Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Poland: Multiple Layers of Wall Painting at Krakow's Remu Synagogue

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Two phases of wall painting at the base of the vault. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Two phases of wall painting on the vault. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Painting on the west wall. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Poland: Multiple Layers of Wall Painting at Krakow's Remu Synagogue
by Samuel D. Gruber

[revised and expanded on Oct 27, 2021]

In 2010 Polish conservators unveiled the restoration of the small 16th-century Remu synagogue in Krakow, one of the oldest surviving synagogues in Poland, and one that is important for its architectural and religious history. The original Remu synagogue, probably of wood, was built in 1553. It soon burned down, but was almost immediately rebuilt in 1556-57 in masonry. The synagogue combines thick wall masonry in a medieval tradition with more delicate Renaissance-inspired details. It remained in continuous use until the Nazis sacked it in 1940. Refurbished after the war, but not re-dedicated until 1957, it was the only officially the only functioning synagogue in Poland during most of the Communist era.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Painting on the east wall. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Painting on the west wall. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Several layers of interior wall painting have been revealed by conservators. I did not see the completed work until I was in Krakow in 2013 and only took good photos in 2018; the “new” synagogue interior is quite dazzling. It will surprise anyone how knows the synagogue from past years (as I did) when it was presented as a monochromatic space. With its simple geometry and Renaissance decoration, the small shul had seemed an escapee from an Albertian paradigm.

When I was often in Krakow in the 1990s, the Remu was the only fully functioning Jewish worship space in the city. It some ways it was more my regular synagogue than at home. I think I’ve had more aliyot there than anywhere else. Back then, there were still few visitors to Krakow and the small community struggled to get a minyan, so even with my bad Hebrew I was always welcome. I enjoyed the schnapps served from a little table in the entryway after every service.

So much has changed in Krakow since then, and no place more than in the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. The renovated Remu is part of this. Of course, I bear some small responsibility for this, since back in 1992 I helped kick off and organize the restoration of the Tempel Synagogue. That great building of Krakow’s 19th and early 20th-century Progressive Judaism is just a stone’s throw from the Remu, but centuries away in practice, design, and decoration. When we rediscovered and then conserved the decoration of the Tempel it was the only brightly painted synagogue interior in town.

Krakow, Poland. Tempel Synagogue. Restored 1890s and 1920s decoration. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2008.

Krakow, Poland. Tempel Synagogue. Restored 1890s and 1920s decoration. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

For most people, the Remu Synagogue is renowned more for its associations with Rabbi Moses Isserles (known as the ReMa or ReMu) than for its architecture. The great rabbi is buried behind the synagogue with family members and his grave is a place of pilgrimage. The building was erected as a private synagogue by Moses Isserles’s father. But still. Carol Krinsky singled the Remu  out as an important transitional building in her authoritative book Synagogues of Europe. It is also a rare surviving example of private synagogue from the period. I remember our visiting the building together in 1992. It looks very different now.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Cemetery. Graves of Moses Isserles, his father and his siblings. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

The Remu synagogue has gone through several restorations including at least two major reconstructions in the 20th century, one in 1933 and one in 1957, when it was rededicated. In 2010 it was restored again. This time, extensive remains of 19th and 20th-century wall painting were revealed. Krakow tour guide Tomasz Cebulski told the website Jewish Heritage Europe that most of the restoration costs, which were more than  2.000.000 PLN (about 435,000 euro), were covered by the Social Committee for Renovation of Krakow Monuments which had also played a major role in the restoration the temple Synagogue back in the 1990s.

According to historian of Jewish Krakow Eugeniusz Duda, the barrel vault was remade by architect Herman Gutman in a substantial 1933 restoration. Roof and vault were replaced, so that is likely the date of the last decorative program. The interior would have been whitewashed either during the German occupation of Krakow, or in the post-war years when, according to Duda, the synagogue served as a fire station.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Ceiling vault painting. 1930s? Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Ceiling vault painting. 1930s?  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. White washed interior. Photo:Katalog Zabytkow Sztuki, fig. 41

The new look of the Remu is dazzling, but it is confusing. The conservators made some subjective choices about which parts of which mural layers to fully conserve and present. To my eye there are at least three levels of painted decoration, and possible more. So rather than being a near-embodiment of the architectural style of its time (1570s), the Remu now is instructive about the passage of time, and of changing tastes in synagogue decoration. The type of conservation that creates an historical collage, has been in employed in the old churches for many decades. 

