A Brief History of Polish Wooden Synagogues

During the period between the two world wars, the approximately 3.5 million Jews living in the Polish Republic constituted the largest Jewish community in the world outside of the United States. The Jews of Poland had a tradition of many centuries of peaceful existence alongside the other inhabitants – Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Belarusians, Germans, Armenians, Gypsies – creating a culture of richness and diversity. During the Nazi invasion of Poland and the Holocaust, this part of Poland's cultural richness was lost. Over two hundred wooden synagogues were completely destroyed and only through photographs, drawings and documentation compiled before the war are we able to envision a handful of the hundreds of synagogues that once existed.

 Alois Breier, measured drawing of the Gwozdziec wooden synagogue, collection and copyright of Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Alois Breier, measured drawing of the Gwozdziec wooden synagogue, collection and copyright of Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Wooden architecture is a dominant element in the historic landscape of Poland. Before World War II synagogues were a significant visual component throughout the countryside in the villages and towns of Poland. Their exterior massing was reflective of Polish vernacular tradition while the interior designs, including elaborate wall paintings and a highly crafted bimah and ark signify a distinctly Jewish art form. The paintings, which often covered the entire wall surfaces, depict zodiac symbols, arabesques, animal images, floral designs and Hebrew text. Upon entering the main sanctuary, the space is organized and dominated by two significant objects, an ark, a highly decorated towering cabinet used to store the Torah scrolls, and the bimah, a raised platform with an ornamental roof held up by wooden posts covering a table where the torah scrolls were read.
     There has been an abundance of research and scholarly discourse concerning Jewish society and religious beliefs, but up until recently, little has been written about the subject of the Jewish art and architecture particularly of this period and region. Scholars have suggested this may be a reaction to the second commandment that prohibits the making of and worshipping of idols.
     A common misconception is that the Polish Jewish communities who built wooden synagogues were blighted by poverty. This image may be an appropriate 19th and 20th century description, but Zabludow and similar synagogues from the 17th and 18th centuries were built by cosmopolitan, relatively affluent communities who could afford the highest regional standards of construction and craftsmanship. These wooden synagogues are an extraordinary phenomenon, worthy of high artistic standing among the wooden architecture of Europe and the world. They represent a high point in Jewish architectural art and religious painting, a tradition that was later abandoned by Eastern European Jews. This gives greater importance to the study of the subject. Today, these historic wooden synagogues remain only in the memories of a handful of survivors and in the limited but significant documentation.
     Most fortunately, between the two World Wars, Professor Oskar Sosnowski of the Department of Architecture of the Polytechnic of Warsaw, and photographer and art historian Szymon Zajczyk directed architects and architect students to produce extensive documentation of these wooden structures through architectural drawings, replica paintings, and photographs. Recognizing the historical importance and artistic value of this architecture and fearing its impending destruction with the rise of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, this team compiled extensive data and produced architectural drawings, color and detail studies and photographs of many synagogues. Much of this project was destroyed during World War II but a substantial amount survived. Today the documentation is all that remain of the wooden synagogues of Poland.
     The image of the impoverished shtetl is an appropriate 19th and 20th century description but these buildings are monuments of the 17th and 18th century, a time referred to by some scholars as "a golden age" of shtetl Jewish history. These wooden synagogues were built by cosmopolitan, relatively affluent communities who could afford the highest regional standards of construction and craftsmanship. Conforming to the style of that period, wooden synagogues were an extraordinary architectural phenomenon, worthy of high artistic standing among the wooden architecture of Europe and the world.