Thursday, May 28, 2015

Poland: New Jewish Cemetery Monument at Police School in Pila

Pila, Poland (formerly Schneidemühl, Germany). New monument on Jewish cemetery. Photo courtesy Alicja Kobus

Poland: New Jewish Cemetery Monument at Police School in Pila to be Unveiled June 2, 2015
by Samuel D. Gruber

(n.b. some information is adapted from a text in Polish by Anna Fons) 

(ISJM) Summer is the time for new monuments in Central and Eastern Europe. I recently reported on the vandalism of new Jewish cemetery monument in Poland. Here is a new monument which will soon be unveiled next week. It is doubtful it will be harmed - as it is on the grounds of the Pila Police School.

Next week a new monument will be unveiled  on the site of the Jewish cemetery in Pila (near Poznan), Poland, which is now occupied by the local Police School. The school occupies part (or all?) the Jewish cemetery which was probably founded in the early 17th century and was completely devastated by the Nazis in 1939. It subsequently used as a park, and then as the site for a kindergarten and the gymnasium of the Police School.  All visible components of the cemetery, with the exception of a fragment of brick cemetery wall (in the courtyard of the house at ul. Konopnickiej 5 and Wiązów alley) were removed by the end of World War II and by the 1970s and 80s structures had been erected on the site. Basketball courts and a parking lot were also on the area. Presumably, however, many of the burials remain intact and undisturbed, and this remains a cemetery despite its subsequent use and present appearance.
Art Nouveau metalwork at Jewish cemetery of Schneidemühl (Pila) before its destruction in 1939. Photo from Shetlinks.

More photos of the cemetery before its destruction courtesy of M. Cohen can be seen here.

Before 1945 Pila, was Schneidemühl, Germany and was home to a Jewish community from the 17th century. Until now, there have been no visible remains of that community or  markers commemorating their passing. Peter Cullman has documented the history and fate of the town's jews in his book  History of the Jewish Community of Schneidemühl: 1641 to the Holocaust. A burial register of the community, based on a booklet by Martin Rosenberg, head of Schneidemühl's Chevra Kadisha and safely taken to Chile in 1940, can be found at the Leo Baeck Institute, NY.  No doubt, the remains of many of the individuals listed in the register are still buried beneath the school grounds.
One can also read about the community on the page of the International Jewish Cemetery Project, which includes information form the first site survey in 1991 by the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, when the site of the cemetery was identified. 

Before new work began to remake and expand the sports facilities, Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich and Alicja Kobus, Vice-President of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland and the President of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poznan Branch, visited the school and met with officials. Following additional consultation with the Committee of Protection of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, the Pilska Police Academy eventually received approval to carry out their planned expansion but with provisions to protect and commemorate the cemetery.

A new granite monument shaped like the Star of David has been installed on the school premises (reached from the Konopnickiej street) has been inaugurated.  It was designed by Professor Janusz Marciniak from the University of Arts in Poznan, working with Eng. Arch. Eugene Skrzypczak from the same university.  Marciniak said  "I tried to make the monument simple and minimalist in form, and at the same time full of content. The granite's color is reminiscent of human ashes. The disc was mounted on a steel frame to create the impression that the star floats above the ground. The monument is an open book, which invites you to read. The top of the star was slightly raised  - according to tradition - facing east (towards Jerusalem). On its smooth surface, like a mirror, is reflected the sky and trees. Under the star is a concrete replica of its shadow. This is the basis of the monument and at the same time symbolic seal the memory of the people buried in this place and to emphasize the permanence of this memory."

On the monument is an inscription telling the religious and historical character of the site with the message "As we remember, that will be remembered." Sponsors of the monument are the Police School in Pila and the Pila City Council.

There was once another Jewish monument in Pila. According to Peter Cullman,"an impressive monument, dedicated to the Russian-Jewish soldiers of the First World War, was erected in the post-war years by the Jewish community of Schneidemühl. Alas, as early as 1934, in an orgy of anti-Semitic hatred, Schneidemühl’s own Nazis saw to its destruction."  Apparently the monument was built (according to the International Jewish Cemetery Project) "with massive, rectangular columns crowned by a Magen David. Most gravestones were identical, displaying a Magen David. The gravestones from this cemetery were used to shore up the river banks. Only three gravestones remained including two restored in the 1990s, but later destroyed by local vandals. The place where the monument stood is still clearly visible."  

