By Evan Alberhasky, 2014 AJC Fellow
The old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” aptly conveys how I felt upon viewing the replica of the Gwoździec Synagogue, which now stands as a centerpiece of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
Wooden synagogue construction was common during the sixteenth to eighteenth-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which today is part of Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine. European Jews were afforded peace and prosperity, a chance to continue their traditional ways of life. A flourishing trade economy and religious tolerance made the area a haven for Jews fleeing persecution from Western Europe. Due to the abundance, and therefore, inexpensive nature of wood in the area, it was a matter of course that the most significant building in the Jewish community—the synagogue—would be built of wood.
These synagogues—whether in Jedwabne, Gwoździec, or Jurbarkas, Lithuania—were typically constructed with fairly unadorned exteriors concealing the grandeur and religious iconography that lie within. Carvings and magnificent paintings adorned the domes and vaulted ceilings. The decorative manifestations simultaneously reflected both traditional Jewish folk art and the birth of a new unique style that reflected the freedom Jewish craftsmen were given in the area. In the Gwoździec Synagogue, zodiac signs and animal symbols were reflected in fantastic hues of blue and red, similar to those found in recently excavated Galilean temples from late antiquity. The bima stood as the centerpiece of every wooden synagogue: this highly crafted art piece would face the ark where the Torah, the elemental text of Judaism, was stored. Wooden synagogues of the Commonwealth period were a ubiquitous feature of the countryside, then a crossroad between east and west, where modernity was just starting to peek out of the traditional shtetl life.
The extraordinary phenomenon of wooden synagogues represented a high point in artistic Jewish creation, yet Nazis destroyed the vast majority of these impressive wooden structures during the Holocaust. In a sweeping blitz, Nazi forces obliterated architectural wonders. Fortunately, during the interwar period, a group from the Institute of Polish Architecture of the Polytechnic of Warsaw, cognizant of the historical importance and artistic value of wooden synagogue construction, had been commissioned with the task of documenting the then-extensive network of wooden synagogues in the region. While much of their documentation was destroyed during World War II, enough remained intact for Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka to finish the work. In 1957, Wooden Synagogues was published in Polish and two years later, in English. Their book became a testament to the splendor and loss of wooden synagogues.
Fast forward several decades into the new millennium. A renewed interest in wooden synagogue construction took flight thanks to the dedication and efforts of Rick and Laura Brown, founders of non-profit Handshouse Studio, which facilitates hands-on community service projects. In the summer of 2011 and 2012, a workshop was created with the explicit goal of replicating the seventeenth-century Gwoździec Synagogue roof and painted ceiling. Twelve workshops, eight Polish cities, 58 professionals and over 300 students later, the roof was reconstructed and moved into the central wing of POLIN, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Chief curator Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett led our group through the exhibition, explaining the museum development and the intricacies of the stunning synagogue.
As you walk into the museum, a façade of modern glass gives way to an undulating wavelike entryway. To the right, the apex of the pointed wooden roof peaks out through the floor, an engineering feat suspended by multiple steel cables, a mixture of metal and wood, past and present. Our tour took place in July 2014 while the exhibition was still under construction before the September 2014 opening, but the roof and bima had already been lowered into their final resting place.
Our journey around Poland had already shown us the various states of synagogues in the country. Preservation and renovation were concepts we often reflected on, examining how they could be uplifting or even detrimental to the surrounding community. Some structures, such as the 1852 Działoszyce synagogue, remain a skeletal shell of the past; the 16th century Remuh Synagogue in Kraków is one of many renovated and used for worship. What we saw in the Gwoździec Synagogue replica was something different: a unique piece of history that not only reflected the glorious past of the 1,000 year presence of Jews in Poland, but also an educational tool connecting the past, present, and future.
To be sure that this historic structure and its relationship to the past would be remembered, a documentary team recorded the entire process of reconstruction, from start to finish—one tree, one saw, one nail, and one paintbrush at a time. The group of students and professionals utilized only the techniques and methods that would have been available during the period in which the original synagogue was constructed. The international premier of Raise the Roof took place at the 2015 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. I sat in the theater, watching the film slowly develop with snippets of the colorful roof shown here and there; I reflected on how it felt to see the structure as an AJC Fellow in Poland. I felt a small sense of electricity go up my spine each time a new colored piece would come into focus. I was transported back to my fellowship and the time I spent in Poland. I was carried away to a time of my ancestors.
The colors of the Gwoździec Synagogue roof may slowly fade from my mind as time progresses, but this memory will not. The roof and the museum represent a new age, one in which the idea of Poland as a Jewish cemetery no longer holds supremacy. The museum in Warsaw where the roof rests is one more layer on top of a presence that exists as much in the past as it does in the future. A roof has been raised once again—physically, emotionally, existentially. Let us hope that this time around, it will not ever come down.
Originally from southern Kentucky, Evan works for ORT America in Atlanta as the region’s Development Associate. He previously worked at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City for four years and has a working knowledge of Hebrew and Russian. Evan holds an M.A. in Jewish Studies from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a second M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies from Kean University, and a B.A. in History from Indiana University. Evan and his wife Marina are members of Temple Emanu-El in Dunwoody where they also teach Sunday school.
The Auschwitz Jewish Center is operated by the Museum in Oświęcim, Poland. For additional blog entries by and about the Auschwitz Jewish Center, please visit mjhnyc.org/tag/ajc. All Summer 2015 newsletter articles are found here.