Landscape with a Synagogue

"The first synagogues in Poland were built in the late Middle Ages, as from the 12th century, increasing numbers of Ashkenazi Jews chose to settle there. The earliest of these buildings which still stand today were built in Lower Silesia (Strzegom and Oleśnica) and Kazimierz, near Kraków (The Old Synagogue).

These are all one-nave buildings, which share many similarities with Western- European Mediaeval synagogue architecture. In several ways, however, they may not be the first thing that comes to mind at the idea of a ‘Polish’ synagogue. So, what this archetypal Polish synagogue all about? takes you on a tour to some of Poland’s magnificent synagogues. The fact that they have survived wartime trauma only make them shine more brightly. Some of these synagogues continue to serve Jewish communities in Poland today. Others serve as museums, honoring and celebrating the history and culture of Polish Jews.

Crowned by their attics, the great blocks of synagogues became one of the dominant elements in the silhouette of multiethnic Polish towns, along with the church spires and cupolas of Orthodox churches in the East.

This statement by the Polish synagogue experts Kazimierz and Maria Piechotka, from their book Landscape with Menorah (originally: Krajobraz z Menorą), helps pinpoint the characteristic elements of Polish synagogue architecture (attics, cuboid shape). It also charts the area where Jewish synagogues were built. Outside of Poland, they were located in the vast Eastern territories (Ukraine and Belarus today) that saw the expansion of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

It’s no coincidence that the golden age of Jewish art and culture in Poland – synagogue architecture included – concurred with that of the Kingdom of Poland. This period of growth lasted from the mid-16th to the mid-17th centuries. It was during this time that Polish synagogues acquired their typical form, which was then reiterated in countless realisations.

Seen from the outside, this characteristic form would include such elements as a square ground plan, unadorned outside walls, a flat roof, and the Renaissance-style attic on top, which wrapped around the building. But how did these elements originate? And how did they come to define Polish synagogue architecture?

In fact, many of the architectural features enumerated above go back to specific historical circumstances, as well as the social position of Jews in Eastern Europe. For one, the unadorned outside walls and the unimposing height and size of most Polish synagogues resulted from restrictions imposed on their builders by municipal authorities (a town’s private owners) and the Catholic church.

The latter argued that a synagogue should not stand out from the surrounding town buildings, and that in particular, it should make no impression of competing in importance with the town’s church building. (Relatedly, the location of a synagogue was also selected so as not to stand too close to the church.) This is also why most early Polish synagogues have a flat roof, as any other style would have made the structure look taller.

The origins of the Renaissance-style attics which crowned the synagogue buildings are perhaps more down-to-earth than one would expect. In fact, the attics were originally added for safety reasons; in case of fire, the wall that ran around the building’s roof was designed to prevent its spread. Their artistic, decorative form, however, was a clear reference to the Polish Renaissance style in architecture – as well as a sign that many of the earliest architects of Polish synagogues came from Italy.

Over time, these elements became the defining features of the classic ‘Polish’ synagogue style – even if, in reality, the synagogues of Poland testify to a mind-boggling diversity that is difficult to codify.