Monday, March 28, 2011

Poland: Reopening of Restored Zamosc with Conference April 5-7, 2011

Zamosc, Poland. Synagogue after present restoration.
Photos: Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland.

Poland: Reopening of Restored Zamosc with Conference April 5-7, 2011
by Samuel D. Gruber

The restored Renaissance synagogue in Zamosc, one of the finest surviving synagogue buildings in Poland, will reopen on April 5th in conjunction with the conference “History and Culture of the Jews of Zamosc and the Zamosc Region.” The synagogue, unlike the Jews of Zamosc, survived the Holocaust and was used as a public library during much of Poland's Communist period. Unlike many other Jewish communal and religious buildings transformed for new use after World War II, the Zamosc synagogue retained many original features, including its built-in masonry and plastic Aron-ha kodesh (Ark) frame. The building was long recognized as a polish architectural monument and so a wealth of photographic and descriptive information from before 1939 survives informing us about the history, art and architecture of the building.

Zamosc, Poland. Synagogue interior during interwar years from Loukomski, Jewish Art in European Synagogues.

The Renaissance planned town of Zamosc is one of the most picturesque towns in Poland and one of the most important intact sites in the early history of European urban planning. Thus, it has been and continues to be a destination for specialized scholars and for Polish and international tourists. I first visited Zamosc in 1990 when surveying surviving synagogue buildings in Poland for the World Monuments Fund. Since compared to other synagogues in Poland at that time Zamosc was in extremely good condition, we did not list it as a preservation priority. I am happy that now, two decades later, WMF has continued to show interest in the building and contributed along with other international donors to the restoration. I include some of my photos from that first visit - when the sight of the Italian Renaissance inspired synagogue and the entire town was a revelation to me.

Zamosc, Poland. Synagogue in 1990. Photos: Samuel D. Gruber/World Monuments Fund

The restitution of the synagogue to the Jewish community of Poland through the administration of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Monuments in Poland has allowed its repair and extensive restoration to return Jewish identity to the structure. Importantly, by rededicating the building as a synagogue but also establishing it as a regional Jewish information and tourist center, it returns easy access to Jewish history and identity to the town, and creates a larger venue for both commemoration of the past and introduction and consideration of contemproary Jewish religious and cultural identity.

This process begins this week with the conference that is co-organized by the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland and the Polish-Jewish Literature Studies of the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin. The program of the conference which is in Polish and thus (appropriately) directed to a Polish audience can be seen here.

No doubt, in the future, there will be other meetings, symposia and conferences international in scope.

The synagogue has been restored by the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland within the framework of the project “Revitalization of the Renaissance synagogue in Zamosc for the needs of the Chassidic Route and the local community”. The project received a grant from Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA Financial Mechanism and the Norwegian Financial Mechanism. The restoration of the synagogue is part of the Foundation's broad program of care for otherwise orphaned Jewish historic sites, including its designation as a hub for the "Chassidic Route". Ironically, as is made clear in the text of the informative and lavishly illustrated brochure: “Revitalization of the Renaissance synagogue in Zamosc for the needs of the Chassidic Route and the local community” , Zamosc was never a ccenter of Hasidism. It is really an opportunity to make the point that there was a widespread Jewish presence before and during the Hasidic period that had its own roots and development, and is, i think, much more relevant for defining a Jewish role in the modern world.

I quote from the brochure:
In Poland in the second half of the 18th c. Unlike the smaller communities surrounding Zamość, where Chassidism found many supporters, the capital of the Entail became a significant anti-Chassidic center. Not coincidentally, it was the hometown of Rabbi Ezriel Halevi Horowitz, a major critic of Chassidism and opponent of Rabbi Jacob Isaac Horowitz, known as “The Seer of Lublin” – the famous leader of the Lublin Chassidim. In the first half of the 19th c., there were only two small Chassidic groups in Zamość, consisting of followers of the Tzadik of Góra Kalwaria and the Tzadik of Bełz.

