Center for organization of the Jewish museum in St. Petersburg
 <<=  Home  =>> 
Guest book

Jewish TOP 20
Rambler's Top100
Back to Articles/

A. Sokolova, V. Dymshits


The sixteenth - eighteenth century stone synagogues of the Right-Bank Ukraine (Eastern Galicia, Volyn and Podolia) as well as of Byelorussia, are a remarkable but still insufficiently studied phenomenon of the European architecture.

It was here, in the eastern regions of Polish-Lithuanian State (Rzeczpospolita), that a new type of synagogue building, a fortified synagogue, was introduced on a large scale in the second half of the sixteenth to the early seventeenth century, in the so-called Golden Age of Polish Jewry. Stolid walls, narrow, elevated windows, slits in the attics, where cannons were positioned, turned the synagogue into the equivalent of a citadel of a feudal castle. Such a building could be incorporated into the citys fortification system, controlling one of the incoming roads and protecting the Jewish quarter. Thus, in Lutsk the synagogue building with a watchtower adjacent to the prayer hall was referred to as the Small Castle.2

A fortified synagogue could be built within the city walls (e.g. in Medzhibozh3, Satanov4) or in the suburbs, usually next to a bridge across a river, where it served as a barbican (e.g. in Shargorod5, Lutsk). Crowned with an attic, the synagogue would tower above the squatting houses that surrounded it, and thus serve as one of the citys semantically significant architectural dominants. Various annexes, added to the main structure at various times, surrounded it on all sides except for the Eastern one, thus creating a kind of solidum. As a rule, the narthex was to be found on the Western side, while the womens quarters, connected with the prayer hall by special windows, were on the Northern or the Southern side.

At the same time, synagogue buildings of smaller size would be erected in compliance with the standards of the earlier period. A typical example is the Golden Rose synagogue (Lvov) started in 1582 by an Italian architect Paul the Roman, on commission by a merchant Isaak Nahmanovich6. It was hidden in the depths of the Jewish quarter. The main body of the Golden Rose synagogue contained the prayer hall, somewhat elongated, stretching from West to East, with a box-ribbed vault7. The same type of vault was also used in the prayer halls of the fairly large fortified synagogues in Satanov and Husiatin8.

The introduction of buildings with a different constructive approach to the design of the main section, the prayer hall, came as a revolution in the architecture of the monumental synagogues of Rzeczpospolita. Four pillars were introduced, shifted to the centre, and, through a system of arches, allowed to arch over the hall with nine rather small groins. The fortified synagogues of Ostrog9 and Shargorod feature this type of vaulting (in the Shargorod synagogue, the central section of the prayer hall vaulting, located over the bima, was converted, presumably in the eighteenth century, into a cupola). This form of construction ensured extra stability for the vaulting, which was essential for a fortification. An even more radical solution, offering additional opportunities for better illumination and acoustics, was that of clustering the centre-shifted pillars into a kind of a box pylon (e.g. in Lutsk, Stary Bykhov10, Slonim11).

The synagogue of Lublin, built in 156712, is considered to be the first fortress-type synagogue with a box pylon in the centre of the prayer hall. At that time, Lublin was the city where most of the assemblies of the Vaad of Four Lands took place. The four-pillar fortified synagogue in Ostrog, the town that once had the largest Jewish community of Volyn, seems to have been built even earlier. Probably that was the reason why the synagogues of Lublin and Ostrog were used as models for the others.

The four-square layout of the prayer hall was the preferred shape both for the four-pillar and the pylon structures. Whereas in the buildings of the preceding period the centripetal structure of the prayer hall space was merely hinted at by the arrangement of pews along the walls, as well as by the decor, the use of either of these two systems ensured that even the spacing and the planning would emphasise the centre-oriented symmetry of the building.

