Heaven’s Gates shares extraordinary research and documentation of one of the most amazing phenomena in the history of architecture and world heritage. The book by Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka is all the more important, considering that virtually all material traces of Polish wooden synagogues were lost forever.
World War II and the Holocaust not only erased millions of Jewish lives but also annihilated much of the material remnants of a rich and diverse Jewish civilisation that had flourished in Central and Eastern Europe for close to a millennium. Houses, prayer houses, yeshivas, streets, and even entire shtetls and districts, were destroyed, while wooden synagogues, gems of Eastern European architecture and culture, were completely wiped off the map.
Wooden synagogues were built all around the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from as early as the 16th century. Their golden age came in 17th and 18th centuries – that is when the splendid synagogues of Olkieniki (Valkininkai), Gwoździec (Hvizdets) and Wołpa (Voupa) were erected. But unlike the masonry synagogues, many of which survived the war (some of which were restored, while others can still be identified by the trained eye), wooden synagogues were destroyed in their mind-boggling entirety.
Their distinctive shapes and elaborate forms made them easily identifiable in the landscapes of small towns and shtetls – the material used for their construction turned them into an easy target. As a result, almost no wooden synagogues in the territories of contemporary Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine survived the war – all of them were burned to the ground or demolished.
The man who photographed synagogues
In fact, if not for the work of a handful of extraordinary people our knowledge of this amazing chapter in the history of architecture, and culture, would be scant – and restricted to the realm of legends.
For a long time, Jewish wooden architecture enjoyed little interest from scholars. It was actually only in 1923, that the Department of Polish Architecture of the Warsaw University of Technology, under Professor Oskar Sosnowski, began a methodological and broad programme of the documentation of the wooden synagogue architecture.
Perhaps, the most important contribution came from Szymon Zajczyk. An art historian and photographer, Zajczyk is responsible for the bulk of the surviving photographic documentation of wooden synagogues. Zajczyk not only photographed the buildings, his knowledge of Yiddish and Hebrew helped him explore their secrets and made him an expert on the topic. Unfortunately, the archival materials on the history of individual synagogues collected by him throughout interwar period did not survive World War II. Zajczyk himself perished in the Holocaust in 1944. The newest edition of Heaven’s Gates the book is dedicated in memory of Zajczyk.
Discovering wooden wonders
Maria Piechotka (nee Huber) never got to meet Zajczyk. In 1938, she had enrolled in the Warsaw University of Technology’s architecture department. She completed only her first year during which she managed to attend professor Sosnowski’s class on synagogue architecture. This took place just before the outbreak of World War II and the destruction of the buildings which she was studying.
She returned to the topic after the Holocaust – under very different circumstances. Together with her husband Kazimierz Piechotka, also an architect, whom she had met at an underground architecture course during the war, the two took it upon themselves to continue Zajczyk and Sosnowski’s research, discovering a whole new – and now largely nonextant – world of architecture.
The synagogues which they were researching proved to be not only exceptional but also very different from the stone and brick which synagogue architecture was famous for. The Torah arks, bimahs and polychromed walls and vaultings – these elements which constituted a ‘true home of God and a gateway to Heaven’ – developed in the wooden synagogues in their own unusual and extraordinary ways.
The book Bramy Nieba (Heaven’s Gates), which they first published in 1957, contained detailed information on the architecture and construction of each synagogue along with architectural drawings and measurements. It established historical links between wooden synagogue architecture and local traditions of wood craftsmanship as well as stylistic parallels with Baroque architecture. They sought to explain the idiosyncratic nature of wooden synagogues, like animal polychromies, unseen in other Jewish architecture – and usually considered a religious taboo.
The Piechotkas showed how the specific shape and construction of the buildings was embedded in – and facilitated by – the character of the building material itself, that is primarily coniferous wood, so typical of the region. The Piechotkas suggested that wooden architecture of this scope and refinement could probably not have been created anywhere else and that its genesis is inextricably linked with its place of birth.
Their research also pointed to the often neglected social aspects of the making of the wooden synagogues. As Maria Piechotka argues, the synagogues were most likely built by local Polish carpenters working under Polish architects who designed the buildings in accordance with the commission which came from the Jewish kehillot (communities). All the while, the inside of the synagogue – with the splendid Torah ark, the bimahs and colourful polychromies – was the work of Jewish craftsmen. This shows wooden synagogues as the result of a real team work which included collaboration between the Polish and Jewish communities.
Heaven’s Gates in America
As it would turn out, the first edition of the book was published just as the window for that sort of publications in Poland under the communist regime was closing. In the following years, writing about the former Eastern territories of Poland was out of the question, Jewish topics – with the not too distant events of March 1968 looming – were becoming increasingly risky. As it turned out, the Piechotkas would return to the topic again only in the 1980s, when the new research possibilities arose. In the meantime, their book changed how Polish-Jewish culture was perceived abroad.
In 1959, with the first copies of the English edition of the book (published only two years after the Polish original) travelling across the Atlantic, the book became a catalyst for the revival of interest in Jewish wooden architecture. As such, it played an important role in bringing back the Ostjuden's pride in their cultural heritage.
The book also influenced the history of synagogue architecture in America. As scholar Samuel Gruber argues, in the 1960s and 70s, the book was reportedly studied by practically every Jewish architect of the time.
Architects especially responded to the Piechotkas’ drawings to which, as architects, they could relate. Over the years there has been a persistent stream of design where elements from these drawings have been incorporated and adapted for use in modern designs.
According to the scholar, what people found in The Wooden Synagogues was a connection to the lost Jewish culture of Eastern Europe 'and could be seen as a scrap of that culture – albeit mostly symbolically – that was salvaged from the wreckage of history.'
Polish synagogues & American art
In the 1970s – in another, perhaps more surprising, turn of events – the book turned out to be a catalyst in the making of one of the most important series in the history of American contemporary art. A copy of the book given to Frank Stella by architect Richard Meier became a direct inspiration for Stela’s famous Polish Village series.
The monumental iron reliefs from the series bore the names of the towns where wooden synagogues once stood (Bogoria, Odelsk, Lanckorona), names familiar to the readers of The Heaven’s Gates. It was through these names, and the drawings from Piechotka’s book, that these works of abstract expressionism revealed their material relation to a world that was now lost.
That relationship was explored for the first time during the Frank Stella exhibition at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw in 2015, where the abstract reliefs were showcased next to the meticulous reconstruction of the roof of the Gwoździec synagogue, a project which has been part of the of the POLIN Museum since its beginnings. None of these would have been possible if not for the efforts of Piechotkas, Zajczyk, Sosnowski and many others. History made a full circle, bringing the book and its contents back to its birthplace and bringing history into the future (see: Frank Stella and Synagogues of Historic Poland virtual exhibition).
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, May 2017