The process of conserving the walls of synagogue as a palimpsest is discussed in an important article ("Ars brevis, vita longa: On Preservation of Synagogue Art," Studia Hebraica 9-10 (2009-10), 91-111) by art historian and professor at Bar-Ilan university Ilia Rodov, who discusses several Krakow synagogues, but the article was written before the Remu murals were revealed. Ilya discusses the tension between "restoring" an interior as a museum or as an active synagogue. Museum goers expect a lesson in history. Worshipers prefer a unified and preferably uplifting space. Unless they have a strong sense of indemnity tied to that place and those decorations, they'd prefer paintings that are neat and tidy over ones that are "historic," from the hand of someone long dead. Ilia discusses the case of the Tsori Gilod Synaoguge in L'viv which I have also spoken about many times. There, neither the young American rabbi nor the small Russian-speaking congregation had any historic or emotional connection to the building's history and art, except that it was the one extant and active synagogue in a city that once had many. Making it pretty and shiny and new was more important than making it historically accurate. At the Tsori Gilod synagogue the old painting were nto conserved, they were made new by begin entirely paint over. The iconography remained mostly the same, but the effect the old versus the new is dramatically different. 

The conservators at the Remu synagogue have opted for a different solution. They chose to sample history rather than recreate or invent out of whole cloth a unified decorative program

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Two layers of painting. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.  

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Painting on the north wall. Av Harachamim (Merciful Father) prayer. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

The newly revealed decorations include wall inscriptions of prayers or scriptural passages of which large parts are damaged or destroyed. This type of decoration was common in Polish synagogues from the 17th through the 19th century, and possibly earlier, and fragment can now also be seen in the High and Izaak Synagogues, now also carefully conserved. The wall prayer is apparently an Av Harachamim (Merciful Father) prayer variant, possibly written to remember a specific event in Krakow.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Painting curtain over the ark. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Painting curtain over the ark. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

There is a painted red curtain on the Ark wall. This type of decoration was common from the 19th century on, and even earlier. Examples are usually hard to date. I've written about these before, including example in other Krakow’s High and Kupa synagogues. I would love to know on what basis the Ark wall curtain was painted - were there traces beneath the whitewashed walls, or were the conservators influenced by other synagogues? I hope there are some interwar photos of the interior - but I have never seen any.

The ceiling barrel vault is beautifully painted with a patterned design that includes symbols. This type of highly accomplished decorative painting was common in the early 20th century through the 1930s. This seems to overlay a painted Zodiac (mazoles) frieze that is likely to date from the early 20th century. These are very well done and expand our collection of mazole types.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Mazoles of Ari/Lion (Av) and Sartan/Crab (Tammuz). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Mazol of Moznayim (Scales) for the month of Tishrei. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Mazol of Betulah (Virgo) for the month of Elul Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Mazol of Ari (Lion) for the month of Av (Ab). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

On the west wall - facing the Ark - under and behind of which is the women's gallery, there are two types of decoration. Under the arch of the vault is an inscription over two fantastical beasts. They suggest griffins, which themselves often refer to cherubim, but these have serpent bodies. They hold up a cartouche with a painting of grapes. Other roundels painted by the same artists with bouquets of flowers adorn the other walls.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Painting on west wall. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Painting on west wall. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Painting on west wall. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Painting on west wall. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Painting on west wall. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Painting on west wall. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Beneath the big arched window of the west wall, but above the women's gallery, are three Biblical and Holy Land scenes. They represent what is probably The  Tower of David, Noah's Ark, the Kotel (Wailing Wall). The scene of the Tower of David has been identified as Rachel's tomb by Duda, and the domes suggest it is a variant of the more common representation. The original caption is lost. Ilya Rodov has provided a likely source indicating the true identy of the scene.  All these scenes are substantially retouched or even repainted, but even so it is likely that all the decoration of the west wall was done at the same time - when scaffolding was up. I guess that this was in the 1920s or 1930s.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Painting on west wall. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Painting on west wall. Monument (tomb) of David. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.   

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Painting on west wall. Noah's Ark. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Krakow, Poland. Remu Synagogue. Painting on west wall. Kotel (Western Wall). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

When I last visited there was no information available at the synagogue about the restoration or the history and meaning of the murals. The visitor – at least when I was there – is left to puzzle over where the paintings fit both in the broad history of Jews and Jewish art, or for the specific history of the Remu and the Krakow Jewish community. While photographing for an hour in the small space many tour groups came in - and though they were addressed in several languages - it did not seem to me that any of the guides made specific mention of the decorations in their set talks about the history of Judaism and then about parts of the synagogue (but my Polish and German are very limited, so I may have missed something).

