9 Illustrious Synagogues You Can Visit in Poland
default, 9 Illustrious Synagogues
You Can Visit in Poland, The White Synagogue in Sejny, photo: Adam Lawnik / East News, center, sejny_synagoga_en.jpg
For anyone interested in the Jewish heritage of Poland, these beautiful houses of worship are a must-see.
Culture.pl takes you on a tour to some of Poland’s magnificent synagogues. The fact that they have survived wartime trauma only make them shine more brightly. Some of these synagogues continue to serve Jewish communities in Poland today. Others serve as museums, honoring and celebrating the history and culture of Polish Jews.
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1. Kraków (Kazimierz) – Poland’s oldest standing synagogue
Built in the late 15th century, the Old Synagogue is the oldest standing synagogue in Poland today. The other two surviving Medieval synagogue structures – in Strzegom and Oleśnica (both in the Lower Silesia region) – may be older, but they were turned into churches centuries ago.
The two-nave Old Synagogue was built in Kraków’s Kazimierz district in the the 15th century. In the year 1495, the local Jewish community moved to this area, after much of the city was damaged in a fire. Damaged by a later fire, in 1556, the synagogue was rebuilt by Matteo Gucci – an architect from Florence, about whom little else is known.
It was Gucci who covered the hall with a concealed roof, hidden behind a tall arcaded attic with pinnacles at the corners. The attic – reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance style, but also period Polish architecture (look no further than Kraków’s Cloth Halls in the Main Square) – would become a trademark element of many Polish synagogues to come.
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For historians of architecture, the Old Synagogue is also significant as the easternmost example of a synagogue style that drew openly upon Western European traditions. This connects it with the Medieval synagogues of Regensburg and Prague (Old-New Synagogue), while distinguishing it substantially from later styles of Polish synagogues. Today a museum, one can learn all about the history of the synagogue and the surrounding district inside.
While in Kraków, make sure you don’t miss the other gems of Kazimierz – including the renowned Remah Synagogue, the elegant Tempel Synagogue, and the High Synagogue. The latter remains the only extant synagogue in Poland that features an upstairs prayer hall.
2. Pińczów – simple, surreal, 16th-century
At first sight, the Old Synagogue in Pińczów may look like a piece of forsaken Northern African military architecture – somehow lost in the hilly landscape of Southern Poland. With its small windows and plain cube of walls made from broken stone, it is devoid of any decoration, but strengthened by massive buttresses. The structure looks both imposing and perhaps a bit surreal.
Pińczów’s Old Synagogue synagogue dates from the late 16th century. According to Kazimierz and Maria Piechotka – the ultimate experts in the field of Polish synagogues – it is:
the oldest-known example of a Polish synagogue of ‘longitudinal’ layout, in which all rooms were built at the same time, to form a simple, compact mass, covered by a common roof.
The single-nave building also features a typical Polish attic – bereft of any decoration, it is admittedly hardly discernible – which hides the sunken roof, with gargoyles indicating the level of the vault. Inside, you’ll discover a raw, austere interior, with mere traces of once-vivid polychromes and absent bimah. This is perhaps only fitting of this imposing monument of Jewish life in Pińczów, as both the structure and the community saw great losses during the Holocaust.
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In the vicinity, the town of Szydłów features an even older (if also less well cared for) synagogue, with a similar, single-nave style, no internal supports and an exterior crenelated attic. Another synagogue in nearby Chmielnik, however, has been fully restored in order to host the Swiętokrzyski Sztetl – an educational institution devoted to the history of Jews from the Świętokrzyskie region. The Old Synagogue in Sandomierz might be further off the route, but the 18th-century structure is also definitely worth seeing.
3. Zamość – a perfect Renaissance synagogue in an ideal city
Built as an ideal Renaissance city, the town of Zamość features, appropriately, the perfect example of a late Renaissance synagogue. Located not far from the main square, the Old Synagogue was constructed in 1610-1620 by the Sephardi community of Zamość, which had been present there from the 1580s.
This synagogue was built in the Polish Renaissance style – note, once again, the beautiful ‘Polish’ attic. Structurally, it shares similarities with other buildings in Zamość, which led scholars to look for its architect within the circle of builders working there. Jaroszewicz and Wolf, the co-creators of the local Mannerist-baroque style, are the most likely suspects.
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The Zamość Synagogue was revitalised between the years of 2009 to 2011. Currently, it hosts the new Synagogue Centre, together with the Multimedia Museum of the Jews of Zamość and the Surrounding Area. While in Zamość, you can take a trip to the nearby town of Szczebrzeszyn, where you will find another historic synagogue, restored around the same time. For more spectacular sights, visit Łęczna, with its 17th-century Great Synagogue; with a recently renovated interior, it also features a collection of Judaica.
4. Łańcut – a bimah-tower not to miss
Dating from 1761, the baroque Łańcut Synagogue is a prime example of the so-called nine-field (four-pier) synagogue. This design – featuring four massive columns located in the centre of the interior space, thus creating a nine-field division of the interior – was developed in the architecture of masonry synagogues of Eastern Europe from the late 16th century.
In the case of Łańcut Synagogue, the four powerful columns provide support for the vaulting that roofs the hall, but they also form the encasement for the bimah. This structure, called the bimah-tower, is another architectural development typical of synagogue design on Polish territory.
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Visiting Łańcut also presents an opportunity to see the two surviving synagogues in Rzeszów, as well as one in Lesko. The latter, with its mannerist gables decorated with volutes and stone baroque vases, is the only standing example of a church- or palace-style synagogue roof in Poland today. It is also noted for its unique tower.
