An important new resource on European synagogues is now online. It’s a web site — historicsynagogueseurope.org — that includes an interactive survey map of more than 3,000 synagogues in 48 countries, with information on their age, type, style, current condition, and present usage. It also rates them according to their historic significance and to the risks and threats they face.
The survey map is a project of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage — a new body established to raise awareness of Jewish heritage and to promote and raise funds for restoration and preservation. The Foundation commissioned the Center for Jewish Art at Hebrew University in Jerusalem to carry it out.
“Prior to World War Two there were some 17,000 synagogues in Europe,” Michael Mail, founder and Chief Executive of the Foundation, said ahead of the high profile event February 7 at Britain’s Parliament held to launch the project. Speakers on the program included the historian Simon Schama, and the Foundation reported support from a number of prominent personalities.
“Of the 3,318 now left, less than one quarter are functioning synagogues,” Mail said. “The rest are either abandoned, in ruins, or turned into buildings for other purposes. While other religious buildings have suffered during the 20th Century, with many of these synagogues it was the catastrophic loss of their communities of users during the war which makes the challenge of preserving Jewish cultural heritage so much harder.”
He described the project as a “call to action.”
This is not just Jewish heritage, it is Europe’s cultural and historical heritage and we are in a race against time to save it. This inventory will allow us to focus our efforts on the most important sites at risk, starting conversations with local stake-holders and interested parties, encouraging them to address the problem and to work with us to find solutions which will preserve the sites.
The survey and map were prepared by Center for Jewish Art scholars Sergey R. Kravtsov and Vladimir Levin, the Center’s acting director.
A key goal, beside production of a tool for managing the preservation process, was to expand the Center’s Index of Jewish Art, which was fully digitalized and went online last year and is not limited to the synagogue architecture. Each entry on the synagogue map and database, Kravtsov told JHE, “has a link to the parent entry in the Index of Jewish Art, which includes not only more information, but also links to all the media related to the given synagogue.”
It took a year and a half to put together the survey and map — but drew on decades of prior research and cataloguing. About one-third of the 3318 synagogues that appear in the project had already been documented by the CJA during their research missions to countries all over Europe.
Other than that, Kravtsov told JHE:
The source material primarily was the literature in the field, from monographs on particular countries’ Jewish heritage and monuments, to guide books. In many cases, Internet sources have been used to obtain the updates on the latest developments on the sites. Google Maps was used in all the cases to accurately locate the synagogue, Google Street View was often used to see the present condition and environment of the building. The primary sources are explicated in the bibliographical note to every entry.
The methodology of establishing the risk to which a synagogue is exposed, he said, was “based on a study of the actual physical condition of the building and its actual use.”
With its launch, the Foundation has focused attention on two derelict synagogues in particular, which we have written about on JHE: the 17th century Great Synagogue in Slonim, Belarus, and the 19th century former synagogue in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales.
Feasibility studies are planned or under way in both places, with a structural survey commissioned in Slonim.
According to the World Monument Fund, which already more than two decades ago put the Slonim synagogue on its Watch List of 10 Jewish heritage preservation priorities and which funded restoration work on the building in the early 2000s, “the baroque structure that has overlooked the Slonim city marketplace since 1642 remains the best preserved synagogue in Belarus, despite decades of neglect and vandalism.”
The building, with its dramatic gabled roof and imposing exterior, features an impressive group of paintings and carvings, including a collection of murals depicting musical instruments, scrollwork, and biblical scenes. Though built for the city’s once-sizeable Jewish community, in recent years Slonim has undergone substantial deterioration, largely as a result of the decimation of the local population during World War II and subsequent disuse of the synagogue. The building was used as a warehouse and was subject to vandalism, resulting in serious structural problems. When WMF began work at the site, the building’s roof had partially collapsed and its walls were structurally unstable.
There have been recent calls to create a Jewish museum in Wales, and — perhaps — to house it in the derelict Old Synagogue in Merthyr Tydfil — the oldest synagogue building in Wales, and a Grade II listed building.
The synagogue, a neo-Gothic style style building constructed in the 1870s, has not been used as a synagogue since the 1980s and now stands empty, with a bare, deteriorating interior. Already in 2009 planning permission had been granted to convert it into flats.