I’m trying to obtain a copy of the conservators’ report on the Remu. Presumably they did preliminary research, and this might answer my questions. Until then, just ponder these, and enjoy these new contributions to the corpus of Jewish art.



Monday, October 25, 2021

USA: Rare Jewish Cemetery Mortuary Chapel in Hartford, CT, Threatened with Demolition

Hartford, CT. Deborah Chapel, Beth Israel Cemetery.
Hartford, CT. Deborah Chapel, Beth Israel Cemetery. Photo: Kerri Provost. 

USA: Rare Jewish Cemetery Mortuary Chapel in Hartford, CT, Threatened with Demolition

By Samuel D. Gruber 

Part I: The Building’s Architecture, History, and Condition

(n.b This is part 1 of a 2-part post. The next will be about the Deborah Society and Cemetery chapels)

Thanks to Dr. Elissa Sampson for her input.

[updated 2-15-2022]

A rare American example of a Jewish building type, built in 1886, is threatened with demolition in Hartford, Connecticut. The building is architecturally noteworthy and historically significant for its role in Jewish funerary tradition and as a representation of the strong role of Jewish women within the Jewish religious and communal organizations in 19th-century America. It is the second oldest surviving purpose-built Jewish building in Connecticut. The chapel is apparently included as a contributing structure in the Frog Hollow National Register Historic District, but its owner, the Congregation Beth Israel of West Hartford, is unfortunately eager to demolish the building. 

This is a shame for many reasons. There is much history embedded in this structure. It is always a shame to waste a good building - one that can still be used for residential, educational, or cultural purpose. This is also an opportunity for Hartford’s Jews – once immigrants themselves – to engage more directly with present-day immigrant communities. 

The Deborah Chapel is a mortuary chapel (Beth Tahara, Beis Tahare) at the corner of Ward and Affleck streets, set on edge of the Beth Israel Cemetery on Zion Hill, the highest point in Hartford. It was built in 1886 by the German-speaking Hartford Ladies’ Deborah Society. Independent Deborah Societies were founded beginning in the 1850s in different cities as way of recognizing and channeling the increased – and essential – involvement of American Jewish women in the operation and survival of synagogue congregations. Their history still needs to be written and is deeply connected to that of the charitable Sisterhoods of Service found in German-speaking synagogues in the United States. 

Though they worked closely with congregations, Deborah Societies provided an independent arena in which Jewish women could carry out charitable and service work for Jews and for the larger community. This is very likely the oldest standing building in the United States initiated and erected by Jewish women. Women's groups and wealthy women often raised funds for synagogue or for social welfare buildings (e.g., settlement houses) and their furnishings, but typically they did not own them. Here women take upon themselves to organize so that a Jewish community can properly meet its essentially religious obligation to bury the dead. Perhaps even more unusual, is a women's society owning a mortuary and running it as a business.

It is - to say the least - disappointing that we Americans want to tear down such buildings when newer cemetery buildings are being restored in many European countries. It is always disheartening when American Jews turn their back on our own history and when a congregation rejects the contributions of its forebears. This is especially so when we turn our backs on the history of Jewish women. The usual reasons – often just excuses – do not hold here. This is not a case congregational survival, religious freedom, or even financial hardship. This building can be saved with little or no cost to the congregation.


Hartford, CT. Deborah Chapel, Beth Israel Cemetery. Photo:
Mark Mirko.

Apart from its association of Jewish womens’ history, there are few similar Jewish funerary structures recorded in America. The tradition was imported from Europe, but by the early 20th century most Jewish funerary activities aside the burial itself had moved to private funeral homes and chapels apart from the cemetery itself. Many cemeteries has entrance buildings, but these have not been studied. For example, entrance building at the Walnut Hill United Jewish in Cincinnati (where Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise is buried) may have served multiple purposes – as a Beth Tahara, but also for cemetery offices and other facilities. That cemetery was founded in 1850s, but it is not known at this time when the building was erected. 

Elsewhere in New England – in contrast to Hartford - a project is underway to convert the 1903 neo-Gothic chapel at the Ohabei Shalom Cemetery in East Boston into a Jewish immigrant history center. The cemetery and chapel are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the chapel is also a recognized historic landmark by Boston Historical Society and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. 

There are certainly more Jewish cemetery chapels around the country, but these have not been well documented. In New York, examples can be seen at the Maimonides Cemetery in Brooklyn and the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery in Staten Island. It is possible that these buildings served as mortuary chapels but their history needs to be researched. 

