A Jewish and Unique Art
by Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka. Translated by Rulka Langer. With introductions by Stephen S. Kayser and Jan Zachwatowicz.
Arkady (Warsaw). 219 pp. $6.50.
“Weatherbeaten and very old, of a deep metallic dull-green hue, it towered impressively above the market square, topped with its pagoda pinnacles and sloping shingle roof that revealed so clearly the interrelation of the rooms within: the two aisles to right and left, the inner court, and the holy place itself. The roof above the latter, which lay furthest back and was loftier than the rest, gave unity to the fine old rambling building, while the three-story façde, crowned with a small turret, and resting upon the wooden pillars, dominated the street. Small windows, with crooked frames, and awkward lowroofed entrances; but the whole edifice had an insolent Oriental air, as of a foreign citadel of prayer looming above the busy little habitations at its feet.”
This is the picture Arnold Zweig gives, in The Case of Sergeant Grischa, of an old wooden synagogue in Poland, one of many he must have seen when he served on the Eastern Front during the First World War. More or less, the description fits quite a few of the sixty-nine synagogues discussed in the volume under review, by Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka. The wooden synagogues are all gone now, for if as Zweig said, they “enjoyed a certain reputation among those of the garrison who were artistically inclined,” the German soldiers of a later war, bothered neither by aesthetic nor ethical sentiments, wantonly destroyed every Jewish public building in Eastern Europe within reach. While some of the old stone synagogues (the so-called “fortress synagogues”) resisted destruction to the extent that they could be repaired after the war, the less sturdy, highly inflammable wooden ones seem to have perished without a single exception. This is, at least, the conclusion of the Piechotkas, the two Polish architects to whom we are indebted in this volume for the first truly comprehensive survey of Jewish folk architecture and folk art.
The piechotkas were greatly hampered in their research not only through the destruction of the buildings but by the loss of innumerable drawings and photographs and, of course, the deaths of several Jewish and non-Jewish experts during the Nazi occupation. Their achievement, in reconstructing one of the glories of Polish Jewry, is all the more remarkable—notwithstanding the several lapses that somewhat mar the volume (the architectural material is at no point related to art history in general, nor are any evaluations in aesthetic terms attempted; and a bibliography, though substantial, nevertheless omits the names of some important people who have written on the subject).
The wooden synagogues still standing before the mass destruction that started in September 1939 were only a fraction of all that had been búilt, at one time or another, in Eastern Europe (the Piechotkas note on a map the locations at which wooden shuls had stood, according to written sources, in earlier times; unfortunately neither the map nor the text mentions any edifices outside Greater Poland—in the Ukraine, for instance). In the more distant past, economic change (more often than warfare or conflagration) had caused the disappearance of many of these buildings. They were the meeting places of simple, poor, semi-rural Jews in smaller towns; then, as the kehillah began to prosper, these wooden synagogues were replaced by more ambitious—though not necessarily handsomer or even more original—brick or stone edifices.
These earlier wooden temples did not stand out nearly so conspicuously as Zweig’s description might suggest from the surrounding wooden structures, religious and secular, of 17th- and 18th-century Poland. Some of the smallest and least ambitious buildings illustrated in Wooden Synagogues probably did not differ much in exterior appearance from the corn or hay sheds visible everywhere on the landscape.
The larger buildings, on the other hand, had distinctive features that shaped their silhouettes quite differently from those of the local churches; and the Piechotkas insist that, unlike elsewhere in Europe, Poland—which hardly knew any walled-in ghettos before the Nazi conquest—did not restrict the synagogue builder in any way beyond demanding that the shul be placed at some distance from the church lest the “infidels . . . disturb the service with the rustle of their prayers.” (The authors quote this ruling from an old church document.) The interiors generally consisted of a large meeting hall (with a bimah or reading desk in the center), around which other, smaller rooms (including those for the instruction of the children), were grouped. Upstairs galleries for the women were often provided.
The most striking feature of the old wooden synagogues was the steep roof, or rather combination of roofs, in a steplike arrangement of three, four, or even five tiers—faintly resembling a pagoda. Cornices, often highly decorated, divided the tiers, and the “Chinese” look was further heightened when curved roofs and gutters appeared (the latter sometimes mounted high up as in Far Eastern temples).
Earlier writers had hinted at a direct Asiatic influence, alluding to the invasions of Eastern Europe by Mongolian tribes. This particular hypothesis has long since been discarded, though the Piechotkas fail even to raise the question of the origin of these charming triple, quadruple, or quintuple roofs. It seems clear that they may be traced to a combination of factors. The “architects” of these wooden synagogues—for the most part untutored Jewish carpenters and cabinet makers—apparently wanted to build the local shul with as high and impressive a roofing as possible, not only to make the inner hall airy and spacious, but mindful of the Talmudic admonition that the house of worship should top every other building in the kehillah. Climatic conditions may have been considered—the multiple roof seemed best for preventing the shingles from being blown off by high winds; but mostly the builders were forced by professional limitations to resort to the “step” arrangement. The “curving” may also have been due to the natural sagging of the underlying rafters; to the baroque spirit that somehow found its way even into forlorn Polish villages; and to the desire, whether conscious or unconscious, of the builders to break the monotony of strictly horizontal and vertical lines. Even these relatively unschooled men from whose vocabulary “art” and “aesthetics” were absent seemed intuitively to yearn for the loveliest forms possible within the essentially utilitarian limits that had been set them. This beauty they achieved by simple means, especially through a perfect balancing of the proportions of the structure’s various parts, and by a clear expression of rational necessity.
But the interiors of the buildings seem to have been delightfully “irrational”—as one may gather from several photographs—in their furnishings and wall decorations. Ark and bimah were decorated in a baroque richness, by means of delicately shaped and minutely pierced woodwork and the addition of rampant lions and eagles with widespread wings. Much of this folk sculpture is known to have been gaily painted—unfortunately, the present volume does not contain a single color photograph. This is particularly regrettable as far as examples of wall paintings are concerned, which often completely covered the interiors of the wooden synagogues (few stone synagogues had such wall decorations). The complex patterns of paintings, their rich pigments and unrestrained fantasy, are reminiscent of the early work of Chagall. (In his autobiography, Chagall claims blood kinship to the 18th-century Chaim ben Isaac Segal who decorated the interior walls of the synagogue at Mohylew with polychromatic paintings.) The folk artists seem to have been especially intrigued by all kinds of fauna, and the painter Zygmunt Menkes has told this reviewer that walking into such a synagogue was like walking into a “zoological garden.” Another artist, the silversmith Ilya Schor, recalled marveling at the ingenious use the generally anonymous interior decorators made of the Hebrew script.
All in all, the Piechotkas have produced a book that combines great love for its subject with painstaking research. The accumulated pictorial material, the book’s unique contribution, is preceded by a valuable historical monograph, and followed by ample, if sometimes highly technical, notes on each of the synagogues illustrated.
Under the unique conditions of that ancient Polish Jewish life, “a perfect union,” Stephen S. Kayser has written, “had been achieved between the native style of architecture and the special needs of a Jewish place of worship,” so that there emerged “a truly original and organic manifestation of artistic expression—the only real Jewish folk art in history.” Wooden Synagogues offers a nostalgic glimpse into a world irrevocably lost to us.