The unveiling of the monument is scheduled for June 2, 2015 (next Tuesday) at. 10.00 a.m. The ceremony will begin in the auditorium of the School Police with a lecture by Prof. Marysia Galbraith of the University of Alabama. Then, at about 10.30 the participants will head to the monument  for the unveiling of the monument, with the (usual) speeches, and a recitation of Kaddish. The ceremony will be attended by representatives of various  religious groups, institutions, organizations, uniformed services and county authorities and municipalities, the media and citizens. 

For further information contact the Section Head of School Executive Deputy Inspector of Police in Pila. Dorothy Witkowska, Tel. 67 352 21 60, tel. Kom. 695 820 161, e-mail:

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Poland: Rajgród Holocaust Monument Vandalized

Poland: Rajgród Holocaust Monument Vandalized 
by Samuel D. Gruber (ISJM) 

Last September I wrote about an attractive new monument erected on the site of the Jewish cemetery of Rajgród, in northeastern Poland, which is now overgrown with forest. I wrote:"In July 1941 the Germans established a ghetto for all local Jews. During this period approximately 100 Jews were murdered in Rajgród. The ghetto was liquidated in 1942, the remaining Jews were sent first to Grajewo, than to the Bogusz transit camp and then later to their deaths at Treblinka. There were no survivors." 

The dedication of the monument was a significant event in the Jewish history of the region. The monument, designed by noted Israeli sculptor Chen Winkler was made in Israel and shipped to Poland. Sadly, the monument was recently vandalized. The damage was discovered about a month ago and since then an investigation has been ongoing. The marble Star of David, an important component of the piece, has been smashed to pieces. Because the monument is located in an area that is under the authority of the Polish National Forest Authority it is not technically the responsibility of the local municipality (Rajgród). So far, the attacker is not known. Presumably, because the perpetrator smashed the stone some heavy equipment - at least a sledge hammer - was used in the attack. Therefore, it seems to have been premeditated. 

The local forest authority, which reports to officers in Bialystok, has informed sponsors of the monument that in the future increased security measures will be put in place. Local authorities have apparently apologized and expressed concern personally to the monument sponsors but to my knowledge no formal written statement has been released. Meanwhile, a local construction company has volunteered to fix the damaged monument. It cannot be made as good as new, but the cracks of repair in the once monolithic stone will now be part of the complicated and sad narrative of the local Jewish (and anti-Jewish) history of the area. 

In a statement to ISJM, FODZ Director Monika Krawczyk wrote "We were deeply saddened and concerned to hear that one of the most beautiful monuments relating to the Jewish heritage in Poland, which was recently installed to commemorate the Jewish community of Rajgrod, was destroyed. This destruction demonstrates an utter and ugly attack on Holocaust victims and their families, who took tremendous care and effort to finance this beautiful piece of art. The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland – FODZ (established by the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland and the World Jewish Restitution Organization), which assisted in the erection of the monument, calls upon the Polish authorities to take determined steps to find the perpetrators and to protect this and other such monuments in Poland." 

There are obvious lessons to be learned from this destruction. First and foremost, commemoration of the Holocaust is not a passive or neutral event but an active present engagement of often raw and violent attitudes and emotions. Monuments are but one step on the road of commemoration. Education and engagement are ingredients in public confrontation and reconciliation with unpleasant truths about the past. As part of this process an event was already planned in Rajgród for this May 28th, when American Karen Kaplan, daughter of Holocaust survivor Arie Kaplan, and author of Descendants of Rajgrod - Learning To Forgive will be presenting the book to the town's mayor. The violence against the monument makes Ms. Kaplan's visit and book all the more meaningful. 

There are other more practical lessons to be learned. All public art, and especially isolated monuments - of any sort - are always at risk, for many reasons. Drunken football fans recently damaged Rome's Barcaccia Fountain, and even artworks in well guarded museums have been defaced and even slashed. Teenagers regularly are known to topple cemetery gravestones, and countless statues in public parks across the world now stand handless and headless. Bronze plaques and even entire statues are sometimes ripped from their settings to be sold as scrap metal by those in need of quick cash. Still, while we don't yet know the motive of the Rajgrod vandal, this seems more than youthful hijinks and a crime for gain. The violence in Rajgrod - a literal smashing attack on the symbol of Jewish resilience - is a challenge to historic truth, collective memory and continuing efforts at Jewish-Polish reconciliation. It is a special shame that such a beautifully carved and imported monument was attacked. Perhaps it was too tempting. 

