After following the project from afar for several years, Jewish Heritage Europe’s Coordinator Ruth Ellen Gruber finally got a chance to visit the “living shtetl skansen” being built in Biłgoraj, Poland, and the full-scale replica of the destroyed wooden synagogue of Wolpa (now in Belarus) which anchors the cultural-commercial development in a town that was a thriving Jewish center before the Holocaust but a place where no Jews live today.
Conceived by local entrepreneur Tadeusz Kuźmiński, who is financing the project along with other investors (application for EU funds was rejected), the project is a modern housing estate constructed to look like an open air shtetl museum.
Overseen by the Biłgoraj XXI Foundation, the goal is to recreate a typical village of the region — a “City on the Trail of Borderland Cultures” — as a cultural and commercial venue, and also a tourist attraction, that will include museums and the replicated synagogue as well as apartments, shops, restaurants, hotel accommodation, and sports facilities. In addition to the Jewish section, Kuźmiński said there will be replicas of Orthodox and Catholics wooden churches and a wooden mosque (such as the one or two still in use by the descendants of Tatars in eastern Poland) on the 40 hectare area. Nearly 2 million zloties in funding was allocated by the Regional Operational Programme of the Lubelskie Province.
Kuźmiński guided Gruber and three colleagues from the Shtetl Routes project and Grodzka Gate NN Theatre in Lublin, around the buildings — each one, he said, was a replica, based on old photographs, of a house that was found in one of several pre-war shtetls, arranged around a square with the replica synagogue in the middle, much the way buildings from various towns are arranged in skansens, or outdoor ethnographic or architectural museums. (A replicated village marketplace exists at the open-air ethnographic museum in Sanok, southeastern Poland.)
The synagogue is fully constructed of wood, but the houses meet fire and other legal safety standards and are constructed out of brick with stone facing. The interiors are modern.
To date, three sides of the square surrounding the synagogue have been mainly completed, or, Kuźmiński said, about 20 percent of the planned development. He said 16 apartments were already occupied, but much of the area is a building site.
One building on the square houses a small museum/exhibition space dedicated to the Nobel Prize-winning Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer, who spent his childhood in Bilgoraj — it currently displays a temporary exhibit on Rabbis in Poland that was curated and first shown at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.
The synagogue will house a Jewish museum. The interior of the building has not yet been completed but there are detailed plans for its decoration — the plans are currently on display there. These include a reconstruction of the elaborate Ark and the Bimah, for which there is photographic documentation.
There is no photographic documentation of the polychrome decoration that once covered the walls and interior of the ceiling. But plans for the building call for the interior to be decorated with ornate new polychromes that do not reproduce what was found in individual synagogues (such as the painted decoration in the replica of the Gwoździec synagogue now in the POLIN museum in Warsaw). Instead, they will be new paintings based on and drawn from the traditional motifs and images found in other synagogues. Kuźmiński said the designs were drawn up in consultation with a curator at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.
Biłgoraj also has one surviving Jewish cemetery. Only a small part of its original territory remains, with several dozen gravestones, almost all of which were toppled in the past and lie flat. There are also mass graves for the victims of WW2 Nazi executions carried out at the site.
Fenced, and with a gate, it has a lapidary-memorial erected in the mid-1980s as well as a newer memorial outside the gate.