Landscape with a Synagogue: The (Un-)Lost Tradition of Polish Synagogue Architecture
default, Houses in Luboml's main square with a synagogue in the background, 1925, photo: Henryk Poddębski / Ośrodek "Brama Grodzka - Teatr NN"/© Instytut Sz, center, sr_ispan-rynek_luboml.jpg
A look at the development of Polish synagogue architecture – and its untimely end.
What is a ‘Polish’ synagogue?
The first synagogues in Poland were built in the late Middle Ages, as from the 12th century, increasing numbers of Ashkenazi Jews chose to settle there. The earliest of these buildings which still stand today were built in Lower Silesia (Strzegom and Oleśnica) and Kazimierz, near Kraków (The Old Synagogue).
These are all one-nave buildings, which share many similarities with Western-European Mediaeval synagogue architecture. In several ways, however, they may not be the first thing that comes to mind at the idea of a ‘Polish’ synagogue. So, what this archetypal Polish synagogue all about?
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Crowned by their attics, the great blocks of synagogues became one of the dominant elements in the silhouette of multiethnic Polish towns, along with the church spires and cupolas of Orthodox churches in the East.
This statement by the Polish synagogue experts Kazimierz and Maria Piechotka, from their book Landscape with Menorah (originally: Krajobraz z Menorą), helps pinpoint the characteristic elements of Polish synagogue architecture (attics, cuboid shape). It also charts the area where Jewish synagogues were built. Outside of Poland, they were located in the vast Eastern territories (Ukraine and Belarus today) that saw the expansion of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
It’s no coincidence that the golden age of Jewish art and culture in Poland – synagogue architecture included – concurred with that of the Kingdom of Poland. This period of growth lasted from the mid-16th to the mid-17th centuries. It was during this time that Polish synagogues acquired their typical form, which was then reiterated in countless realisations.
Seen from the outside, this characteristic form would include such elements as a square ground plan, unadorned outside walls, a flat roof, and the Renaissance-style attic on top, which wrapped around the building. But how did these elements originate? And how did they come to define Polish synagogue architecture?
Italian attic, Polish Renaissance
Luboml synagogue, south-western view, 1930, photo: Ośrodek 'Brama Grodzka - Teatr NN' / © Instytut Sztuki Polskiej Akademii Nauk
In fact, many of the architectural features enumerated above go back to specific historical circumstances, as well as the social position of Jews in Eastern Europe. For one, the unadorned outside walls and the unimposing height and size of most Polish synagogues resulted from restrictions imposed on their builders by municipal authorities (a town’s private owners) and the Catholic church.
The latter argued that a synagogue should not stand out from the surrounding town buildings, and that in particular, it should make no impression of competing in importance with the town’s church building. (Relatedly, the location of a synagogue was also selected so as not to stand too close to the church.) This is also why most early Polish synagogues have a flat roof, as any other style would have made the structure look taller.
The origins of the Renaissance-style attics which crowned the synagogue buildings are perhaps more down-to-earth than one would expect. In fact, the attics were originally added for safety reasons; in case of fire, the wall that ran around the building’s roof was designed to prevent its spread. Their artistic, decorative form, however, was a clear reference to the Polish Renaissance style in architecture – as well as a sign that many of the earliest architects of Polish synagogues came from Italy.
Over time, these elements became the defining features of the classic ‘Polish’ synagogue style – even if, in reality, the synagogues of Poland testify to a mind-boggling diversity that is difficult to codify.
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Synagogue as fortress
Another characteristic feature of early Polish synagogues is that some of them looked… well, like fortresses. Some did in fact serve a double purpose – as a place of both religious congregation and military defense. This, as the scholar H.A. Meek argues, pertained mostly to the synagogues built in marcher country – that is, the eastern territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which were often vulnerable to attack by Tatars or Cossacks.
In such regions, all masonry buildings were regarded as defensible strongholds, and synagogues were no exception. Equipped with an attic wall with loopholes and windows placed high above ground level, their walls were made of thick masonry, with heavy buttressing to withstand assault.
Sometimes, the licence to build would precisely stipulate the provision of gun loops and the maintenance of a garrison at the congregation's expense. This was the case for the 1627 Rzeszów synagogue, where the congregants were specifically bidden to stock up with harquebuses and ammunition. Such synagogues were also built in Lutsk, Żółkiew, Satanów, as well as Tykocin and Pinsk.
Perhaps the most famous of these was the Great Synagogue in Bełz, a small town in today’s Ukraine, which by the beginning of 19th century was already an important centre of Hasidism. Constructed in 1834-1843 by the rabbi and tzadik Shalom Rokeach, the spiritual leader of the Belzet Hasidim, it was modelled on an older building in Żółkiew known as the Sobieski Shul. Just like that structure, the Bełz synagogue featured high parapets articulated by blind arcading and pilasters, with a similar crenelated ‘Polish attic’.
