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EXPLORING THE SYNAGOGUES OF POLAND:
WALL PAINTING AND DECORATION

Wallpainting in Bychowa Synagogue

Fragment of decorated text on the wall of the Bychowa Synagogue, built in 1811. The wall painting were probably done at the beginning of the 20th century.

In an expedition to Poland this year, Center researchers, Boris Khaimovich and Benyamin Lukin, had an opportunity to examine the interior decoration of synagogues in the Cracow, Western Galicia, Bialystok and Wroclaw regions. Synagogue decoration and wall paintings which have survived in Eastern Europe are not only a beautiful and important feature of the synagogue but a significant remnant of our Jewish artistic heritage. In Poland and other places in Eastern Europe, synagogue wall paintings may be the only remnant of a community's artistic expression. Rich with biblical and other scenes, Jewish symbols and decorative motifs, these wall paintings provide us with a glimpse of the visual tradition of the once thriving Jewish communities.

The Center for Jewish Art has in the past conducted extensive expeditions in Poland to document ritual objects and Hebrew illuminated manuscripts in private collections, libraries and museums. At the same time the Center also surveyed the interiors and exteriors of Poland's extant synagogues. Many of these buildings, particularly those outside Warsaw, are in poor condition though the Polish authorities have undertaken to conserve some of these historic buildings for various cultural purposes. While some of these synagogues are already known to the public, especially those which have been preserved, no systematic research has ever been conducted of synagogue decoration.

Our researchers began their work by visiting several different archives in Warsaw. Along with acquiring lists of extant synagogues, they were also able to obtain architectural plans of some of these synagogues.

The researchers began their documentation in Cracow where there are eight synagogues in the old Jewish Quarter. During this expedition, the research team visited three synagogues which they were unable to view on previous trips. The Kupa Synagogue, built in 1608, is richly decorated with paintings from the 1920's on the walls, ceiling and in the women's section. The depictions include the holy places Hebron, Tiberias, and Jerusalem. There are also Biblical scenes and illustrations to verses in Psalms such as one picture showing people standing by the Rivers of Babylon (Psalms 137, 1-3), or musical instruments (Psalms 150, 3-6). Another painting depicts Noah's ark including the figure of Noah. This is quite unusual since the use of human images was very rare. The signs of the Zodiac are painted over the women's gallery. The artist, although unidentified, was clearly very professional. There are also remnants of earlier paintings from the 17th to 18th century. The older drawings are ornamental, with leaves and fruit surrounding texts.

A carved wood and stucco Torah ark, from the early 17th century, also remains in the synagogue. The Kupa Synagogue, which has been undergoing restorations for the past eleven years, is no longer in use.

The 16th century Rama (also known as 'Remu') Synagogue in Cracow, named for Rabbi Moses Iserlies, is still in use today, and serves the remaining community of about 100 Jews. There are three 20th century paintings on the walls of the synagogue, exposing a simple style. Two paintings are of Holy places, Rachel's tomb and the Western Wall with praying Hasidim. This is a very rare find since the Western Wall is usually depicted without human figures. A third painting is of Noah's ark.

The bimah in the center of the Synagogue is surrounded by a metal fence and has two carved wooden doors. It is built on a stone base which is part of an earlier construction of the synagogue. The date of the fence is not yet clear, and further research will be required. The bimah doors with carved images of sanctuary implements from the Temple, a Menorah and the Shewbread table, were brought from another synagogue where they were used as Torah Ark doors.

The third synagogue visited in Cracow, the Iyzyka Synagogue, was built in 1638 and has fragments of ornamental wall paintings. Biblical and liturgical texts are sumptuously framed with flowers, leaves, grape clusters, pomegranates and animals.

The medieval walled city of Sandomierz is 500 meters square, consisting of only four streets. The Sandomierz Synagogue is on the hilltop of one of these streets, "The street of the Jews". No Jews live there today.

The synagogue in Sandomierz built in 1758 is used as an archive today. On the ceiling are paintings of the Zodiac signs, characteristic of designs from late 19th century Poland. They display only parts of human figures, the rest hidden by trees or other ornamentation. There are views of Jerusalem on the walls and paintings of the sanctuary implements surrounding the Torah ark. Above the ark there is a depiction of a Leviathan around a circular window. On either side of the synagogue are pictures of the four animals mentioned in Pirkeh avot in the popular exegesis of Rabbi Judah ben Temah which reads, "be strong as a tiger, light as an eagle, fast as a deer, and heroic as a lion to fulfill the will of your Father in heaven." Visible underneath, in the niche of the Torah ark, are earlier paintings of the tablets of the law flanked by griffins, floral decorations, and pomegranates. Ritual objects from the synagogue are displayed in the city museum and were documented at an earlier date by the Center for Jewish Art.

