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Hands-On Synagogue

None of Poland’s spectacular wooden synagogues survived the war. Now a team of experts and novices is bringing one of them back to life.

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This past summer, architectural preservationists, master timber framers, art students, and other volunteers gathered in Sanok, Poland, to help recreate the roof and inner cupola of the Gwozdziec Synagogue. The synagogue, which was built in the 17th and 18th centuries and destroyed during World War I, is considered one of the finest examples of wooden synagogue architecture of its time. Once the synagogue components are built, they will have to be broken down and shipped off to Warsaw, where they will be installed to form the centerpiece of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is set to open in 2013. The reconstruction project is a collaboration of Handshouse Studio and the museum, with the participation of the Timber Framers Guild.

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Dr. Michael Zidonov says:

Too Marvelous For Words !!! What a Mitzvah !!! Thank You for producing this Video …….

Would it be possible to add the Timber Framers Guild to your credits as the non-profit 501c3 who provided the leadership team and framing expertise for this portion of the project? (

How wonderful of the Poles to reconstruct synagogues in Poland! AND they also will have “A Museum of the History of Polish Jews”. Kind of reminds you of Hitler’s plan to make Prague a Museum of a Lost Race. Could this have anything to do with their need for tourist dollars? When the Poles have constructed memorials to the dead of WWII, you would have to look very very closely to find any mention that Jews died there. They also would like to make the world believe that the fact that 95% of all concentration camps were in Poland is because “the Germans made us do it”. When they killed survivors who tried to return to their homes after the war, that said it all! How dare they now try to make money exploiting the victims of the greatest slaughter of a people in human history. Jews will continue to return to the graves of their ancestors, but to visit these insulting reconstructions by the people who applauded when their neighbors were burned in these synagogues, would be an insult to their memories. Unless they have changed since I was there in the 90s, you will not find a Jew involved in their Jewish History programs.

    tbartman says:

    Moral perfection and pure historical truth is going to be very difficult to achieve, and in an uncompromizing effort to obtain it Pat you may produce as much bad as good. I’m more pragmatic,  and to me it’s all where you draw the line and where you compromise in order to produce the most good in our would and for future generations.  It’s very challenging and sometimes very painfu. I do sympathize with your pain, as I also have felt it.

Thanks, Alicia – we’ve amended the copy to reflect the Guild’s contribution.

Once rebuilt, the synagogue will be taken apart and transported to Warsaw, where it will be part of a museum. What, exactly—to refer to the title caption–is being “brought back to life?” It’s not that I don’t understand how words can be used figuratively. But given a)that for Jewish prayer, living people are what matters (a Jewish prayer service can be held without a synagogue; it can’t be held without people), b) that the catastrophe that befell the Jews of Poland _isn’t_ something that can now be reversed, and c) that a museum, however nobly motivated, is ultimately only a museum, and cannot give life to anything, “brought back to life” just doesn’t fit, no matter how solemn we get about architecture, about the sounds that axes make when wood is chopped out in the forest, and about how people have come together and then dispersed in connection with this project in the same way that people must have done when they built cathedrals. About that last observation: yes, certain human patterns of behavior persist, and are likely to persist as long as human beings conceive of projects. It’s an ecumenical chapel-type of observation, though, if there’s anything spiritual about it at all (not all solemnly delivered observations are spiritual; that goes even for true/accurate observations.) If one is building a _synagogue,_ there’s no way to escape Jewish particularity while at the same time being true to the project. Specifically: important though craftsmanship is, craftsmanship talk can be a kind of distraction.

    tbartman says:

    Good point. I really don’t think Mrs Gruber intended in the least to be insensitive or ignorant about this,  but it is a very unfortunate choice of words “brought back to life”. It does do us some favor though because it does point to the limitations and pitfalls of this activity in a world where really we can’t bring back to life what is dead, perhaps least of all the Jewish holocaust dead whose ashes were scattered on the four winds, and who have no graves, and many not even names. Not only the wooden synagogues are gone, but also most of the Jewish cemeteries. Between the Nazis during the war and the vandalism and indifference of some Poles after the war, even our dead could not rest in peace.  What we can and should do is memorialize and find value in the people (the lives) who were murdered, and cultural heritage that was destroyed. I think that is what this project and the museum are about. I agree with your point about Jewish particularity. I also agree that as valuable as a building (synagogue) may be, as Jews it’s hard to say that it is worth even one human life.  As Jews we elevate objects even sacred ones only so high.

@Pat: why identify these Poles of our days with the Poles of the war time? and if you insist on identifying, why identify them with the murderers, and not with the saviors of the Jews, of whom there are more than 6 thousands rewarded by Yad Vashem? most of all: why generalize at all? surely it’s individuals or groups of them who make decisions and act accordingly, not nations.

Sorry, Lara, but I have to agree with Pat. And nations DO make decisions when they make laws and foment certain ways of thinking.

GSK: the Polish nation did not make decisions under Nazi occupation, only people did. as to today, there isn’t, to my knowledge (I don’t live in Poland), any anti-Jewish or anti-minorities laws there, so I don’t quite understand this point.

Lara: Please read “Neighbors” by Jan T. Gross.

The Polish nation cant seem to acknowledge that there were Polish Jews who died in WWII. To think that their rebuilding a synagogue or opening a museum to the history of the Jews (which history they made intolerable) is for any purpose other than to promote tourism, is very naive.