The community’s rejection of Chassidism was likely due to the attitude of its traditional elite and well-educated rabbis, one of whom was Rabbi Israel Ben Moshe Halevi Zamość. A philosopher and mathematician, he became well-known throughout Europe, and was notably the teacher of Moses Mendelssohn, the famous thinker and precursor of the Haskalah. The Haskalah (Hebrew for “Enlightenment”) was a pan-European movement which evolved in the Jewish circles of Western Europe. Its proponents called for the renouncement of isolationism and the involvement of Jews in the social and political life of the countries they inhabited. At the end of the 18th century, Zamość became one of the most important centers of the Haskalah in the region.
Activities at the restored synagogue will also involve local partner the Artistic Exhibitions Agency, the Fine Arts High School, the Karol Namyslowski Symphonic Orchestra, the Zamość University of Management and Administration and the Catholic University of Lublin as well as the Jewish Community of Trondheim, Norway.

The synagogue will also be available for religious services. Opening hours: beginning with April 8th, 2011 the "Synagogue" Center will be open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 10.00 am to 6.00 pm.

The Holocaust in Zamosc

The fate of Zamosc's Jews in the Holocaust, which will be the main subject of one day of the conferecne on April 7, is briefly described by Stefan Krakowski in the Encyclopedia Judaica:

After a few days of heavy bombardment, which especially damaged the Jewish quarter, the German army entered Zamosc on Sept. 14, 1939. Immediately after capturing the city, the Germans organized a series of pogroms, motivated in part by the desire to loot Jewish property. On Sept. 26, 1939, the Germans left Zamosc and the Soviet army entered, but handed the city back to the Germans two weeks later, in accordance with the new Soviet-German demarcation line. About 5,000 Jews left the city at the time that the Soviet army withdrew. The remaining Jewish population suffered Nazi brutality and persecutions, like the rest of the Jews throughout Lublin province.

In October 1939 the Germans selected a *Judenrat and forced it to pay a "contribution" of 100,000 zlotys ($20,000) and the daily delivery of 250 Jews for hard labor. In December 1939 several hundred Jews expelled from *Lodz, Kalo, and *Wloclawek in western Poland were settled in Zamosc. Early in the spring of 1941 an open ghetto was established around Hrubieszowska Street, and the first deportation from Zamosc took place on April 11, 1942 (on the eve of Passover). The entire Jewish population was ordered to gather in the city's market, whereupon gunfire was directed at the crowd killing hundreds on the spot. About 3,000 Jews were forced to board waiting trains which took them to *Belzec death camp. From May 1 to 3, 1942, about 2,100 Jews from *Dortmund, Germany, and from Czechoslovakia were taken to Zamosc. Almost all of them were deported to Belzec on May 27 and murdered. The third mass deportation started on Oct. 16, 1942. All Jews were again ordered to gather in the city's market, and afterward were driven to *Izbica, some 15½ mi. (25 km.) from Zamosc. Many were shot on the way, and the rest, after a short stay in Izbica, were deported to Belzec and murdered. In this deportation the Jews offered passive resistance and hundreds went into hiding in prepared shelters. The Germans brought in Polish firemen to open the shelters by destroying the walls and removing other obstacles. Several hundred Jews were discovered in hiding and imprisoned for eight days in the city's cinema hall without food or water; then all those who were still alive were brought to the Jewish cemetery and executed.

A few hundred Jews fled to the forests. Most of them crossed the Bug River, made contact with Soviet guerrillas in the Polesie forest, and joined various local partisan groups. After the war some 300 Jews settled in Zamosc (270 from the Soviet Union, and 30 survivors of the Holocaust in Zamosc), but after a short stay they all left Poland.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cemeteries: Who Reads Stones?

One the most important skills to have in the field of Jewish heritage research is the ability to read and understand inscriptions, especially on gravestones. It is not enough to know Hebrew, one must be familiar with different types of Hebrew usage in different places at different times, and know scores of abbreviations and recognize direct quotes, paraphrases of and allusions to scriptural passages. I can usually tell you what kind of stone it is, and whether it will stand or fall; and I'm familiar with most of the iconography one finds on gravestones and can usually tell you the name and sometimes death date of the deceased; but I can't decipher epitaphs and happily rely on those who can.

One of those people is Madaleine Isenberg, and apparently the demand for reading and tranlating Hebrew gravestones is so great that she has been making a career out of it. A recent "On Language" column in the Forward by Philologos considers her profession, and what it should be called. Isenberg calls herself a "stelaeglyphologist," - you can read why. Philologos prefers something a little more direct like "tombstone specialist." Ms. Isenberg is really what archaeologists have long called an "epigrapher."