The Great Synagogue of Bełz was destroyed by the Nazi Germans during World War II. Some 70 years later, however, that building inspired the construction of a synagogue for the Hasidic community in Jerusalem. Completed in 2000, it is the largest synagogue in Israel today – and a surprising case of continuity in the history of Polish synagogues.
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The bimah-tower & the Kabbalah
What, then, would one find inside such an archetypical ‘Polish’ synagogue? The centre of the main hall would certainly be occupied by a bimah – a tradition that dated back to the Mediaeval Sephardic philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) and which came to define the interior of Ashkenazi synagogues. Confirmed by the 16th-century Kraków rabbi Moses Isserles Remah, the rule had an important impact on the architecture of Polish synagogues from 16th to the 18th centuries. As the Piechotkas assert, the internal views afforded by this arrangement were very striking and quite far from anything suggestive of a church.
The earliest Polish synagogues had a free-standing bimah surrounded by a balustrade, iron bower or kiosk-arbour. (Such bimah-bowers can be found the Old Synagogues in Kraków and Pińczów, as well as the non-extant Golden Rose Synagogue in Lwów.) Very soon, however, a new development transformed the interior of Polish synagogues.
Starting in the second half of the 16th century, the bimah was more and more often surrounded by four piers. This kind of bimah structure, which appeared to support the ceiling, was then transformed into what is known as the bimah-tower. One of the earliest synagogues to feature this new development was likely the Maharshal Synagogue, built in Lublin in 1567. Other known bimahs of this kind include those in Przemyśl, Tarnów and Rzeszów.
The appearance and evolution of bimah-towers in Eastern European synagogues has been linked to the wave of Hasidic mysticism that arose in 17th-century Poland – a tradition which would subsequently transform Ashkenazi Judaism. The Zohar, the founding work of the Kabbalah, played an important role here. According to this mystical school of thought, the illuminated bimah-tower was the source from which the holy words of the Lord emanated.
The scholar Thomas Hubka states that this could have been inspired by the Kabbalistic depictions of the heavenly palaces of the Lord. As he argues, these often included a vision of halls with a column in the centre – a channel which served as a means of communication for ascending and descending souls, prayers and supplication.
The 17th century also saw the rise of another spatial plan which transformed Polish synagogue architecture. This was the so-called nine-bay plan, where the four columns or piers in the centre divided the square hall and ceiling in a plan of nine bays. The four supporting piers allowed for much bigger synagogues to be built. The greatest of these were in Rzeszów (New Town Synagogue), Łańcut, Pinsk and Lviv (Suburban); the latter two were destroyed.
A baroque altar in a synagogue...
Synagogue in Druja, 1936, interior Aron-ha-kodesh, 1929, photo: Polona National Library / J. Bułhak / commons.wikimedia.org
Another typical fixture of the ‘classic’ synagogue interior is of course the aron ha-kodesh, or the Holy Ark. Situated in relationship to the location of Jerusalem, usually at a wall opposite the synagogue’s entrance, it consists of a chamber in which the Torah scrolls are kept. In Polish synagogues, this often took the shape of a portal surrounded by a decorated framework. But what initially started as modest – consider the Golden Rose synagogue, with its Renaissance portal with a triangular tympanon – acquired more and more elaborate forms over time.
In the 17th century, the dimensions of the Holy Ark and its framework grew, all while their forms became more opulent. Increasingly, they resembled multi-storey structures, and by the 18th century, they were most often made of wood. This development, according to scholars, was at least partially modelled after the baroque altars of Catholic churches.
The influence of baroque ecclesiastical architecture can be also traced in the appearance of synagogue exteriors. After 18th-century renovations, some of these acquired a new look... which, at least from some angles, recalled baroque churches. As scholars suggest, this also impacted the axial arrangement, as well as the symmetry around the east-west axis. This resulted in the monumentality and formal character of the main western elevation.
This may well have been the case of of the Great Synagogue in Słonim (now Slonim in Belarus). Its gable and roof, following 18th-century remodelling, began to resemble the elevation of a three-nave baroque church.
Wooden synagogues of Poland
In attempting to comprehend the scope and style of Polish synagogue architecture, the importance of Poland’s wooden synagogues cannot be underestimated. Renowned for their elaborate carpentry techniques and beautiful polychrome interiors, wooden synagogues were once a common sight throughout the territories of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – perhaps even more popular than the masonry type.
Unfortunately, due to the impermanence of the material, frequent fires and wartime destruction, none of these magnificent buildings have survived to this day. In fact, only three early wooden synagogues – those in Zabłudów, Chodorów and Gwoździec – survived up to the beginning of the 20th century. And yet, these structures continued to exert a surprisingly important influence on synagogue architecture, especially in the United States.
