Jewish Heritage Europe

Significant new books on synagogue architecture, art, restoration

Botosani, Romania — elaborate ark in the synagogue


Several new books make important contributions to the study of synagogue history, art and architecture and provide insight on the ways disused synagogues have been neglected, restored and/or repurposed in recent decades.

Two are monumental works focusing on synagogues in eastern Europe (click link on title to purchase):

The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe, by Bracha Yaniv, Professor Emerita of Jewish Art History, Bar Ilan University (Littman Library of Jewish Civiliation in association with Liverpool University Press)

Synagogues in Ukraine: Volhynia, an encyclopedic, 2-volume catalogue by Sergey R. Kravtsov and Vladimir Levin of the Center for Jewish Art, Hebrew University, (published by the Center for Jewish Art/Zalman Shazar Center).

The third focuses on synagogues in Bavaria, Germany:

Jüdisches Kulturgut: Erkennen-Bewahren-Vermitteln, edited by Otto Lohr and Bernhard Purin (published by the Landesstelle für die nichtstaatlichen Museen in Bayern).


Carved Wooden Torah Arks is an exhaustive illustrated study, elaborating on the history, the craft, the construction, the artisans and craftsmen, the form and content, and the symbolic meaning relating to the elaborately carved wooden arks that before World War II were found in synagogues in Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine.

It presents and analyzes the motifs depicted on the arks it discusses.

Almost all were destroyed. Some of these elaborate creations that survived the war can be found today in Romania. 

In addition to the lengthy general essays, the author, using historic photographs and other data,  describes 14 arks in particular detail, those in: Kamyank-Buzka, western Ukraine (c. 1775; Vyžunos, Lithuania (1784); Zabłudow, Poland (1765); Druya, Belarus (1774/75); Zelva, Belarus (1849/50); Lukiv, western Ukraine (c. 1781); Hrodna, Belarus (late 18th century); Nowe Miasto nad Pilicą, Poland (after 1800); Šaukėnai, Lithuania (1885/6); Przedbórz, Poland (c. 1775); Valkininkai, Lithuania (1804); Kępno, Poland (1816); Vowpa (Wolpa), Belarus (1781); and an unidentified ark from Ukraine (19th century).


Synagogue in Ukraine: Volhynia is a detailed study of the history and architecture of the synagogues in this part of northwestern Ukraine, illustrated with around 1,000 images including maps, drawings, charts, and photographs.

Fruit of decades of on-site and archival research, It covers more than 300 buildings — including 302 that have been destroyed and only 39 that have survived, if only in fragmentary form.

The book includes three overview essays, followed by 23 geographical chapters.

The introductory essays set the scene, discussing the Legal History of Synagogues in Volhynia, Synagogue Architecture in Volhynia; and the Social Function of Synagogue Ceremonial Objects in Volhynia.

“Kravtsov and Levin made exceptional efforts to track down every possible source on Volhynian synagogues,” Hebrew University Prof. Shaul Stamfer writes. “However they were acuetly aware that documentation without analysis and explanation contributes little. For this reason, these amazing […] volumes contain not only detailed desription of the synagogues that were, but also fascinating and stimulating studies that transform the dry details of construction into a gripping description of the past.”


Jüdisches Kulturgut: Erkennen-Bewahren-Vermitteln has a somewhat different focus.

Otto Lohr, the director of non-state Jewish museums in Bavaria, discusses and documents what has happened to the synagogues in Bavaria that survived World War II — including their restoration and transformation into museums and culture centers as well as their restoration for use as active places of worship. He discusses nearly a score of synagogues.

In separate chapters, Bernhard Purin, the director of the Jewish Museum in Munich, and other contributors provide chapters on the fate of ritual objects and other Judaica in southern Germany.








2 comments on “Significant new books on synagogue architecture, art, restoration

  1. Please include TRACES OF A LOST NATION; THE HERITAGE OF JEWISH VILKAVISKIS in your next section on recent books. Published in 2016, it was a collaborative work from museum professionals in Lithuanian as well as local historians and descendants from Vilkaviskis.

    Some time ago, I sent you a review of the book which highlighted it’s importance to the field.

    Phil Rosen, Ph.D. Wayne State U. (History)

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