Rebecca says:

perhaps there is a silver lining here. I do not believe for a minute that Poland and Polish society has suddenly found repentance and wants to become “Jew friendly” but out of all the central European countries, it is the only one that has bothered to do anything positive about their WWII actions. Perhaps their neighbors will start to see the money roll in and instead of erecting statues to former nazi leaders they will start to build synagogue replicas. After visiting Budapest in 2003 and seeing stacks of nazi id cards proudly being sold, nazi figurines in shop windows and a destroyed synagogue sitting open to the elements, I can only hope that Poland is on its way to making its neighbors ashamed. Naive perhaps but a country that puts on a “Jewish Festival” where everyone is a goy and pretends to be Jewish is as much of a joke as Turkey pretending to be worthy of joining the EU. At least the actions sound good and make good PR. Perhaps in another 50 years the tourists will start to ask the participants are actually Jewish. The Poles themselves feel equally victimized by the Germans as their Jewish citizens did. Maybe this is their way of saying sorry.

Alicja Treibicz Larsson says:

Isn’t wise to believe and have a good faith in changes taking place in Poland? Polish society isn’t different of any another society in the world: it is subjected to a constant change. Today’s Poland is not a country of your ancestors, as it is not the same place as I left 1968 like 30 000 other Polish Jews.

Pat: I have red the Gross’s book. moreover, I am aware of the recent neo-nazi march in Bialystok with slogans like “I do not apologize for Jedwabne”. but I am still not inclined to generalize and speak on ‘the Poles’, because those are, quite simply, entirely different segments of Polish society. also, I have no knowing of what will be future development of the said society and if the positive trends will prevail, but it seems unfair to dismiss every attempt of memorializing or empathy as false and manipulative.

Samuel Gruber says:

I think this is a great project, and a worthy one. But remember, this is not recreating a lost wooden synagogue – it is recreating part of the structure (so much of the essence of what that wooden synagogue and so many other were cannot never be replace or replicated – only imitated). The project seems to have been reduced since it was originally conceived and presented. I thought it was going to involve more Poles or Polish Jews/Jewish Poles, and that parts of the project would be done in different former synagogues around the country, being regional efforts, and then all joined up in Warsaw. So the process of re-building would give added local social/cultural value to the project. Maybe I have this wrong…perhaps that is planned for the decoration? Or maybe the realities of doing a project like this – forced a rethinking to get it done.

Lara; that is my point. The Poles NEVER acknowledged the Jewish loss in any of their memorials. I was in Warsaw the night they unveiled the memorial to the 1939 invasion. It is a huge black railroad of open cars filled with crosses. All the political dignitaries were there as was Cardinal Glemp. It was televised. There were many speeches describing the tragedy of WWII the loss suffered by various groups. The Jews were never mentioned. At Plascow concentration camp the huge govt memorial never mentions Jews yet 99percent of the victims were Jews. ( a Jewish organization, I think American, had erected a small tribute and it was covered in yahrzeit candles that tourists had left there.
That was the year Carmelite nuns wanted to put a chapel in Auschwitz.

tantelaeh says:

This is my mother’s mother’s town can you imagine how I feel!

Pat, it’s long time there is a street of the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw, and of Mordecai Aniliewicz; also the monument to the ghetto fighters and to the Jews deportated from Umschlagplatz. the Jewish Scientific Instutute is a governmental institution, was the only of such kind in the East European socialist block and continues its work.I don’t say it’s enough,I don’t deny there is a strong antisemitic influence in Poland; I simply dont’t agree that “The Poles NEVER acknowledged the Jewish loss in any of their memorials”.

Yes Lara. I visited all the memorials you mentioned. Usually there was a Bridge table nearby and a non-jewish Pole was selling Stars of David to tourists. The University had a program but none of those involved were Jewish. Everytime we entered a taxi and spoke English, the driver started playing Klezmer music. I am sorry, Lara. I wish it were different. This is what I witnessed, and it was very depressing.

actually, I am glad that non-Jewish students enroll in Jewish studies programs, in Poland or elsewhere. being a university teacher of Jewish studies myself (in Vilnius, Lithuania), I always get non-Jewish students, and hope that such development is good for the future of any East European country.

Not the students, Lara, the professors

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says:

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, with Handshouse Studio and the Timber Framers Guild, is rebuilding the roof structure of a 17th-century wooden synagogue that once stood in Gwozdziec, Poland. This structure will be set within the modern building being constructed on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto. The first part of the project was building the structure. The second part of the project consists of eight workshops over two summers during which the ceiling murals will be recreated.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says:

Sam:The project was NOT reduced since it was originally conceived and presented. Almost half the participants this summer were Poles. There were Jews too. And, yes, the painted panels are being done in different former and current synagogues around the country, and as you said, being regional efforts, and then all joined up in Warsaw. The first three such painting workshops in synagogues followed the Sanok timber framing: Rzerw, Kazimierz, and Wrocław. Yes, as you wrote,”So the process of re-building would give added local social/cultural value to the project” You do not have this wrong!

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says:

I meant Rzeszów.

This article is very interesting but perhaps incorrect ….. as we’ve twice visited “the last Wooden Synagogue” in Lithuania in Zesmarai …. The first time was 15 yrs. ago and the 2nd was about 9 yrs. ago. On my Jewish postcard website of over 12,700 cards/photos I have several photos of it …. under Lithuania Synagogue. There is also a documentary on it. Stephanie

    How does the fact that there is a wooden synagogue in Lithiuania make the fact that there isn’t a wooden synagogue in Poland incorrect? Last time I checked they were different countries.


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Hands-On Synagogue

None of Poland’s spectacular wooden synagogues survived the war. Now a team of experts and novices is bringing one of them back to life.

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