Polish Landscape with Synagogues

By Bergman, Eleonora | Shofar, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Polish Landscape with Synagogues


Bergman, Eleonora, Shofar


Synagogues used to be an integral part of the Polish landscape as the Jews were integral part of the population of Poland. The article discusses the location, internal arrangement of main prayer rooms, auxiliary spaces, and external appearance of synagogues in various regions of the frequently changing territory of Poland, from the thirteenth until the twentieth century. The decoration and symbolism used in interiors of the most characteristic Polish synagogues of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is given a separate section. Attention is directed to the question of synagogue style in the nineteenth century. After World War II, with only very few Jews living in Poland now and with the diminishing number of synagogues, the last traces of many hundred years of a Jewish presence in towns also disappear.

It is hard to imagine the Polish landscape, especially in the central and eastern regions of the country before 1939, without Jews, and therefore, without synagogues. Jews lived in virtually all towns big and small of the Polish Republic. We are talking here about Ashkenazi (German) Jews because they always constituted the majority in Poland. Although they had already reached the lands of the future Polish state by the eleventh century, the earliest written mention of their setdements in Silesia, Greater Poland, and Masovia date back to the thirteenth century. From that time on, they gradually formed big settlements and constituted a substantial part or quite often a majority in small towns. They were deeply rooted in those places. They had their cemeteries, ritual baths, and also their houses of worship, which were centers of Jewish communal and religious life.

Polish synagogues and synagogues in Poland are not always the same, because the borders of the country changed frequently and significantly. The first group includes synagogues from the Polish territory before the partitions of the late eighteenth century (between Russia, Prussia, and Austria). At the western part of the present territory of Poland, added after 1945, there were (and some still remain) synagogues of German Jews.

Location

According to the rules of Jewish religious law, a synagogue should be the tallest building in a town. In practice, the building had to be clearly distinguishable in a Jewish quarter or in a so-called Jewish town (in Poland they were not closed ghettos). In Luboml, the crenellated parapet was visible behind the row of ordinary market houses. In Pohrebyszcze and other small towns the wooden synagogues dominated the skyline.

In a traditional Jewish society, religious requirements, especially the obligation for men to participate in prayers three times a day, make it necessary to locate a prayer house close to both dwelling and work place. In addition, on Shabbat and other festive days, one is not allowed to walk more than two thousand steps (approximately 1.2 kilometers) beyond some symbolically defined territory around one's house. Security measures made old Jewish communities erect synagogues where they were surrounded by other buildings inhabited by the Jews. In the synagogue courtyards marriages and processions with Torah scrolls took place, which needed to be particularly protected from disturbances.

Synagogues were usually built in towns where the Jewish community authorities had their seats. On festive days, at least during the most important holidays, the dispersed village Jews, who constituted approximately one third of the Polish Jewish population by the end of the eighteenth century, would also join the celebration in synagogues. For everyday prayers they usually had some local arrangements.

Starting in 1267 until the first partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria in 1772, the Synod (Catholic high-ranking clergy gathering) of Wroclaw ruled that the Jewish communities in Poland could not build a synagogue without the permission of the local bishop, who would require it to be located as far from a parish church as possible. …

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