From a Place of Worship to a Bakery: European Synagogues Are Changing Their Role

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The Great Synagogue in Slonim, Belarus.
The Great Synagogue in Slonim, Belarus.Credit: Google
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The synagogue of Smalyavichy, a town in Belarus, is a movie theater today. In the Lithuanian town of Vabalninkas, the former synagogue is now a swimming pool. In Wiesenbach, Germany, a hospital occupies the synagogue building, while in Kralupy, in the Czech Republic, what used to be the local synagogue is now a bakery.

The Historic Synagogues of Europe, a database that was launched last week, tells a sad story. Of the 17,000 or so synagogues in Europe prior to World War II, only 3,318 still stand. Less than a quarter are still in use; the remainder are abandoned, in ruins, or have been repurposed.

About 20 were turned into garages or parking lots, eight are now banks, six became police stations and many others now house churches, restaurants, concert halls and theaters. Two are now mosques.

A team from Hebrew University’s Center for Jewish Art did the crucial work in creating the database – of mapping, documenting and researching all the historic synagogues that remained in Europe at the end of World War II.

“Synagogues, like people, change with age and adapt to their new roles,” Vladimir Levin, the center’s acting director, said last week. He added that while some of the buildings that were documented have historic, architectural and artistic significance, others are ordinary structures “that at some point were used for Jewish worship.”

A synagogue in Sukhumi, Georgia.Credit: The Center for Jewish Art
A synagogue in Saranda, Albania.Credit: The Center for Jewish Art

The website of the Historic Synagogues of Europe project features an interactive map of the continent, much of whose surface is blanketed in location marker icons, each one pointing to a synagogue. The database offers options for searching by country, city and architect, but also by the building material, the type of Jewish community that used the synagogue (there are over two dozen options, from “Ancient” and “Ashkenazi” to “Karaite,” “Sephardi” and “Turkish”), and the building’s present usage. The greatest number of synagogues, 858, is in Germany, followed by Ukraine (410). In certain countries, such as Albania and Estonia, only one synagogue was found.

The database also shows the physical condition of each building. Of the buildings documented, 617 are considered to be in “poor condition,” while that of 147 is “very bad” and 130 are rated as too damaged to be restored.

“There are synagogues that were preserved in good condition, while others were completely ruined,” Levin said. Around 160 of the buildings are in urgent need of restoration work. “Some are in danger of extinction, because they were not maintained for years,” he said.

Last witnesses

The Foundation for Jewish Heritage – which according to its website “is dedicated exclusively to the preservation of Jewish architectural sites ... to ensure a future for historic synagogues, Jewish monuments and places of cultural significance database” – will use the researchers’ work to rescue this “irreplaceable inheritance.”

Former synagogues in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales.Credit: The Center for Jewish Art

The organization’s founder, Michael Mail, explained last week that the first stage will focus on 19 buildings that stand a good chance of being restored successfully. “We are in a race against time to save the synagogues, but we can’t save all of them,” Mail said. “Each one of those has a different story. In many cases, these buildings are the last witnesses to a Jewish life that was. This is not just Jewish heritage: It is Europe’s cultural and historical heritage,” Mail said.

One of the first of the buildings that has been targeted for restoration is the Great Synagogue in Slonim, Belarus, which was built in the 1640s. Only around 200 Jews from the city’s prewar Jewish population of 16,000 survived the Holocaust. The synagogue, a Baroque building overlooking the town square, was used as a warehouse after the war and later abandoned. Over the years it has been vandalized and is in danger of collapse, but some of the paintings that decorate its walls are intact.

Relatives of the British news anchor Natasha Kaplinsky attended Slonim’s Great Synagogue before they were murdered in the Holocaust. Kaplinsky has become an active supporter of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, with an eye to saving the ancient building. “It is not just about saving architecturally beautiful and significant buildings – important as that is,” she wrote in an opinion piece that appeared in the British media last week. “These buildings should serve as portals to history, educating future generations about the Jewish life and their contribution to wider society, as well as the diversity of communities that once existed.”

Another building slated for restoration is a synagogue in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil. Built in 1870, it’s an impressive Gothic structure, adorned with stone carvings, but is empty now, dirty and neglected. The plan is to restore it and turn it into a Jewish museum and cultural center.

‘Pomp and circumstance’

The Foundation for Jewish Heritage counts a number of boldface names among its heads and supporters, including the historian Simon Schama, a familiar face from his popular history series on television. Dozens of additional high-profile supporters have joined the effort, including philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, architect Daniel Libeskind, artist Anish Kapoor and authors Linda Grant and Howard Jacobson.

Former synagogues in Oshimany, Belarus.Credit: The Center for Jewish Art

The foundation is now focusing on drumming up public support for the restoration plans, in part from Jewish families such as Kaplinsky’s that lived in the communities where the synagogues are located. The project’s official launch took place last week in Britain’s Parliament.

When Levin was asked which of the 3,318 synagogues made the greatest impression on him, he names the Great Synagogue in Oshmiany (Ashmyany), in Belarus, which was built in the 19th century, then renovated and rededicated in 1902 “with pomp and circumstance,” as the Russian Hebrew-language newspaper Hamelitz reported at the time. Today it is used for storage. “It is the only instance of a synagogue whose wooden roof, which includes interior murals and exterior wooden carvings, has been preserved,” Levin said. “It serves as a memorial to dozens of wooden synagogues that were burned down in the two world wars.”

A synagogues in Privolnoye Azerbaijan.Credit: The Center for Jewish Art

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