Several proposals for Hartford’s Deborah Chapel have been put forward by local residents and preservationists to save this building and give it purpose without financial burden to the congregation. Based on my more than 30 years as a historic preservationist, these seem to me reasonable and viable. Hartford’s historical and preservation communities have spoken out in favor of saving the Deborah chapel with no liability accruing to the congregation, but so far to no avail. The City of Hartford wants to save the historic building, but Congregation Beth Israel - or at least its leadership - seems set to see it come down. It has turned its back on its immigrant urban roots as well as the contemporary urban, predominantly Latinx community which lives in Frog Hill today and would like the building and its historic character preserved. 

The Hartford Deborah Society was founded in 1854 and conducted its early meetings in German. It sponsored social activities and served as a burial society for Congregation Beth Israel.It is not clear exactly what role Deborah Society women played in preparing the bodies of the dead following Jewish ritual and custom; but the washed bodies were placed in shrouds that had been sewn by the ladies. After 1886, this took place in the Deborah Chapel at Zion Hill, which was built thanks to the money raised by these women. The Chapel was built at a cost of $5,000 (approximately $140,000 in today’s dollars). The women ran the building itself and arranged for its maintenance. The 2 ½-story brick-and-brownstone chapel included facilities for preparation of the body downstairs and living quarters upstairs for a cemetery caretaker. The mortuary income was donated by the Deborah Society to help support the Congregation Beth Israel. The Deborah Society also raised money for civic charitable causes including for the children’s hospital and included in their fundraising insurance for the support of widows, and the provision of children’s clothes.

Hartford, CT. Former Congregation Beth Israel, 1876. Now Charter Oak Cultural Center. Photo:Samuel Gruber 2015.  

Hartford, CT. Former Ados Israel Synagogue, 1901 (demolished). Photo from Connecticut Jewish History, 2:1 (Fall 11991), 21.

West Hartford, CT. Temple Beth Israel, 1936. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2011.

Congregation Beth Israel 

Congregation Beth Israel is the oldest Jewish congregation in Hartford and was formed in 1843, the first year the Connecticut law allowed Jews to worship outside of their homes and build structures that could be used exclusively for Jewish religious purposes. Originally established as an Orthodox congregation, the synagogue eventually joined the Reform Movement and was one of the founding members of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Union for Reform Judaism) in 1877. 

At first, the congregation met in homes and buildings throughout the city. In 1856 the first building to house the synagogue, "Touro Hall," was also dedicated as the first synagogue in Hartford. After a fire in 1875, the congregation built a new synagogue designed by noted local architect George Keller in Charter Oak Avenue (now charter Oak Cultural Center). This opened in 1876 and served the congregation until 1935, when Beth Israel built its present synagogue on Farmington Avenue West Hartford. In 1868, the synagogue purchased land on Zion Hill for their cemetery, which was dedicated in 1874. The chapel was built a decade later.

The Chapel Architecture 

The chapel is a modest but dignified building, typical of urban architecture in the last quarter of the 19th century. In appearance and size it is much closer to contemporary yet substantial houses than to any religious architecture. It has a simple form; the main block is rectangular with a hybrid hipped and gabled roof. A one-story wing extends off two sides at the rear right corner which has a roof in the same form as that of the main block. The primary entrance is on the narrow end covered with a small gable porch supported on wooden brackets. Large arched windows illuminate the tall ground floor. Rows of rectangular windows light the upper story. A pair of tall rectangular windows is set about the apex of the entrance gable and this element extend upward into a hipped dormer with just one window that protrudes from the attic story.

Hartford, CT. Deborah Chapel, Beth Israel Cemetery.

Hartford, CT. Deborah Chapel, Beth Israel Cemetery.

The Chapel is built of good red brick on a brownstone foundation. There are decorative horizontal bands of black-glazed brick or tile ringing the structure, breaking up the monotony the wall. The bricks in the ground floor window arches alternate in red and black. 

A reader of this blog has identified the architect of the chapel as Seneca W. Lincoln. a notice calling for bids for the building was published in the Hartford Courant on July 22, 1884.

Hartford, CT. Deborah Chapel, Beth Israel Cemetery.


One notable speaker to overflow crowds at the chapel’s October 1886 dedication was Dr. Nathan Mayer, a Civil War surgeon and the son of Beth Israel’s first rabbi, Isaac Mayer. The Hartford Daily Courant reported that in his speech, he said that to give: 

“honor to the dead [is] the highest sentiment known to man and the most unselfish. From them, there can be no return, no thanks. Our actions for them are simply the overflow of our great love which does not cease with life, which reaches beyond earth and on the wings of hope carries us to where our dear ones dwell.”