The architecture of these wooden synagogues was naturally connected with their building materials. Wood allowed for much greater finesse in the building’s design and construction. For one, it allowed for vaulted ceilings – shaped in a way that could scarcely be matched in stone. Consequently, as one Polish scholar, Jan Zachwatowicz, argued, Poland’s wooden synagogues represented ‘an architecture that was highly original in form and construction, and offered inimitable, bold solutions of spatial problems’.
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In the finest examples, these towering halls were covered by multi-tiered hipped roofs, reminiscent of Chinese pagodas; cousins, perhaps of ‘zakomary’ and ‘kokoshniki’, those stepped arches developed by a similar impulse for the roofs of orthodox churches.
From ‘Heaven’s Gates’ by Kazimierz and Maria Piechotka, trans. MG
Hasidic mysticism and the Kabbalah left their mark here as well. The kabbalistic elements were manifest in the inner architecture of the main hall and ceiling; the tent-like roof at Gwoździec evoked the Kabbalistic descriptions of the tent of the tabernacle. They were also present in the number (twelve) and arrangement of windows – such as the little window above the entrance, through which the Lord looked at the congregation.
It was in regard to synagogues that the words of Genesis could now be applied: ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’
Animal frescoes in a synagogue
But perhaps the most remarkable element found in the wooden synagogues were the amazing polychromes, an element unique to Poland. As scholars claim, these multicoloured embellishments were likely the only place where the Second Commandment – which forbids the creation of ‘any graven image, or any likeness of that which is in heaven above, or that in the earth beneath’ – was not strictly observed.
Inside, the walls of the synagogues were covered with bright vernacular frescoes, often showing flowers amid luxuriant vegetation, or animals which excused their presence in a Jewish house of worship by performing symbolic acts: two bears climb a pole to steal honey – but is not the Torah the sweetest of honey?
‘Heavens Gates’ by Kazimierz and Maria Piechotka,
But even here, the list of historical and aesthetic cross-influences could have been much more complex. In the polychromes that adorned the walls and ceilings, scholars saw an emulation of the interiors of the Ottoman tents – which, in older times, were adopted by the Polish nobility across the ‘Sarmatian’ commonwealth.
The inner walls [of the synagogue] were divided into vertical fields, reminiscent of the ‘fences’ of [Ottoman] tents. In these fields, plaques with inscriptions from psalms and prayers would be placed, contained within these frameworks, similar to those one finds in the mihrab.
From ‘Landscape with Menorah’ by Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka, trans. MG
The scholars argue also that the ‘flat’ painting style used in polychrome was reminiscent of appliqués and tent embroideries. The overall textiled feeling was also highlighted by the carpentry decorations: the hanging serrations, pelmets and fringes cut out in the wooden planks.
Thankfully, the amazing craft of these wooden-synagogue builders was never completely lost to history. In the 1970s, thanks to the Piechotkas’ book – which was also published in English in 1959 – this style was rediscovered by the architects of contemporary American masonry synagogues. The book and the history of Polish wooden synagogues also inspired Frank Stella’s 1970 series of artworks titled Polish Village.
Another case of a surprising continuation closer to home is the canopy of the Gwoździec synagogue. With its magnificent polychromes, it has been meticulously reconstructed at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, where it now forms a central component of the main exhibition. What’s more, a wooden synagogue was recently reconstructed in Biłgoraj – a close replica of the famous synagogue from Voupa.
A ‘Polish’ roof on top of a Jewish synagogue
By the 18th century, the typical sunken roofs concealed behind the Renaissance attics came to be seen as anachronistic. Roofs of this type lost their defensive and protective functions. They were also gradually abandoned due to problems with their conservation, including the accumulation of snow and rainwater in their troughs and subsequent flooding.
In many existing synagogues, the original sunken roofs were removed and replaced by tall, two-storey hipped mansard roofs (as was the case in Tykocin, Przeworsk and Tomaszów Lubelski). Two-storey pyramidal roofs, or the so-called ‘Kraków’ roof, were added to synagogues in Sandomierz and Nieśwież.
In the case of many new synagogues constructed in the first half of the 18th century, however – especially those that featured a longitudinal layout – the decided majority were given the so-called ‘Polish’ roofs. These were hipped and two-storeyed, with both storeys inclined at the same angle. Such roofs were typical for traditional Polish residential architecture, especially that of manors, or dwory. But at the beginning of the 19th century, they began to be regarded as characteristic of Polish synagogues as well.
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Synagogue or Greek Temple?