The centrally-oriented symmetry of the prayer hall also had to do with the special role of the bima. At that time it was customary to position the main entrance to the hall opposite to aron-kodesh, the gate through which the Torah enters the prayer hall, and thus the bima turned into a meeting place for the Holy Script and the congregation. By accentuating the geometric centre of the hall, the four pillars, free-standing or clustered into a pylon, came to be incorporated into the structure of the bima, the synagogues sacred centre. As a result, the new spatial planning of the prayer hall was rendered a symbolical significance. As a result, the central location of the bima, prompted by the usage of the pillars in the structure, developed into a rule.

The crushing wars and rebellions of the mid-seventeenth century uprooted many of the Jewish communities of Byelorussia and the Ukraine, but they could not destroy the sturdy buildings of the fortified synagogues. They remained standing amid the ashes of the devastated towns and shtetls.

The cubic shape of the synagogue building, determined by its four-square plan, has become the recurrent geometric pattern of the synagogue architecture of Eastern Europe. The influence of this synagogue architecture continued to be visible in the structures of the eighteenth and even of the nineteenth centuries, since the image of a strong fortification as a symbol of the high social status and of the autonomy of a Jewish community was still a very topical one. Actually, with the advent of the eighteenth century, a synagogue, having lost its function as a fortification, had turned from a fort into a palace. As a rule, the erection of a stone synagogue would not only mean that the particular city was flourishing, but also that for a certain period of time the city was granted the title of the areas Jewish capital. Thus the Jewish communities of Satanov and Luboml13, two cities renowned for their synagogues, had once been the main kagals of the Podolian and Holm areas respectively. The fact that at the turn of the seventeenth - eighteenth centuries, the synagogues lost their function as fortifications, did not result in any radical changes in the design, even though it added more splendour and decorativeness to the buildings: the most opulent structures were erected at that time.

The influence of the synagogue architecture of the previous period on the eighteenth - nineteenth century buildings manifests itself most vividly through the shapes of the highly decorative crown attics that did not have any fortification significance whatsoever. Such are the monumental and at the same time resplendent synagogues of Luboml and Zholkva14, the synagogue of Brody15 decorated with a two-tier attic and the synagogue of Chechelnik16 that is adorned with an arched frieze.

Starting with the eighteenth century, apart from the attics, a richly decorated ogee pediment is introduced into the synagogue architecture. It helps to accentuate the Western facade of the synagogue. Such pediments were used not just for the decoration of new buildings (e.g. the Rashkov synagogue17), they could also be added as the result of reconstruction of a fortified synagogue (e.g. in Slonim and Ostrog).

In the eighteenth century the spatial planning of the synagogue building was revised once again: the prayer hall for women, which came to be known as the Womens Gallery, would henceforth be located above the narthex. This two-storey section on the Western side now came to be incorporated into the main body of the building, together with the prayer hall for men. The synagogues of Shargorod and Slonym were rebuilt accordingly; the synagogues of Rashkov, Ilyintsy18, Chechelnik, Busk19 followed the same pattern from the very start.

These innovations did not lead to any changes in the spatial planning of the prayer hall: both the four-pillar and the pylon construction were still in use.

The idea of shifting the prayer hall for women from a Northern or Southern facade annex to the second floor was by no means a breakthrough, since the floor level of the annexes was normally higher than that of the prayer hall for men which was set below ground level. Such a setting allowed an increase in the height of the prayer hall interior without breaking the official rules that imposed certain restrictions on the height of the synagogue buildings. Lower floor levels were often used as a special device in the buildings of the eighteenth and even of the nineteenth century, in adherence to seventeenth century standards. This tradition was an interpretation of the biblical verse: Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord (Psalm, 130, 1).

The end of the seventeenth century marks the beginning of the economic decline of the Eastern European Jewish communities. In the eighteenth century the changes in the structure of the community resulted in the city synagogue being replaced by a number of small prayer houses, uniting members of a guild, a Hassidic community or of a religious fraternity. Thus the monumental stone synagogues become more and more rare, their place being taken by the small wooden or brick ones of a different design.