I don't really care - to paraphrase my grandmother who used say "I don't care what you call me, as long as you call me in time for dinner," I say, "I don't care what the stone inscription reader is called, only that the translation is correct."

The column is a fun read, here it is.

Still, I'll add one note, and send my two cents to Philologos. I never call Jewish matzevot "tombstones." I prefer the Hebrew term, or "gravestone." Why? Well, in most Jewish burials and Jewish cemeteries tombs are avoided, and Jews are simply placed in the ground in simple grave - wrapped in tallit or shroud, or placed in a simple wood box. Tombs suggest stuctures - like those of pharoahs and kings - something most Jews have avoided at most times. Even those elaborate structures one often finds in 19th-century Jewish cemeteries are not really tombs. The bodies are not housed within. They are buried in the ground like all the others, and those "tombs" are really monuments - just fancier matzevot.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

USA: Baytown, Texas Celebrates Synagogue Restoration

Baytown, Texas. K'nesseth Israel. Lenard Gebart, arch. (1930). Exterior.

USA: Baytown, Texas Celebrates Synagogue Restoration
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Today (March 27, 2011), residents of Baytown, Texas are celebrating the restoration of their eighty-year old synagogue - Congregation K'nesseth Israel. The building was designed by Houston architect Lenard Gabert in 1930, and after suffering limited damage in the destructive Hurricane Ike of 2008, has now been repaired and restored. The community center was much more heavily damaged by the storm, and that, too, has been repaired and renamed the Jewish Community Center.

Baytown resulted as a consolidation of Goose Creek, Pelly and Baytown in 1948. It is located at the eastern end of Harris County, 22 miles from Houston, and Jews first settled in Goose Creek after 1915 mostly to provide retail and commercial services to the booming oil and gas facilities. This is hardly a unique situation in the Jewish world. Jewish merchants flocked to Gold rush towns in the 19th century, and they involved themselves in service industires for the oil and gas business in the 20th. I'm reminded of how Jewish retailers moved to Drohobych (now Ukraine), when oil was discovered there in the mid-19th century. My grandfather Joseph Moskowitz was a surveyor the oil companies, especially in the interwar period.

My uncles Mose and Joe Sumner moved to Goose Creek in 1922 from Brenham, Texas and opened a store. Until his death in 1966 Mose was a stalwart of the congregation in Goose Creek, which he helped found in the early 1920s.

Architect Gabert was among the first successful Jewish architects in Texas and K'nesseth Israel was the first of several synagogues he designed. In the 1950s he designed Temple Israel in Schulenberg and in 1957 Shearith Israel in Wharton. The brick building has been listed as a Texas Historical Landmark since 1992. Gabert's designed many highly regarded Art Deco buildings in the Houston area.

K'neseseth Israel has been described as conveying "a hint of the exotic." This is mostly the effect of the yellow-brick facade that rises to an arched roof line without break, fully representing the barrel vault roof. This design is, in fact, a fairly common one for synagogues in the late 1920s. Earlier variants can be seen in B'nai Jeshurun in New York City (1918) and the Breed Street Shul in Los Angeles (1923). Of these K'nesseth Israel is by far the simplest and most streamlined -pointing the way to modernist synagogues of the post-World War II period (and I can't recall another straight-forward barrel vaulted ceiling in an American synagogue until Louis Goodman's decidedly retro-Temple Israel in Greenfield, Massachusetts completed in 1991.

The interior is more traditional. The Ark is of a Palladian design, not uncommon in many Neo-Classical synagogues of the previous three decades.

Baytown, Texas. K'nesseth Israel. Lenard Gebart, arch (1930). Interior.

Los Angeles, California. Breed Street Shul, Abram Edelman, arch. (1923). The flat brick facade with a large arched roof line is an antecedent for Baytown. Photo: Samuel Gruber.

Greenfield , Massachusetts. Temple Israel, Louis Goodman, arch. (1991). The New England meeting hall style synagogue has an impressive and elegant wooden barrel vault ceiling. Photo: Paul Rocheleau.

For more on Baytown's Jewish history see Hollace Ava Weiner and Lauraine Miller, "Little Synagogues Across Texas," in Lone Stars of David: The Jewish of Texas (Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis Univ. Press, 2007), 200-202.