The Bychowa Synagogue built in 1811 is built in the common design of the region with a vaulted ceiling and four large central pillars of the bimah dividing the space into 9 bays. Above the bimah is a depiction of the 'four animal' motif. There are also paintings of musical instruments. These drawings were probably painted during the early 20th century. A niche remains in place of the Torah ark around which are drawings of Tablets of the Law. Texts on either side of the Torah ark mention names of "Our teacher Mordechai, son of our teacher Yitzchak, who sits at the gates of the king," and "Yitzchak ben Yaacov, donor," who was perhaps the son of Mordechai.

The 17th century synagogue in Orla, near Bialystok, had beautiful decorations, as was evidenced in the archival photographs found by the research team. The drawings are very detailed and finely executed. The synagogue, however, has been out of use since World War II and is in a rapid state of deterioration. It had been converted into a warehouse, but today is no longer in use. Funds have yet to be found for restoration.

Like the synagogue in Bychowa, the Orla Synagogue with its nine bays and vaulted ceiling was designed in the Baroque style. The drawings which were made in the beginning of the 19th century, appear around the stucco Torah ark, which only partially survives, on the many pilasters around the synagogue and over the main entrance. Above the latter, on the Western wall, are depictions of 'the four animals.' Peacocks and lions are found on the eastern wall and birds, garlands and grapevines decorate the columns.

Another synagogue in the Bialystok region is the Tykocin (also known as Tyktin) Synagogue, built in 1642 and restored after World War II. The synagogue is used today as a Jewish Museum. The inner walls of the structure are inscribed with prayers and psalms, surrounded by drawings. These framed texts are characteristic of synagogue painting of the period. It is suspected that the first synagogue wall paintings were like those found in Tykocin, texts surrounded by decorative borders.

In three small towns in the Silesia region, near the capital city of Wroclaw (Breslau), the research team found three old buildings which were at one time synagogues and have since been converted into churches. These buildings were discovered by Center researchers examining local archival sources.

Although Silesia was part of Germany throughout most of its history, it was incorporated as part of Poland in 1945. There was a Jewish presence in the area around Wroclaw from the 12th century, some of the Jewish newcomers having fled the Crusades. The success of the Jewish money-lenders and merchants brought about further Jewish immigration in the 13th and 14th century. The community's prosperity aroused much animosity from the neighboring Christian population and eventually led to Jewish expulsion from the region. By the 15th century almost no Jews were left in Middle and Lower Silesia.

The Strzegom Synagogue, 1370, and the Jawor Synagogue, 1364, are both Catholic churches today, the Olesnica, from the 15th century, is an Evangelical church. The Jews of Strzegom were given land by Duke Bolko II to build a Synagogue in 1370. When they were expelled from the area in 1454, expansive renovations were made on the synagogue and it was dedicated as a church.

The Jawor Synagogue, built in shape of an octagon, was most likely built as a church. It was given to the Jews by Duchess Augusta in 1420 and reverted back to a church when the Jews were expelled in 1446. There is no architectural evidence left to show that this structure or that in Strzegom, were once synagogues.

Olesnica Church and former synagogue, early 15th centuryThe former synagogue visited by the researchers in Olesnica was built in the early 15th century, although records show there were Jewish residents in the town as early as 1329. As in other towns in the area, the Jews of Olesnica were expelled at the end of the 15th century, but gradually returned . In 1530 an architect was invited from Prague to renovate the synagogue. That same year the first Hebrew book printed in Germany by a Jewish printer, Hayyim Schwartz, was produced in Olesnica. The synagogue was dedicated as a church in 1695. Protruding bricks on the exterior eastern wall, suggest remains of a Torah ark niche. Interestingly, the structure of the former synagogue, as it stands today, is reminiscent of the Altneushul in Prague, probably due to the renovations made by the architect between 1530-1535.

The work carried out during this expedition represents an integral step in our task of "reconstructing" the mosaic of Jewish culture in Poland from before the sixteenth century until its virtual destruction during World War II.

This expedition is made possible through the generous support of Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons' Foundation, in cooperation with the Project Judaica Foundation of Washington, D.C., Mark Talisman, President.

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