Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Poland: Tykocin Synagogue One of Seven “New Wonders” of Poland

Tykocin, Poland. Synagogue, Photo: Samuel Gruber 1993.

Tykocin, Poland.  Synagogue interior from before 1939.  Photo from Loukomski, Jewish Art in European Synagogues, 1947, p 102 

 Tykocin, Poland. Synagogue as a tourist destination.   Photo:K. Bielawski (Virtual Shtetl)

Poland: Tykocin Synagogue One of Seven “New Wonders” of Poland
by Samuel D. Gruber

Virtual Shtetl and Jewish Heritage Europe report (via that the historic 17th-century synagogue of Tykocin, Poland has been voted one of the “new  seven wonders” of Poland, in the third edition of a readers’ contest sponsored by the Polish edition of National Geographic Traveller magazine.

Click here for a gallery of photos of the synagogue.

Tykocin, Poland. Synagogue.  Decorated Ark.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 1990.

Tykocin, Poland. Synagogue.  Decorated Ark (the ark now is provided with a parochet (curtain), but still not steps).   Photo:K. Bielawski (Virtual Shtetl)

I remember vividly when I first visited the synagogue in 1990.  After traveling for many days across the Polish countryside looking at ruined synagogues, it was a revelation to visit Tykocin, where the building was reasonably well restored, and promoted as a tourist and educational site.  It made clear at that time "the art of the possible," that Poland already had most of the tools in place to protect, preserve and present other similarly important Jewish sites.   All that was lacking was better interpretive material about Jews, Judaism and Jewish history, all of which has since been developed as foreign and Polish scholars and students have delved deeply into rediscovering and interpreting the Jewish past. This year, much of that work comes to a head in the opening of the new Museum of  the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.  But a beautiful modern museum with high-tech installations needs to connect to some authenticity of place - and visits to monuments like Tykocin (and Zamosc and many others places) are perfect complements to musuem visits.

Tykocin, Poland. Synagogue, Tykocin was the first sunagogue to have its wall inscriptions preserved.  Others (Krakow's Izaak synagogue; Pinczow synagogue) have followed. Photo: Samuel Gruber 1993.

The Tykocin  synagogue was among the very first Jewish sites restored in Poland.  The work of the 1970s and '80s pre-dates the fall of Communism, and set a high standard for subsequent Jewish heritage preservation work that began in the 1990s and continues today.  The synagogue is part of the district museum in Bialystok and houses a permanent exhibition of Judaica and the place of the synagogue in the town, but it is the impressive architecture of the building and the many restored inscription painted on the massive walls that are the real attraction of the site.   The ark is surrounded by painted carving and the inner walls and central four-pillar bimah bear paintings of prayers, texts and other decorative elements.

The Tykocin synagogue is an excellent example of an important synagogue type that appears in Poland in the late sixteenth century and is;
"defined by its square or almost square plan and the presence of a large central bimah, surrounded by four corner columns or piers that rise to the ceiling vault, which they help support.  Known to scholars as the “bimah-support synagogue,” or the “nine-bay plan, this type allowed for wider roof spans and larger uninterrupted interior spaces, to better accommodate large crowds. The size of the space, and the attention given to the reader’s platform, created a new dramatic effect. The first such synagogue may have been the MaHaRSHal Synagogue, built in Lublin, Poland in 1567, and rebuilt 1656.
Many examples of this type can be found in Eastern Poland and Western Ukraine. Some survive in Poland at Przemysl (1592-95), Zamosc, (c. 1600), Tykocin, (1642) and Lancut (1761), and in Ukraine in Satanov (18th century), Zhovkva (1692) and elsewhere."
[Samuel D. Gruber,  "Synagogues, Europe: Medieval to Eighteenth Century" The Cambridge Dictionary of Judaism & Jewish Culture. Ed. Judith R. Baskin. Cambridge University Press, 2011. 574-576. Available at: http://works.bepress.com/samuel_gruber/21]
For many years it has seemed that Tykocin will be the only example in modern Poland of the massive bimah-support type of synagogue.  Now, however, plans are getting going for the preservation and restoration of the great synagogue of Przysucha.  In ten years we may have another "New Wonder."

There are many aspects of the Tykocin synagogue that are worthy of note (and further study).  Its position in the Jewish quarter, and that relationship to the main square and the big church; the associated buildings around the synagogue perimeter; the notable tower - said to have been used as a jail for Jewish offenders; and the remarkable decorated ark made of stone, stucco and paint - that would have had wooden elements, too.  The painted drapery  made-to-appear behind the ark is a good example of an old tradition where the ark is given dramatic - and even royal treatment.  Click here for more discussion about painted ark curtains.

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