Sadly, for this reason and not aesthetics, many projects in which I have been engaged or have observed have settled for nearly indestructible boulders or big blocks of stone with incised lettering. But even these get attacked - though more often with paint than with hammers. We are in period where the destruction of art, monuments and historic sites for religious and ideological purpose is on the upsurge. The destruction of museums and historic sites in Iraq and Syria by ISIS is the worst instance of cultural destruction since the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, though the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage in the Holocaust was still much worse. ISIS's ravages are certainly the worst case of religious inspired iconoclasm since the French Revolution. 

But violence against Jewish sites, especially cemeteries and Holocaust memorials, has been a ongoing problem for a long time. State sanctioned destruction of Jewish heritage sites ended with the fall of Communism but individual acts of violence that cannot by attributed to youthful high spirits regularly occur. These are deliberate - though cowardly - political acts of anti-Semitic defiance. No amount of security will stop these attacks altogether and given the number in Europe of Jewish cemetery repairs and restoration and of new Holocaust memorials, the actual number of acts of vandalism is small, but still terribly painful. For example, the Rajgród monuments was just one of seven similar projects in which the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ) was engaged in 2014. 

Still, such acts cannot be ignored. In the case of Rajgród, and also in the recently vandalized cemetery of Gyöngyös, Hungary, these acts of violence become opportunities for governments and law enforcement to step forward to investigate and prosecute these crimes, and also to quickly repair the damage; but also opportunities for Jews and local communities to work together collaboratively through action and education to ensure that these acts are not supported and will not be representative of most people. At Gyöngyös, the vandalism led directly to a community-wide clean-up the overgrown cemetery.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Look at the High Front Dome in Synagogue Architecture

New York, NY. Temple Beth El. Brunner & Tryon, archs. (1891). Demolished 1947.

New York, NY. Temple Beth El. Brunner & Tryon, archs. (1891). Demolished 1947.

A Look at the High Facade Dome in Synagogue Architecture
by Samuel D. Gruber

When I recently gave a lecture at the center for Jewish History on the synagogues of New York I showed in passing an image of the former Temple Beth El, designed by Brunner & Tryon and built in 1891 on Fifth Avenue at 76th Street. The impressive building, described in the New York Times at the time of its opening as ""magnificently decorated," was demolished in 1947.  After the lecture, I was asked "what was that big thing on the front of the building?" That "thing" seems strange to use today because most of the 19th and early 20th century examples of this synagogue element have been destroyed. 

In the words of architectural historian Rachel Wischnitzer, that element at Beth El  was a "large, hipped, axial dome, tied to the front part of the basilican structure and covered with a ribbed and patterned, gilded decoration." The feature joined two disparate forms from the well-known contemporary architectural language. Thus, what was essentially a tall French Empire Mansard-style dome was given orientalizing (or Moorish) decoration recalling in its patterned ribbing  the Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue of Berlin. By 1891 the once strange Oriental or Moorish style was now fully accepted and widely understood as a "Jewish" style - whatever its origins.

Berlin, Germany. Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue. Eduard Knoblach, arch. (1859-66).

This facade dome seems strange to us today, but a hundred years ago, beginning with the attention paid to the Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue in Berlin, it was one of many familiar branding devices used by synagogue architects.  Though sometimes domed facades could be found on secular buildings, this form was rarely used for churches, which might have a central facade tower as in the tradition of Christopher Wren, but never a tower with a dome.  So this striking form can almost be called a synagogue device.

Jelgava, Latvia. Great Synagogue. 1860?

I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of the predecessors of Beth El, and how the form continues into the early 20th century. 

The tall hipped dome, often called a French Dome, was first used in synagogue architecture by the Italian architect and engineer Alessandro Antonelli for the synagogue of Torino (Turin), Italy, which came to be known as the Mole Antonelliana, begun in 1863 and finished only in 1889.  Though started as a synagogue, the Torino Jewish Community sold the building  to the city in 1876 as height and costs soared. The community had previously halted construction and built a proprietary tall hipped  roof, a version of which was incorporated into finished building. Brunner had traveled widely in Germany and was familiar with publications about synagogues, so he certainly was familiar with the Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue. He would have known - at least form pictures - the Mole Antonelliana, too. 

Torino, Italy. Mole Antonelliana. Photo by Giacomo Brogi (1822-1881)

Torino, Italy. Mole Antonelliana.

