Wooden synagogues were one of the most peculiar elements of the pre-war cultural landscape of Eastern Europe. Accordingly, in 1939 still around a hundred of such buildings, some of which dated from the 17th and 18th centuries, were preserved. Numerous others had deteriorated, been burned down, replaced by stone buildings or destroyed during World War I.
The most impressive synagogues rose above the roofs of the villages and constituted the most capturing visual element of their panoramas. The interiors startled with their original roof vaultings, decorative carvings, frescos, rich furnishings. Today only a dozen of the simplest wooden synagogues is still standing, mainly in Lithuania. Most of them are in a deteriorating condition, abandoned, and used as barns. Thus, none of the astonishing 17th- and 18th century examples of such architecture and hardly any from the more contemporary and humble ones have escaped the ravages of time and war.
Our knowledge of the Eastern European wooden synagogues owes much to the photographic surveys undertaken from the end of the 19th century by Jewish, Polish, German, and Russian scholars and art, heritage, and history amateurs.
Interestingly, several among the earliest academic photographic surveys undertaken in this region focused exclusively on wooden synagogues. It was the original style and architecture that attracted the attention, enforced by the awareness of their fragile nature and deteriorating state of preservation. Accordingly, during the 19th century alone hundreds of historic wooden synagogues were burned down, simply collapsed or were replaced by stone ones.
Zygmunt Gloger (1845–1910), a Polish ethnographer, archaeologist and folklorist from Podlahia, a region rich in examples of Jewish architecture, was one of the first to start the survey of wooden synagogues. As early as in 1870 he made drawings of the oldest synagogue in his region, which he published in a popular Polish illustrated magazine, calling its editors upon a consistent documentation of these vanishing monuments. Just a few years later Mathias Bershon (1824–1908) a Jewish banker, collector and amateur historian living in Warsaw, commissioned various provincial professional and amateur photographers to document the wooden synagogues in their neighbourhoods. He used it as a source for a richly illustrated history of wooden synagogues. At around the same time the art history section of the Polish Academy of Learning in Cracow and the Russian art historian and artist, Grigorii Lukomskij (1824–ca. 1928), organized two independent surveys of the Jewish synagogues in eastern Galicia. Wooden synagogues can be also found in the pictures of Solomon Iudovin (1892–1954), the photographer of Anski’s Jewish Ethnographic Expedition in the Pale of Settlement. During the years of World War, Hermann Struck (1876–1944), a German officer and military artist of Jewish origin, not only prepared suggestive lithographs presenting Jewish life, types, and buildings on the Eastern Front, but also made a photographic survey of the most valuable synagogues.
This fascination with wooden synagogues sprang certainly from their original architectonic form. While Jewish scholars and artists searched for their own cultural identity, the Russian and German ones looked at them through a colonial focus, the Poles saw in the synagogues the reflection of their own ‘prehistoric’ architecture, known only from written sources. All these surveys were inspired by a strong presevationism. Drawing, and in particular photography were seen as the only tool able to preserve for the future the vanishing Jewish cultural landscape. This is why, for example, Alois Breier (1806–1896), an architecture student from Technical University of Vienna, returned in his survey of the wooden synagogues in the Austrian Empire to the technique of photogrammetry, which enabled him to estimate the exact measurements of buildings.
The same ideas were at the base of several photographic surveys conducted in the interwar period in Poland and Lithuania. The most impressive and famous one is certainly that of Szymon Zajczyk, a Jewish art historian and photographer. This was a professional survey, sponsored by the Polish state and conducted in collaboration with the students of architecture from the Polytechnic School in Warsaw, which produced the most detailed and largest documentation of East European wooden synagogues consisting of several thousands of plans, watercolour drawings, and photographs.
Recently, the preserved pre-war visual surveys of eastern European wooden synagogues are at the core of several restoration projects of the few still standing examples of such architecture undertaken in Lithuania and Latvia in the framework of the Norway and EEA grants. The Green Synagogue in Rezekne (Latvia), the synagogue in Ludza (Latvia) and the Pakruojis synagogue (Lithuania) dating back to the first half of the 19th century, are rare examples of still preserved historic wooden synagogues in Eastern Europe. While all three were inactive and in a state of decay, the projects were directed equally towards their restauration and revitalization. Similarly, the surveys served as the basis of the main exhibit of the Polin Museum of Polish Jews – the replica of the Gwoździec synagogue.
Some examples of surveys of eastern European synagogues
- Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Alois Breier)
- Israel Museum; YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
- Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences (surveys from the turn of the 20th century and Szymon Zajczyk’s surveys)
- Polytechnic School in Warsaw (Szymon Zajczyk surveys)
- Sankt Petersburg Judaica (Judovin’s surveys)
- Library of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cracow (AL’s survyes)
Primary sources & literature