Remembering the glory of a once great icon of Polish Jewry
A new competition commemorates the Great Synagogue of Warsaw, which was destroyed nearly 70 years ago.
The Jewish Historical Institute in Poland has opened a contest for a design to commemorate the Great Synagogue of Warsaw, considered to be the pinnacle of 19th century architecture, which was blown up by the Nazis after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in May 1943.
A representative from the institute, Anna Chylak, says that no one can restore the essence of the building, but they can represent the architectural, cultural and artistic richness that characterized the Great Synagogue since it opened on Rosh Hashanah, on September 26, 1878. Participation in the project is a huge challenge, since there are few people still alive who saw the building in its full glory, and even fewer left who have personal information regarding the way it was established and how it operated. A glass office tower, built during the Communist era, now stands in its place.
After the deportation of the Jews to the gas chambers of Treblinka, the abandoned building served as a storage space for furniture and other looted possessions. The final destruction of the synagogue was personally overseen by SS General Jurgen Stroop, who suppressed the uprising. He was also the Nazi who personally detonated the explosives that had been placed in different parts of the vast building over the course of ten days.
In a conversation with Kazimierz Moczarski, the Polish writer, he said: “What a wonderful sight! I called out Heil Hitler and pressed the button. A terrific explosion brought flames right up to the clouds. An unforgettable allegory of the triumph over Jewry. The Warsaw ghetto has ceased to exist…”
The vast building, a combination of classical styles, was planned by the local architect Landro Marconi. The entrance to the building, which contained space for 2,200 worshippers, was decorated with two five-branched candelabrums. The women's section was at the height of the first floor. Behind the Holy Ark was a wedding hall, as was one of the most bountiful libraries in Europe, which held a copy of the first Bible that had been translated into Polish by the renowned historian Moshe Szor.
It was undoubtedly the biggest, most magnificent Reform temple in Poland. Its first rabbi was Icchak Cylkow, who also prayed in Polish. The chief cantor Gershon Sirota, who was nicknamed the "Polish Caruso" because of his many opera appearances, sang in it for twenty years.
The organizers said the deadline is April 23, with the competition results to be announced on May 16, in a hall located in the glass tower. The same day, a replica of the area as it appeared before the Second World War will be exhibited outdoors. Its creator, the Polish architect Jan Strumiłło, will also build a 3-D model of the synagogue and passersby will be able to listen to the songs composed in the distant past within the ruined building.
"We won't let Adolf Hitler win," sums up Anna Chylak.