There were, however, two more immediate sources for the Beth El dome, one in New York and one in Chicago, and both designed by Jewish architects.  New York architect Henry Fernbach, for whom Arnold Brunner had worked while still a teenager, designed the new Shaaray Tefilah Synagogue on West 44th Street, which opened in 1869. At that time Shaaray Tefila was nominally Orthodox, though during the next decade the congregation modified its service and identified more with the nascent Reform Movement. This was almost certainly Brunner's own congregation. His grandfather Barnet Solomon was president of the congregation when the new synagogue was built, and presumably this is where young Arnold would have received his religious training and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in 1870. In many ways Brunner's Beth El recalls Fernbach's design, especially in the disposition of the facade and the placement of a large dome over the central entrance. This dome was multi-partite and seems to have been decorated with stars on its outer shell.

New York, NY. Congregation Shaaray Tefila, 127 West 44th Street. Henry Fernbach, arch. (1869). Photo: Moses King, King’s Handbook to New York. Boston: Moses King, 1893 (2nd edition), 403.

New York, NY. Shaaray Tefila, 127 West 44th Street. Henry Fernbach, architect (1868-69). Illustration from Simon Cohen, Shaaray Tefila: A History of its Hundred Years reproduced in Stern et al New York 1880, p. 328

 Chicago, IL. Sinai Temple, Adler and Burling, 1875-76. Photo from: Faith  and Form, p39

A few years later in Chicago, one of the first distinctive synagogues in the city,  Sinai Temple, was designed by Dankmar Adler and Edward Burling. The congregation held a competition and Adler and Burling won over four other architectural firms. Adler's Jewish credentials may have helped win the commission, which he executed with the help of John H. Edelmann, possibly assisted by young Louis  Sullivan.  The interior stenciled wall decoration is said to have been developed by Sullivan.Typically throughout his career Adler was most interested in structural, engineering, material and acoustic problems and left much of the decoration of this buildings to others. Sinai Temple was built in 1875 at the corner of Indiana Avenue and 21stStreet, as part of the post-fire rebuilding of the city.  the new structure combined mostly Romanesque detailing with distinctive French Second Empire elements, most notably a projecting central façade pavilion topped by a tall square dome surmounted by a hipped Mansard roof flanked by lower towers with similar domes. Adler was an engineer and he design is probably tied directly to the example in Torino, a program like the Eiffel Tower, much watched in the engineering profession. For more on Adler see my earlier post here.

The experience of Fernbach's Shaarey Tefila combined with Adler's innovative dome surely inspired Brunner. In 1884, Adler & Sullivan designed side galleries for the auditorium and in 1891 the firm totally remodeled the and expanded the building, so that little of the original interior remained, but the distinctive facade dome remained.
Chicago, Illinois. Zion Temple, original design. Dankmar Adler, arch. (1884). Illustrated in Gregersen, Dankmar Adler (1990), fig 41.
In the early 1880s Adler & Sullivan designed Chicago's Zion Temple dedicated on September 5, 1885. This original design drew more directly form the Mole Antonelliana, since tall towers were affixed to the top not one, but two, towers with hipped Mansard domes.  In the end, however, the towers were not built. The congregation probably did not want the type to bear the extra cost and suffer as did the Italian congregation. Adler scholar Charles E. Gregerson writes "Although the original design of the front with its twin onion-domed towers would have made the building somewhat monumental, the omission of these features in the completed building gave it a stumpy appearance that Sullivan's crude Moorish-inspired details only accentuated." [Charles E. Gregerson,  Dankmar Adler: His Theaters and Auditoriums, with a biography of Dankmar Adler prepared in collaboration with Joan W. Saltzstein.  (Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1990), p 62-3].

  Port Gibson, Mississippi. Synagogue. Photo: David Abramson.
A variation on the theme can be seen in the lovely little Moorish style Temple Gemiluth Chassed, designed by architects Bartlett & Budemeyer, and built in Port Gibson, Mississippi, built in 1891-92, almost exactly contemporary with Brunner's Temple Beth El.

In the early 20th century there were many examples and variations of the central square facade dome in European synagogues.  All the European synagogues of this type have not all been identified, but a quick survey (in my image collection) shows examples from Poland (Czestochowa, 1899-1909), Germany (Osnabrück, 1906) and Russia (Samara, 1908).
This may be an unusual case of reverse influence, with the impetus for the square facade domes coming from America. But there were already centrally placed domes on square towers in Europe, too, such as that on the Tlomackie Street Synagogue in Warsaw, built by Italian architect Leandro Marconi, in 1874-1878.

Warsaw, Poland. Tlomackie Street Synagogue, Leandro Marconi, arch. (1874-1878).