5. Tykocin – beautiful polychromes
Tykocin, a small town located in the Podlasie region, was once the vibrant shtetl of Tiktin – an important centre of Talmudic culture and learning. Its earliest masonry synagogue was built in 1642, replacing an earlier wooden structure. Reconstructed in the 1730s, it suffered a fire in mid-18th century and was eventually rebuilt in its new form. Today, it is one of the best preserved 18th-century synagogues in Poland.
The current, tall mansard roof likely replaced an original, attic-style sunken roof. The interior of this nine-field synagogue boasts beautiful polychromes, with floral and animal decorations (along with texts in Hebrew and Aramaic) and a massive bimah-tower at the centre. The Torah Ark here takes the form of a polychromed Mannerist ‘altar’ – with two columns and a great superstructure that features the Crown of Torah set in a round medallion.
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Renovated in the 1970s, the building now hosts the much-visited Museum of Jewish Culture, while Tykocin remains an important centre of Jewish tourism in Poland.
6. Biłgoraj – a wooden synagogue brought to life
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Replica of the wooden synagogue from Voupa in Biłgoraj, photo: Jakub Orzechowski / AG
Curious to learn how the legendary wooden synagogues of Poland once looked? Renowned for their elaborate carpentry techniques and stunning interior polychromes, wooden synagogues were once a frequent sight throughout the former territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Unfortunately, the impermanence of the material, frequent fires and wartime destruction have left none of these magnificent buildings standing today.
The structure you can see in Biłgoraj today is a meticulous replica of a wooden synagogue from Voupa, in present-day Belarus – one of the most splendid wooden synagogues of Poland, which was tragically burnt down by the Nazis in 1942. Built around the middle of the 18th century, the Voupa synagogue was especially famous for its vault, an architectural and constructional masterpiece and one of the most magnificent of all known wooden ceilings on a European scale.
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Biłgoraj’s replica is part of a private investment called Miasteczko Kresowe (Borderland Town) – a residential estate built in the manner of a 19th-century Eastern Polish settlement. In the future, the building will host the Museum of the Biłgoraj Jews.
Want to see more wooden synagogue architecture brought to life? Head to Warsaw, where a replica of the amazing canopy of the Gwoździec synagogue forms the centrepiece of the main exhibition at the award-winning Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. With its beautifully reproduced polychromed ceiling, the carefully built structure offers a unique opportunity to witness this amazing Jewish sacred art in full colour.
6. Włodawa – baroque palace or synagogue?
In the Eastern town of Włodawa, you’ll find not quite a synagogue at first sight... More of a baroque palace, perhaps. This may owe to the fact that the Great Synagogue here was most likely designed by Paweł Antoni Fontana, the architect who also built the Monastery Church of St. Louis in Włodawa.
The synagogue’s pair of two-storey pavilions, flanking the main building, were inserted in the 19th century, creating a monumental symmetrical whole – a likely reference to Polish palatial architecture of the period. Inside, you’ll find a newly renovated interior, featuring a reconstructed, free-standing bimah and a beautifully crafted polychromes at the Torah Ark.
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Today, the the building of the Great Synagogue, as well as the neighbouring Small Synagogue, form the seat of the Włodawa Museum-Synagogue Complex.
7. Sejny – a synagogue supporting culture
The small town of Sejny, located in the northeastern corner of Poland, boasts not one, but two synagogues. The larger one, the White Synagogue, dates to the second half of the 19th century. Devastated during World War II, it subsequently served as a fire station and a community depot.
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The building was renovated in the 1980s and now serves as the seat of the Pogranicze (Borderland) Foundation, an important cultural centre. This means the synagogue is a home for cultural events. These include, among others, the rehearsals and concerts of the Klezmer Orchestra of the Sejny Theatre – a unique musical ensemble of young musicians from the Sejny region.
8. Ostrów Wielkopolski, or the Moorish style
And now for something completely different: the Moorish style in Polish synagogue architecture. One of the few surviving synagogues in this style can be found in the city of Ostrów Wielkopolski. The New Synagogue, constructed between 1857 and 1860, was remodelled in 1903. The exterior design, with cupolas surmounting the towers, dates from that period. Today, the building hosts the Centre of Three Cultures, in which concerts, theatrical events and conferences take place.
Elements of the same Moorish style can be also found in the design of the Great Synagogue in Piotrków Trybunalski. Originally built in the early 1790s, it was restored after 1864, with decorative elements executed in the Moorish style. After a postwar revitalisation, which took place in the 1960s, it now serves as a municipal library. Another Moorish-style synagogue, The Town Synagogue in Nowy Sącz, is especially interesting for the Egyptian elements in its architecture – and this synagogue still offers religious services.
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While in Western Poland, don’t miss Wrocław’s White Stork Synagogue. Built in 1847, it was renovated and rededicated in 2010. It has since served both religious and cultural purposes – as the Wrocław Centre for Jewish Culture and Education, which offers concerts, exhibitions and theatre performances.
9. Hidden synagogues
Looking for more synagogues? Well, there are still others.... Once a typical element of the Polish landscape, synagogues that survived the war are still scattered throughout Polish towns and cities.
As many of them have lost their defining architectural features, while others have come to serve different purposes (the most popular including libraries, fire stations and stores), recognising a former synagogue building might require special skills and research.
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Documenting such ‘invisible’ synagogues was the central focus of Wojciech Wilczyk’s 2009 photography project There’s No Such Thing as an Innocent Eye.
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, Apr 2019