Attitudes toward Jewish built heritage in today’s Poland have gone through dramatic changes since the end of World War II. Most synagogues had been desecrated, destroyed, or left in ruins. And both during and after the war, most Jewish cemeteries were desecrated; many were built over, and many had their gravestones uprooted and used for construction. It wasn’t until decades later that the importance of Jewish heritage sites began to be recognized. In this essay, Piotr Puchta, the CEO of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ) reflects both on changed attitudes and changed situations due to restitution – and on the necessity to change policy to further involve broader society in the longterm process of saving and preserving former synagogues.
On the permanent preservation of synagogues in Poland: the need for synergies and strategic thinking
By Piotr Puchta
March 3, 2023
After the end of World War II, the dominant view among broad groups of the Polish population was that Jewish heritage sites were “abandoned property” and therefore without an owner. This view was still largely prevalent in the late 1990s. Then, in 1997, the Act on the Relationship of the State to Jewish Religious Communities in Poland opened the possibility of applying for the return to Jewish ownership of Jewish heritage sites including synagogues and Jewish cemeteries that before the Holocaust were property of Jewish religious communities.
The 1997 Act was welcomed enthusiastically by Jewish communities, both in Poland and abroad.
The return of former synagogues to the ownership of individual Jewish religious communities or the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ) – which operates in geographic areas where there is no current Jewish community – was accompanied by events that sometimes included symbolic, one-off ceremonies in former synagogues that were to be recovered by the Jewish side.
There was a widespread perception that once former synagogues were restituted, these historic sites would find adequate protection that would allow them to be preserved for future generations.
This, alas, did not turn out to be the case. But, looking back from more than 25 years later, the excitement sparked by restitution was understandable.
Unfortunately, the excitement was not accompanied by in-depth analysis, and no comprehensive strategy for the preservation of either synagogues or Jewish cemeteries in Poland was developed.
Indeed, no strategic program to preserve these historical sites for future generations has either been sufficiently discussed or generally accepted. Meanwhile, many restituted buildings remain empty, falling further into disrepair, with no funds to restore them and no possibility of use by their Jewish owners.
Over the past quarter of a century, however, there has been a gradual acceptance of the belief that “Jewish cultural heritage is an integral part of the common cultural heritage of Poland, and therefore requires shared responsibility and joint action to preserve it.”
Many understand that by protecting Jewish heritage sites collective memory is also protected, and that a deeper understanding of the richness of Jewish culture and heritage also allows a deeper understanding of the importance of intercultural contacts.
As a natural outgrowth of this new attitude – and given today’s financial and demographic realities, the preservation of Jewish heritage must involve broader Polish society – and not just the Jewish world.
Going forward it will be essential to promote and develop synergies between the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland and individual Jewish religious communities, and central authorities in Warsaw, local authorities, NGOs and other civil society institutions, individual activists and volunteers, schools, academic institutions, museums, and international partners and actors.
How to foster such synergies is still unclear; the situation (to say the least) is currently ambiguous.
I believe that the involvement of local authorities will be essential in the proper and long-term protection of synagogues located on their territory.
But what should this entail; what forms can such involvement take? And what are Jewish attitudes to such cooperation, that is, the attitudes of both the Jewish owners and Jewish organizations?
There is currently no uniform approach. Some local authorities and NGOs are already involved in the preservation of some former synagogues and other objects of material Jewish heritage. Others, though, are not ready to engage in any way or form. Some state pointblank that, given Jewish ownership of the buildings, there is no legal basis for their involvement.
Based on my experience as CEO of FODZ over the past four years, I can state unequivocally that the involvement of local authorities and local communities is not only important but also irreplaceable.
To move forward, we must develop solutions that on the one hand will allow ownership of synagogues by the Jewish side to be preserved, but that, on the other hand, will make these buildings available, in a broad perspective, for the needs of local communities.
Such solutions must serve to protect synagogue buildings from gradually falling into ruin or being transformed to perform functions that would violate the memory of their original purpose.
But at the same time they must ensure that their their future civic users – who will provide lasting upkeep and preservation – will be protected from unjustified loss of the right of use in the long term.
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Piotr Puchta, a former senior Polish diplomat, has been the CEO of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ) since 2019.