The mediaeval Big or Old synagogue was but one of a number of Jewish prayer houses and synagogues in a city or a shtetl. As a rule, poor members of the community would pray there, while the other citizens would only attend on festive occasions. Yet it was this ancient huge synagogue, with its aura of old age, legends and tales, that would be the chief pride of the local Jews, who would associate it with the names of the sages and the holy men who had once resided in their city. For the Jewish community, the great synagogue was in a way a symbol of the Jerusalem Temple, an example of which can be shown. by a folk art picture of 1898depicting the Zholkva synagogue. The synagogue is shown as if standing on top of a barren hill, outside time and space.

Having survived through several turbulent centuries, the stone synagogues succumbed to the cataclysms of the twentieth century Their destruction began during the First World War, when all the Western Lands of Imperial Russian became an area of military action.

After the Bolshevik revolution, the synagogues within the Soviet Union were closed down and looted. In the 1920-30s a number of buildings were gutted or completely destroyed by the Soviets. For example, the vaults of the Rashkov synagogue were destroyed in the early 1930s, in the course of the anticlerical campaign.

During the Second World War, the most historically significant synagogues were blown up. The Nazis exploded the famous Golden Rose synagogue in Lvov. A number of buildings suffered from the hardships of war and occupation. When the war was over, there was nobody there to either protect or restore the ruined buildings. The Jews were dead, and the authorities showed very little interest. Many ruined buildings that could have been restored were simply taken apart.

The next wave of destruction came with the anticlerical campaign in the USSR in the early 1960s, even though by that time the synagogue buildings had long been devoid of their religious significance. Thus the magnificent synagogues of Medzibozh and Luboml were blown up at the time. The opulent attic of the Ostrog synagogue was destroyed.

Despite the Protected by the State plaques, the destruction of the synagogues is still going on. In the mid-1980s the narthex wall of the Brody synagogue collapsed, as did the Brzezany synagogue in 199420. The devastated, neglected synagogue buildings, e.g. in Satanov or Ostrog, are under the immediate threat of complete destruction. The buildings that are somehow used are in a more favourable situation, such as the synagogues of Shargorod and Ilyintsy which house small factories), of Slonim (the city archives) and Husiatin (the city museum).

The murals of the synagogues are lost forever, scattered fragments of stone-carved reliefs including details of aronot-kodesh, have been preserved in certain buildings.

Apart from the historic and architectural significance, the ruins of the synagogues also have a symbolic one.

Holocaust, Shoa, the Catastrophe these are the words for referring to the massacre of six million European Jews. That list, paradoxically, does not include the Yiddish word for that tragedy, although five million victims out of the six spoke that language. The word, though, does exist, and it brings into bold relief the essence of the disaster: der driter Hurbn, the Third Destruction of the Temple.

The Hebrew word hurban, destruction, had acquired in Yiddish a new connotation: der Hurbn, the destruction of the Temple or a sacrilege, is not just a tragedy, one of the many in the Jewish history, but the collapse of a whole world. The Destruction of the Temple is the beginning of exile.

Since the Jews of Eastern Europe, thinking of their communities as of a metaphor for Jerusalem, would refer to them as kehile kdushe, the Holy Communities, the collapse of the Ashkenazi world must be equated to the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple. Wherever the Ashkenazi Jews live today, in Moscow, Tel-Aviv, St. Petersburg or New York, they seem to be developing a more and more acute sense of the fact that they live not only in galut, metaphysical exile, but in a particular goles, the exile that deprived them of their land, culture and the tongue of their ancestors.

The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple is not just registered in the collective memory of the Jewish people, in the ritual and the Liturgy; an eternal symbol of the tragedy is that great ruin, the Western Wall. Similar ruins of the great synagogues of Eastern Europe have become the symbols of the Third Destruction of the Temple, the material embodiment of Ashkenazi goles.