Czestochowa, Poland. Former synagogue, built 1899-1909, destroyed 1939.
Osnabrück, Germany. Synagogue, built 1906, at 3-5 Rolandstrasse (present day Alte Synagogenstrasse, before Kristallnacht. Photo:

Samara, Russia. Great Synagogue, 1908. Photo: Historic postcard illustrated in V, Likhodedov, Synagogues, p78. for a recent digital reconstruction of the synagogue see:

If you know of other examples of similar synagogues with facade domes, please let me know. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

USA: Winter Can't Stop Preparations for Burlington, Vermont Mural Move

Preparations in the summer and  fall were made to protect the mural and ready it for the move to Ohavi Zedek Synagogue.

Despite snow and ice, work proceeded with the construction of the protect work shed.

USA: Winter Can't Stop Preparations for Burlington, Vermont Mural Move
by Samuel D. Gruber 

All photos courtesy of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. You can follow the Lost Shul Mural on Facebook at and 

(ISJM) It has been a cold and snowy winter in Burlington, Vermont (but that is hardly unexpected). It has not stopped the conservation and engineering team of the Lost Shul Mural Project of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue from working hard in preparation for the move of the mural when the weather warms. A lot has happened with the project since I last reported at length on this blog in 2013. You can read more about the history, art and planning of the proejct at

Conservator Connie Silver protects the edges of the mural in preparation for the move.

Last spring consolidation and cleaning of the 1910 synagogue mural took place and funds were successfully raised for the move. Careful conservation and technical planning really began in May 2014 and continued through the fall ,as the team confronted the details of the unprecedented task and developed methods to cope with every conceivable problem that might arise. the team of conservators widened, and all of the architects, engineers and construction contractors became fully engaged and focused. 

In this third  and most difficult (and expensive) phase the project, beginning last October,  there have been four main inter-related activities:

First, the mural itself needed to be protected so that the painstakingly conserved paint surface suffers no damage during the construction work and removal of part of the roof, and then during the full cutting, lifting and moving of the roof section upon which the mural is painted.

Conservator and carpenter work on the removal of the damaged inscription panel at the bottom of the mural. 

Second, the outer roof had to be removed to inspect and reinforce from behind the lathe and plaster upon which the mural is painted. To do this, however, required the construction of a temporary work shed that encloses the entire apse of the former synagogue and the area of investigation and removal. While the shed was still going up the conservation team managed to have a few slates removed for an early peak inside - with the help of a "Go-Pro" mini-video cameras. But then, the entire work shed needed to be carefully attached to the main building while maintaining weather-tight connections, and then topped off and secured.

Videographer, Paul Gittlesohn, feeds a "Go-Pro" mini-video camera inside one of the mural walls, while art conservator Connie Silver, watches the video feed to evaluate the condition of the mural plaster.
Conservator Connie Silver discusses plaster reinforcement strategies with experts Norman R. Weiss and Irving Slavid from MCC Materials, Inc.

Adding the roof trusses (by crane) to the temporary work shed.
The completed shed, entirely enclosing the apse and apse roof.

The completed shed, entirely enclosing the apse and apse roof.  The shed leaves plenty of room for the conservators and engineers to do their work - all in the dead of winter.

Third, the slate shingles of the roof had to be meticulously removed to avoid breakage. The nails attaching the shingles to the roof had to be sawn by hand. Each slate was then carefully marked so they could be reinstalled when the entire process is over.  Only then, when the back of the mural plaster and lathe was reveal could the stability of the plaster be tested and then reinforced.
 Proper precaution against lead are taken in the disassembling phase.

Earlier this week the back of the plaster is finally revealed this setting the stage for treatment which will happen later this month.

Each slate shingle was carefully labeled after removal.
Fourth, while all this has been going, preparations have been in progress at Ohev Shalom Synagogue, where to where the mural will be moved. This month structural supports are being inserted in the ceiling and wall of the vestibule  where the mural will eventually hang.

Preparing the insertion of steel supports in the wall and steel cables from the ceiling of the vestibule are where the mural will eventually hang. 

Since the project got into gear in alt 2013 over $300,000 has been raised, allowing for a meticulously planned project for the unprecedented move of the mural and the roof to which it is attached. The Project will continue to raise funds to pay for the move and the installation and then the necessary in situ final conservation and restoration. The fourth phase of the project will be the development of educational programming and and exhibition materials.  

Donations are accepted for the project via the website and major sponsors still need to be identified and their support will be very welcome and gratefully acknowledged.