Synagogues in Poland and their Destruction1)
Moshe Verbin: Wooden Synagogues in the 17th and 18th Century
WHEN the largest center of Jewry in the Diaspora was destroyed, its cultural treasures were lost forever. In addition to their religious, national, historic and ethnographic importance, these treasures were distinguished by their exceptional artistic value. Temples, synagogues and houses of learning were razed to the ground, ancient historical monuments were torn down, and museums, libraries and collections of valuable art treasures were plundered and mutilated.
Any one delving into the history of Jewish art will find not only a wealth of information on the remarkable development of religious art both in Eretz Israel and the Diaspora. Unfortunately, he will also find historical data, no less abundant, on the destruction of this art after wars, pogroms, savagery, and first and foremost, as a result of the expulsion or the massacre of Jewish communities
But throughout the entire history of the persecution of the Jewish people there is nothing to compare with the destruction of Jewish art in Poland. There is no precedent of such wanton destruction of the religious objects of any other nation. This was not just the venting of wrath by a ruthless conqueror on synagogues, museums and on ancient as well as modern Jewish works of art. This was a carefully calculated, methodical destruction, in fact something which could be termed "modern iconoclasm." These acts were carried out with a sadistic- viciousness. The Jewish population was ordered to set fire to their own prayer-houses and places of study, to tear down tombstones in cemeteries and to destroy religious articles. Those who refused to carry out these orders were severely punished. On other occasions the Nazis accused the wretched and - unfortunate Jews of willful arson, when they had been forced to carry out these acts to save their very lives (or at least that is what the poor souls believed).
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Destruction on the one hand and respect for artistic values on the other, are especially characteristic of the history of the art of Polish Jewry. During the past few centuries the basis of Polish Jewish communal life was profoundly shaken and their treasures of artistic and cultural value beyond estimation, were ravaged or plundered.
We know of looting and destruction of Jewish art-treasures in Poland from the 17th century when the security of Polish Jewry was badly shattered for the first time during the massacres of l648-9, and during the incursions of the Swedes, Turks, the Cossacks and the Russians. In that century hundreds of Jewish communities were exterminated, especially in outlying sections of east and south-east Poland. We follow their sufferings through the 18th century, the most unfortunate period in the history of the Polish kingdom, when the country lost - its independence, resulting in the termination of the highest autonomic institution of Polish Jewry -the "Council of the Four Lands." In the 19th century the Jews suffered- in the Napoleonic wars and during the political persecution that followed the uprisings of 1831 and 1863. They were persecuted in the 20th century, during the First -World War, which had its worst repercussions in outlying areas of Poland, in pogroms carried out in eastern Galicia and in the Ukraine by different armies. The Second World War was the worst in the history of our people since the destruction of the Temple and the loss of political independence. This war almost completely exterminated East-European Jewry, including the Jewish community of Poland, the most active and dynamic Jewish community in the Diaspora.
It must be stressed here that all the objects of Jewish religious art which remained in Poland up till the last war, were much more expressive and more interesting, artistically and historically, than those remaining in Central and Western Europe. While in the Jewish communities west of Poland this art developed - during short periods only, in Poland its history is like all unbroken chain from the 12th century down to our times.
Among the factors causing the reverence for objective artistic values which helped preserve important artistic monuments, first and foremost were the religious, national and cultural freedom and the latitude permitted Polish Jewry in economic affairs up till about the middle of the 17th century. Polish Jewry did not suffer pogroms and persecution to the same extent as Jewish communities in the West, where numerous communities were annihilated and their art destroyed. The veneration felt by the Jews for their ancient monuments was expressed in the outstanding care they took of their artistic possessions, restoring and embellishing them when nature and pogroms had taken their toll. On the other hand it was expressed in the development of their ancient tradition, the rich literature and folklore which had been woven around the monuments by numerous generations. All this provided a constructive factor of reverence which resulted in the preservation of many historical monuments.
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The history of the Jews of Poland is recorded in the documents of their thousand year-old communities. It is engraved in the ancient cemeteries and on the walls of their synagogues,and in all the vestiges of their beautiful artistic relics.
The religious and secular art of Polish Jewry is almost as old as Poland itself. It begins with the most delicate works of art-coinage. Perhaps the only coins minted by Jews for non-Jewish governments were those bearing Hebrew inscriptions that they produced for the Polish kings in the 11th century. The Jewish artists created important works of art such as synagogues built of stone, at first (l4th-l7th centuries) two-aisled, Renaissance style and fortress-shaped, and later (l7th-l8th centuries) they built wooden prayer-houses with interesting architectural decorations and polychromes richly embellished with Jewish motifs. This art can be seen in tombstones, the work of unknown artists, engravers and sculptors, or in the graphic works of the scribes who penned the Scrolls of the Law (Tora), the book of Esther and the Passover Haggada, and it is 1expressed in the embroidery on the "Parokhet" and "Kapporet" (the curtains of the Holy Ark), and the mantles of the Scrolls of the Law, woven by male and female craftsmen, ending in the painting and sculpture of our times. All this Jewish art, created by the Jews of Poland on Polish soil, is a treasure-house of originality. Here the Search for beauty and for self-expression can be discerned.
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To trace the destruction of the synagogues of Poland one needs to draw up a list of all houses of worship, synagogues and houses of learning which existed there up to the outbreak of the war in which Polish Jewry was exterminated. The whip of the German Attila struck with one fell swoop all the Jewish culture that had been created on this soil throughout numerous generations. The chronological continuity which was symptomatic of the development of Jewish religious art in Poland as a result of the relative freedom granted the Jews, and the respect for artistic values - this very continuity which gave us beautiful works of original Jewish art over hundreds of years - was wiped out forever.
It is impossible for the compiler of the "martyrology" of the synagogues of Poland, to draw up, within the framework of such a short survey, a list of all the religious works of art destroyed there. The limitations of space do not enable us to describe the loss of thousands of Jewish works of art in Poland. This task must be undertaken by an institution with wide powers, such as a committee comprising Jewish and Polish scholars of history and art. The publication of a book about the Jewish treasures destroyed on Polish soil must be seen as a debt to the memory of the martyrs. It is also a sacred, moral and cultural duty to restore the tombstones to their cemeteries. It is a sacred duty to rebuild synagogues of artistic and historical value for the Jews left in those places, or to turn them into Jewismuseums as memorials to the communities that once existed there and are no longer.
Every synagogue is a historical monument bound up with events and happenings of generations; legends have sprung up around them, telling of the life and hardships of the Jews of each town. Every synagogue is also a veritable museum of objects, furniture, and valuable religious articles from the point of view of history, style, and ethnography. Each one has its Holy Ark, "Bima," ark-curtains, Seat of Eliyahu, candelabra, candlesticks, prayer-books and other religious objects.
This book is a survey of those synagogues about which we have reliable evidence of their destruction. They are presented in the order of their erection which is consistent with their stylistic development. This will give the reader not only a more or less accurate picture of the "work of destruction," but mainly a retrospective description of the development of the art of Polish Jewry, one of the most interesting and richest chapters in the history of Jewish art in the Diaspora.
1The book in Hebrew published by Mosad Harav Kook and Yad Vashem, Jerusalem 1960
Moshe Verbin: Wooden Synagogues in the 17th and 18th Century
Last Updated March 10th 2003