Many synagogue buildings were destroyed in the twentieth century, while those that are still there, even though devastated and deserted, overwhelm the chance traveller with their awesome beauty. These buildings, exquisite even in their present deplorable state, cannot but erase the stereotype of the meagre and uninspiring culture of a Jewish shtetl. The dead synagogues tell an unequivocal tale of the glory and the fall of the Eastern European Jewish communities.

The military clashes of the second half of the seventeenth century left many of the Ukrainian cities razed to the ground. Often, when the Jews came back to the site, the old synagogue would be the only witness testifying to their former presence in the devastated city, the charter that would grant them the right to return. Probably, this fact gave rise to an old legend that is still current in those places where an old synagogue has been preserved, even though for the local people the date of its construction is lost in the mist of time.

It relates that while playing, children dug up the walls of an ancient building. They went on digging, and eventually recovered a synagogue.

Today the tale sounds more like a fable.

1 The article mostly deals with the preserved synagogue buildings, examined by the authors during field trips made in 1989 - 2000.

2 The synagogue in Lutsk, Volyn, was built in 1629. Today the bima is gone, the plan of the building has been altered.

3 The synagogue of Medzhibozh, Podolia was presumably built in the second half of the sixteenth century. The building was exploded in the early 1960s. The substructure has been preserved.

4 The synagogue of Satanov, Podolia, was presumably built at the turn of the seventeenth century. Rebuilt in the eighteenth century. The state of the building is precarious. A stone carved aron-kodesh of the eighteenth century. has been preserved.

5 The synagogue of Shargorod, Podolia, was built in 1589. The building is currently used as a vineyard. The interior has not been preserved.

6 In design and in size, the building resembles the Remuhs synagogue, built thirty years earlier in Kazimierz, a Jewish quarter of Cracow.

7 The Golden Rose was blown up by the Nazis, the northern wall of the prayer hall and a section of the western wall of the narthex are the only surviving elements.

8 The synagogue of Husiatin, Podolia was presumably built at the turn of the seventeenth century. Rebuilt in the eighteenth century, it presently houses the city museum. Fragments of stucco from the aron-kodesh have been preserved.

9 The dating of the synagogue in Ostrog, Volyn, fluctuates from the mid-sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries. The building is in ruins.

10 The synagogue of Stary Bykhov, Byelorussia, was built in the 1630s. The building is in a precarious state.

11 The synagogue of Slonim, Byelorussia, was built in 1642. Rebuilt in the eighteenth century. The building presently houses the city archives. Stucco and murals are partially preserved.

12 The building has not been preserved and is only known by the descriptions and the photographs of the early twentieth century.

13 The synagogue of Luboml, Volyn, was built in the 1690s and blown up in the 1960s.

14 The synagogue in Zholkva, Eastern Galicia, was built in 1692. Presently the building is under preservation and restoration is planned. The stucco of the aron-kodesh has been preserved.

15 The synagogue of Brody, Galicia was built in 1742. The building is in a precarious state.

16 The synagogue of Chechelnik was presumably built in the late eighteenth century. The building has been converted into a warehouse.

17 The synagogue of Rashkov, Podolia, was presumably built in the mid-eighteenth century. Destroyed in the early 1930s. Fragments of its stone-carved decor have been preserved.

18 The synagogue of Ilyintsy, Podolia, was built in the eighteenth century. Presently the building houses a sawmill.

19 The synagogue of Busk, Eastern Galicia, was built in 1843. The building is in a precarious state. The stucco of the interior has been preserved.

20 The synagogue of Brzezany, Eastern Galicia, was built in 1718. The building was in a precarious state and collapsed in 1994.

The Synagogue in Shargorod

The Synagogue in Zholkwa (main facade)

The Synagogue in Zholkwa (interior)

The Synagogue in Zholkwa (the Ark)

The Synagogue in Brody

The Synagogue in Satanov

Back to Articles/
News History Articles Books Exhibitions Guest book Contacts