Efforts are developing to mount a campaign to restore the Great Synagogue in Ashmiany, (Oshmyany) Belarus — a brick and wood structure whose architectural features, particularly the wooden roof and painted interior cupola, recall the elaborate wooden synagogues that were destroyed in World War II.
The synagogue, believed originally built in the mid-19th century and then rebuilt in 1902, is largely intact, but is very dilapidated and has suffered serious damage to the roof.
Dr. Magdalena Waligorska, one of the project leaders, said the first goal would be to raise an initial €15,000, which would enable the Ashmiany Ethnographic Museum, which owns the synagogue, “to open the women’s section to the public and hold lecture/workshops there–giving the whole synagogue more visibility and helping the people of Ashmiany embrace it as their own local heritage.”
The campaign is being developed by a coalition of individuals and organizations, spearheaded by young scholars from nine countries who took part in 2016 and 2017 in a summer school program called “Difficult Heritage and Memory in the Making” led by Waligorska, Assistant Professor for Eastern European History and Culture at the University of Bremen.
“I just can’t stop thinking about this synagogue, because, every time it rains, the water comes down right through the roof on these wonderful polychromies,” Waligorska told JHE.
Others involved include Vladimir Levin, the director of the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem; the London-based Foundation for Jewish Heritage; the Ethnographic Museum of Ashmiany — which owns the building; and ICOMOS (the International Committee for the Conservation of Monuments and Sites) Belarus.
A statement of the project said:
Banned from building structures that would overshadow the churches, Jews of eastern Europe found a way of creating an awe-inspiring sacral space on the inside of the synagogue: by hiding massive internal domes inside the roof structure. With its unique wooden roof ornamentations [lion on the gable], painted internal dome and frescoes of Zodiac signs on the walls, the synagogue in Ashmiany is the last survivor of this lost architectural tradition.
Ashmiany was once 50 percent Jewish. Under the Nazi occupation, Jews from the Ashmiany ghetto were herded into the synagogue before deportation. After the war, it served as a warehouse.
According to the news site Ashmiansky Vesnik, ICOMOS experts from Lithuania and Belarus met recently at the synagogue with the public to discuss restoration concepts for the building — and for its future use.
Architectural drawings of the synagogue were made in 1929 and are still available.
Waligorska told JHE that ICOMOS has already made a detailed plan of renovation with a preliminary budget, and that the city is interested in having the synagogue renovated and used by the museum.
This architectural gem can only survive when it becomes a living place again. For this to happen, the people of Ashmiany need to recognize the synagogue as part of their local heritage. This process has already begun. A pilot project of ICOMOS Belarus seeks to embed the building of the synagogue into the local community, by making it accessible and usable for educational programmes. The local museum has extended its permanent exhibition to include, for the first time, the Jewish heritage of Ashmiany. The synagogue courtyard has been used for a local theatre production.