University of Technology in Bialystok (Poland)

Faculty of Architecture

Master's Thesis

Author: Piotr Trojniel

Advisor: Dr. inz. arch. Jerzy Uscinowicz


The Great Synagogue in Bialystok - the Place of Faith, Memory and Hope.


The legend says that in 1320, Bialystok was founded as a village by the Lithuanian Count Gedimin. After 200 years the village called Bialystok became the private domain of a Polish King Zygmunt August, in 1542. Next ruler of this locality was Piotr Wiesiolowski, the man who saved King's life in 1547. The family of Wiesiolowski built a brick church and a castle, when ruled in Bialystok.

Documents of Tykocin (Tyktin), the original capital city of the region, say that 75 Jews already lived in Bialystok around 1658. In 1703 (1718) a Polish Count Jan Klemens Branicki built for them old Bet Hamidrash. That was the first synagogue in Bialystok.

Bialystok, located near the Bialy River, became a heaven for Jews. Branicki invited them to settle there and built up the town (the time when the ruler elevated the village of Bialystok to the status of a city is very difficult to investigate, and it is oscillating from 1668 to 1749). Branicki provided them with land, lumber and other materials. In 1749 a small number of Jews settled in Bialystok. In 1765 765 inhabitants were Jews. In the next fifty years the Jewish community grew in both numbers and influence. About 1764 the first Great Synagogue was established in the center of a Jewish district called Shulhof. That synagogue resembled the Tykocin's synagogue. Branicki's times were the most prosperous period in the history of this city. Bialystok replaced Tykocin as dominant city, surrounded by smaller satellite communities such a Choroszcz, Odelsk, Zabludow, Sokola, and others.

In 1807, about 6000 inhabitants lived in the city, 4000 of then were Jews. Bialystok was declared the capital of the region in 1808. By 1897, 42,000 inhabited Bialystok, the Jews constituting 64 % of the population.

Thus, from the Jewish community inception until its brutal liquidation by Nazis, the Jews played a major role in the life of Bialystok. However, there were frequent ups and downs. At times, repeated political and economic crises plagued them, forcing some Jews to flee Bialystok for other countries.

In 1906, during terrible pogrom that was organized by Russians about 60 Jews were killed. During this pogrom first Great Synagogue was demolished, too. The new Great Synagogue, was built in 1909 - 1913 by architect Szlojme Rabinowicz to replace the old one from the 18th century.

Shortly before 1914, about 80 % of Bialystok's inhabitants were Jews. By 1939, just before the Nazi invasion of Poland, 100,000 people lived in Bialystok, 60,000 of them were Jews. The ethnic mixture of the city included Polish, Jews, Russians, White Russians, Germans, Lithuanians.

Hell on the earth for the Jews of Bialystok began on Friday morning, June 27, 1941, when the Nazi entered the city. With unbelievable brutality the Nazis dragged Jewish men from their dwellings and forced into the Great Synagogue. After that Nazi vandals hurled grenades into the synagogue, which immediately went up in flames. The Great Synagogue was burnt down by Nazis with about two thousand Jews inside.

The Great Synagogue in Bialystok, the Place of Faith, Memory and Hope is to commemorate the tragedy of this place and fate of the Jewish community in the town.

2. Narrative of Design

The main idea was to create a living place and not only a form - symbol but also a "living space". The results was spacious complex of new a synagogue, the Place of Faith, Memory and Hope and Jewish Cultural Center.

The Place of Memory is designed in the same place as the Great Synagogue before the Second World War. This is a stone plate restoring a plan of the Great Synagogue and concrete wall - negative impression of the prewar synagogue demolition. The parts of the buildings that stand and desecrate this place are removed. The New synagogue is designed under a stone plate. The footpath to the new synagogue leads by restored Szkolna Street. That way is designed in the form of Hebrew letter kof (q). The beginning of the way is a symbolic Gate made of Jerusalem's stone. The new synagogue has a glass cube shape and is located in the center of a Space of Memory. The rotund skylight with David's Star is the only source of light in the interior. In front of the new synagogue stand two columns - a metaphor of Jakhin and Boaz from Torah's Salomon's Temple. In language sacral architecture cube and quadrate are a symbol of Earth, rotund as a perfect figure is a symbol of Heaven. Thus, the synagogue is the some kind of a Connector between God and people.

Organization of the Synagogue's interior is traditional. In the center of synagogue is located octagonal Bimah. Octagonal shape was characteristic of Polish synagogues in north-east part of Poland before war. At the east wall of synagogue is located aron hakodesh. Form of Aron hakodesh resembles of Gate's opening. It's the same, as Jerusalem's stone. At a north and south glass of the synagogue's walls are situated 12 stone seats - a symbol of 12 generations of Israel.

The new synagogue is surrounded by water - a symbol of new life and purification. A few stones - in form of Jewish tombstone (macewa) - are situated in the water around the synagugue.

The Jewish Cultural Center completes the Act of commemoration. The designed Cultural Center is the result of adaptation and remodeling two buildings situated in the place of Great Synagogue.

New Cultural Center has a various functions. It's a gallery with an exhibition presenting history of Bialystoker Jewish, a hotel for guests, education rooms, auditorium, library, and administration.

The architecture of Cultural Center is simply and rational. It's made of glass to contrast with severity of concrete and stone of the Place of Memory. The architecture of this part of designed the complex should be background for a main, sacral part of the complex - The Great Synagogue - the Place of Faith, Memory and Hope.

The Memorial

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Last Updated September 5th, 2003


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