Our documenting of synagogue art and architecture started innocently enough on an April vacation to Italy. The trip was inspired by a course on Renaissance art at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lecture by architect David Cassuto on synagogues in Italy.

Niche for the tzedakah box, Polná synagogue (before restoration)

After visiting several cities, canvassing their synagogues, and enclaves of art and tradition, we realized that we were on a new course. More of Renaissance Italy could wait. These synagogue treasures — the legacy of scattered Jewish communities that dotted the hills — must be documented. It was then and there that we embarked on a project that in five seasons would take us to 350 synagogues in eight countries — and inside almost all of them. Teachers by training and inclination, we were under compulsion to record whatever we found. Here was a story that had to be told. The work subsequently engaged us, with the help of dozens of loyal volunteer assistants, over seven additional years of research and writing, back at home in Jerusalem.

The stares of townspeople on the street, in town after town, the curtains discreetly pushed aside in windows on the square, were balanced by the readiness of many older people to tell us at length of Jewish families who had been their neighbors. They recited for us which businesses the Jews had owned before the war. People living in previously Jewish-owned houses had only good things to say about the former owners. It was uncanny, incredible. In one town, when a municipal official noticed our horror at the shambles of the synagogue building, he tried to comfort us, "Aber wir haben einen schönen Friedhof" (But we have a beautiful cemetery).

Synagogue entrance. The Hebrew inscription reads: Pithu li Sha'arei Tzedek ("Open the gates of righteousness for me"). Click to view enlarged

The capitals, Budapest, Bratislava, Prague, Vienna, Rome, Athens, Zagreb, and Belgrade still have small, but viable Jewish communities. Their major synagogues are documented and reasonably well known, but the town and village hinterlands — a vast reservoir and graveyard of the Jewish past — are mostly unpublished. Our chosen task was to record existing synagogue buildings that are relatively unknown. These are also of lesser restoration probability, especially in peripheral locations reached by few travelers. The thought was always with us as we drove along the country roads during the long months of field activity that many of these buildings may disappear in the next few decades. When they go, nearly all trace of the former Jewish presence in these lands will vanish. Rummaging through the dusty synagogues of vanished communities was a depressing experience. As we walked the streets in these picturesque and tranquil precincts, we could not help thinking of the missing Jews who had worshipped in buildings that were now dwellings or storerooms.

Our sources of information abroad ranged from local inhabitants, town historians, municipal archivists, and museum personnel to the staffs of the few extant Jewish communities. We photographed or photocopied documents as we found them and supplemented the information from libraries in Israel. On return trips to Europe, we prepared detailed questionnaires in several local languages. The first part introduced us as researchers and asked for help in finding an interpreter and in locating the synagogue. The second part presented questions about the former Jewish community. We taped the verbal replies. Then, thanks to a devoted crew of volunteers in Israel (and even a few in Europe) for transcription and translation, the contents of document or tape were made legible to us in English or Hebrew. Information on local histories is hard to find. We supplemented the scant material from encyclopedia and similar sources with local publications we collected as we traveled. Compendia such as those of Hugo Gold and both general and special remembrance books from Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, in Jerusalem, were especially useful. We gathered information from the database at Beth Hatefutsoth, the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora at Tel Aviv University, and also contributed to it.

Women's galleries of the Neuschul in Trebic (the Czech Republic) before and after restoration.

Municipal officials in European towns we visited were sometimes proud to give us copies of plans for the forthcoming restoration of the local synagogue, as in Trebíc, Moravia, Vrbové, and Liptovsky´ Mikulásˇ in Slovakia. Most archivists were cooperative and eager to find historical documents to show us. There were a few, however, who insisted that we "Come back tomorrow," and on the morrow found other excuses to send us away empty handed. In one small village we showed our credentials to a housewife living in the tiny former synagogue. "Wir haben das haus gekauft!" (We bought this house!) she fairly shouted in distress and slammed the door shut. But such events were not typical. The overwhelming impression is one of friendliness and a desire to help.

Several archivists and municipal officials have maintained contact with us, sending us occasional up-dated information. We were guests of the convivial Mayor Jaroslav Kos of Rychnov nad Kneznou, Bohemia, in comfortable attic quarters. He arranged a private tour of the Rychnov castle-museum and obtained permission for us to photograph an illuminated eighteenth-century megillah (Scroll of Esther). When he brought us to the town synagogue he had never entered before, it was in use as a storeroom for a plumbing supply company. Mayor Kos was shocked and embarrassed at the desecration. He apologized for the state of affairs and promised to do what he could to change matters. Before long, he organized money and restoration activity, providing frequent photos of the work in progress until the synagogue was dedicated as a Jewish museum in 1995.

Nearly all the villages we visited had been empty of Jews since the Nazi deportations. These locations attracted few foreign visitors. An exception was the rare Jewish traveler, following an ancient, binding Jewish custom: to locate the grave of a relative and there to recite the Kaddish prayer. Strangers in the village square, we were obviously foreigners. Our Jewish identity and the purpose of our visit soon became known to passers-by, whom we approached for information about the synagogue. After a moment of acquaintance came the ubiquitous question, "Was your family from this town?"

Our family? We had spent hundreds of hours searching for synagogues and vestiges of the inscriptions in them, more hours scrambling through vines and brambles for decipherable gravestone iconography, and days poring over documents in arcane archives. Regardless of our immediate forebears, we are an intrinsic part of the endless list of anonymous Jews who populated these villages and towns. "Yes," we replied, "our family came from this town."

sources Abridged from: Rivka and Ben-Zion Dorfman, Synagogues Without Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2000)

About the authors and their projects: www.eng.bgu.ac.il/sar Eric Silver, "Old Shuls Never Die," The Jerusalem Report.

Introduction l Interview l Dubrovnik l Polná l Rhodes



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