The 19th century brought along new kinds of synagogue architecture. One of the most popular, of course, was the classical. This brought the incorporation of primarily Doric and Tuscan columns, pilasters that stretched all the way up the height of the building and colonnaded porticos on the side of the facade, surmounted by a triangular tympanon. With these features, some Eastern European synagogues now began to resemble classical Greek temples, even if only remotely.
At large, these elements can be seen, as Piechotki argue, as a continuation of the Palladian current in ecclesiastical and palatial architecture. Such classical synagogues were built in Kępno (1815 r.), Krzepice (after 1825), Wrocław (1829), Lwów (1845), and Wieluń (1847).
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A rotunda of a synagogue
One of the most interesting and atypical synagogues built in Poland around this time was the 1835 round-shaped Orthodox synagogue that was located in Warsaw’s Praga district. Designed by Grzegorz Lessel, it was one of the very few round synagogues in all of Europe. The building, which survived World War II, was dismantled in 1961.
Another unique round-shaped synagogue was that of the reformed Tempel Synagogue in Lwów. Built in 1845 based on a design by Iwan Lewicki, it featured a round interior sanctuary with a large dome overhead – allegedly inspired by the Main Synagogue of Vienna. Destroyed by the Nazis in 1941, this synagogue was never rebuilt.
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Moorish style in the Prussian partition
In the 19th century, yet another style arose. This one effectively changed the synagogue architecture across much of the central Europe – and with it, our idea of what a typical ‘Polish’ synagogue might be. Conceived in the German-speaking countries, what was known as the Moorish style introduced completely new forms to Jewish sacral architecture. Drawing on the idea that Jews were originally newcomers from the East, it ‘orientalised’ the Jewish people, even if most of these new designs were built for ‘reformed’ synagogues, modeled on Protestant houses of worship.
The most famous, as well as most influential, of these designs were the grand synagogue buildings in Vienna and Budapest, but also in Berlin. Through their impact, the style spread east across the Austro-Hungarian empire (consider the Lwów Tempel Synagogue). The style was also poplar throughout the territories of the Prussian Partition. Unfortunately, most of these buildings did not survive. Those located in the German Reich were all but collectively destroyed on Kristallnacht in 1938.
As Eleonora Bergman, the expert in this field, claims, the most interesting realisations of the Moorish style in Poland included those in Działoszyce (1852); Bydgoszcz (Muttray, 1884); Tarnów (1909); Brzeziny, near Łódź (1893) and Łódź itself. The latter city boasted several Moorish-style synagogues, such as the Ezras Israel Synagogue or Alte Shul (1897-1900). Most of the Łódź synagogues were destroyed on the night of 11 November 1939. None of them stand today.
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Another German invention of the period was known as the Neo-Romanesque style. Initiated by Edwin Oppler, it advanced a theory that synagogues should be built in the style typical of the country where a particular Jewish community lived. In the case of the Jews living in the German Empire, that definitive ‘German’ style was, according to Oppler, the ‘Romanesque’ architecture characteristic of the early Mediaeval basilicas.
Oppler’s flagship realisation in the field of ‘Neo-Romanesque’ Jewish architecture was the building of the Neue Synagogue in Breslau (Wrocław) from 1872. Like many, it was burned down during Kristallnacht and dismantled shortly afterwards. Another building which shows a similar inspiration was that of the Neue Synagogue in Posen (Poznań), designed by the architects Cremer and Wolfenstein. Built in 1907, it served as a synagogue until the outbreak of World War II. In 1940, it was turned into a swimming pool for the Wehrmacht soldiers. As of today, the swimming pool is still operating.
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A symbolic end to the long and diverse tradition of synagogue architecture in Poland came on 16th May 1943, when the Grand Synagogue of Warsaw in Tłomackie Street in Warsaw was blown up by the Nazi Germans. Built in 1878 by Leandro Marconi, its design had been chosen in an open competition. According to its stipulations, the architecture of the building was intended to fuse the tradition of Judaism and that of the Reform rite. The project was also to demonstrate a connection with the Polish culture.
The winning design drew upon the classicist and Neo-Renaissance tradition associated with the Warsaw architecture of the Congress Kingdom (1815-1832). The architecture of this monumental building had also inscribed itself into its immediate surroundings, with the public buildings designed in a similar style by Antonio Corazzi. It is worth noting that similar monumental buildings in this classical style were also built in Łódź (Great Synagogue), as well as Częstochowa.
The Tłomackie Synagogue was blown up by the SS-Gruppenführer Jürgen Stroop to symbolically mark the end of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. This also marked the unfortunate, untimely end of the long tradition of synagogue architecture in Poland. From among some 400 synagogues and houses of prayer operating in Warsaw until 1941, only one stands today. This – the Nożyk Synagogue in Twarda Street – is a poignant reminder of the the once vibrant realm of synagogue architecture in Poland.
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, March 2019
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