register or minute book

Rebbe: Yiddish term used for Rabbi or Rav, used by the Hasidim to denominate the spiritual leader of the community.

Second Temple: built in the 6th century BC and reconstructed by Herod in 1st century BC, destroyed by Romans under Titus in AD 70.

Sefer Torah: scroll of the Law, in Hebrew

Shaliach Tzibur: prayer reader

Shtetl: small town or village in E. Europe with a largely Jewish population

Shul: synagogue in Yiddish

Shulhof: synagogue square

Torah: the five Books of Moses

Yeshiva: Jewish traditional academy devoted primarily to the study of rabbinic literature.

Yizkor Books: Memorial books on destroyed towns and communities written and redacted and publish after WW2 by groups of societies: landsmanschaftn or Jews from the same town or region to commemorate the history and destruction of their towns.

Zionism: movement aiming at the return of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel


I would like to express my gratitude to:

The Visual Documentation Center of Beth Hatefutsoth, The Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel-Aviv for the provision of the illustrations for this paper

The Center for Jewish Art in The Hebrew University of Jerusalem for their useful information

Prof. Mira Friedman, Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Arts in the University of Tel-Aviv for her professional advise and support

The author


The post cold war world has witnessed a gradual process of addressing numerous historical social justice issues. Among these has been the restitution of property to rightful owners, enshrining religious freedom as part of constitutional reform, and mitigation of overt racial discrimination in economic and judicial systems. The Jewish Diaspora has thereby been a beneficiary, particularly throughout Eastern Europe, with the reclamation of historic and sacred sites, and restoration of synagogues. Poland alone has registered 440 such sites of Jewish significance. In may places however, with local host communities dispersed or eradicated, these sites function only as musealized symbols. It is therefore easy to lose sight of the fact that these architectural monuments are firstly part of local, regional or indigenous history as were the populations which built and used them. This can easily be lost in the new tourism economy of cultural utility. The rediscovery of this spectrum of meaning and symbolic association is part and parcel of the transition of these states to democratic government and market economics.

Questions now surround the interpretation of these sites: memorializing the holocaust, witnessing the depth of Jewish culture embedded in regional histories, or world class monuments of artistic or architectural significance?

In the light of a "museology of reconciliation" a primary function should be to engage local communities in dialogue: to expose and combat anti-semitism, and on a wider scale to focus on conciliation, anti-discrimination, and social justice community value building.

1) Exterior view of the Tlomacka St. synagogue in Warsaw. Model from the 'Faith section' in the permanent exhibition in Beth Hatefutsoth, the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, Tel-Aviv. The synagogue was destroyed in 1943 by the Germans as a symbol of the oppression of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

2) Interior view of the Tlomacka St. synagogue in Warsaw, Poland in 1920

3) Exterior view of the fortress synagogue of Dombrova Tarnowska, Poland. Today in repair

4) Remains of the fortress synagogue in Rymanov, Poland, today

5) Interior remains of the fortress synagogue in Rymanov, Poland, today

6) Exterior view of the Great synagogue in Minsk, Belorussia (1979). Today the seat of the National Theatre

7) Exterior view of the Alt-Neue synagogue in Prague, the Czech Republic, the oldest one in use in Europe. Model from the 'Faith section' in the permanent exhibition in Beth Hatefutsoth, the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, Tel-Aviv

8) Interior view of the Alt-Neue synagogue in Prague, the Czech Republic. Model from the ‘Faith section’ in the permanent exhibition in Beth Hatefutsoth, the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, Tel-Aviv

9) Interior view of the Choral synagogue in Vilnius, Lithuania. Today an active synagogue

10) Exterior view of the 'Nozik' synagogue in Warsaw, Poland. Today an active synagogue

11) Interior view of the 'Nozik' synagogue in Warsaw, Poland. Today an active synagogue

12) Exterior view of the fortress synagogue of Lancut, Poland. Today a Jewish Museum

13) Interior view of the fortress synagogue of Lancut, Poland. Today a Jewish Museum

14) The Ark inside the 'Spanish' synagogue in Prague, the Czech Republic, today a Jewish Museum (today the synagogue is under restoration)


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