Hartford, CT. Deborah Chapel, Beth Israel Cemetery.

Hartford, CT. Deborah Chapel, Beth Israel Cemetery. The plaque commemorates a donation in memory of Moses and Theresa Fox. Moses Fox was the second generation of the Fox family to run Hartford's G. Fox & Co. department store. Photo: Hartford Preservation Alliance.

Funding for the chapel construction included donations from prominent members of the community, including then-Hartford Mayor Morgan G. Bulkeley, who later became governor of Connecticut and a U.S. senator. He was also the first president of baseball's National League. Gershon Fox, the founder of the G. Fox Department store and a founding member of Congregation Beth Israel was also in attendance. Members of the philanthropic Fox and Auerbach families, many of whom are buried in a grand mausoleum and beneath statuary in the cemetery, stepped up again in 1939 with funds to renovate the structure. 

The Deborah Society itself again helped the congregation when it eventually deeded its building to it in 1941 after having built, maintained, and sustained it. It also funded the synagogue’s library at that time. 

Current Condition 

I have been to Hartford many times and have lectured about Jewish architecture and preservation at both the former and present buildings of Congregation Beth Israel, and also at Trinity College, but I have not yet visited the cemetery and the Deborah Chapel. According to the Congregation, they stopped using the chapel for funerary purposes about 75 years ago but continued to house a shamas (caretaker) in the building. The last tenant was evicted over a decade ago and they have kept the building vacant since.The congregation argues that vandalism is - or has been - a problem and that the presence of the building blocks the view of the rest of the cemetery for nearby police, and therefore its very existence encourages harm. In fact, vandalism has largely been addressed through the presence of a new fence and the activities of neighborhood residents who have organized as volunteers to keep the cemetery clean and safe. 

In 2020, some of those area residents formed the Friends of Zion Hill Cemetery to improve the conditions in the cemetery and attract more visitors to the multiple adjoining historic cemeteries which make up a 24-acre bucolic sanctuary within the vibrant, predominantly Latinx working-class Frog Hollow neighborhood. The group has been tremendously successful in transforming the look and feel of the cemetery and raising awareness about the Deborah Chapel including through cemetery clean-ups. 

The Chapel was inspected by a structural engineer for the State of Connecticut Historic Preservation office a few months ago and was determined to be structurally sound. The City of Hartford, several nonprofit organizations and private citizens have all offered to assist with or undertake the renovation which is estimated at approximately $350,000 - $400,000. The Connecticut SHPO is working with the Hartford Preservation Alliance and the Friends of Zion Hill Cemetery to prevent the demolition. 

What's Next?

Beth Israel, the City of Hartford, and the State Historic Preservation Office are presently in a legal fight. This may come to a head very quickly to allow demolition. Since the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993, most governments do not have the stomach to take on religious organizations. One just has to shout "religious freedom" and all sorts of zoning and other local laws fall by the wayside. The City of Hartford seems to making a serious effort to save the building, and the city rejected the congregation's request to demolish back in 2012. Since then it has been a wait-and-see game, advancing to a typical case of demolition by neglect. By 2019 the congregation came back and argued the the building was seriously deteriorated making renovation unfeasible. local preservationist disagree. The costs will be high, but the preservationists should be allowed to try. 

I do not think this should be legal issue. For Jews, this is about doing the right thing for history and for community. for me, the apparent rewards of demolition do seem to outweigh what can be gained by saving the building for cultural and community use. If the parties could stop fighting they could start planning and put together a reasonable project and then test the waters to see if and how it could be funded. Based on my experience in Syracuse, I think it can be done. If there is will, there will be a way.

So I think it is up to American Jews - and the Jews of Hartford -  to appeal to and convince the congregation that the building is worth saving, and that it can be saved. Demolition is forever. Jewish migration and urban renewal have already left to much of our American Jewish built history to the wrecking ball. Let's not rashly - and it seems to me needlessly - add to the rubble pile of our history.

I will be reaching out to Beth Israel. You can, too. Anyone wishing to get involved with the local effort to save the Chapel can contact Mary Falvey at the Hartford Preservation Alliance - mary@hartfordpreservation.org or Carey Shea at Friends of Zion Hill Cemetery - carey@homebyhand.org

Next: The Deborah Societies and the Empowerment of Jewish Women