“Nie masz bóżnicy powszechnej”. Synagogi i domy modlitwy w Warszawie od końca XVIII do początku XXI wieku (Synagogues and Other Houses of Worship in Warsaw between the End of the 18th and the Beginning of the 21st Century; Warsaw: Wydawnictwa DiG, 2007); pp. 424 + 11 maps
According to the census of 1931 there were approximately 333,000 Jews in Warsaw –almost a third of the whole population of the Polish capital. Warsaw was at the time the largest Jewish city in Europe and possibly the most important Jewish intellectual centre in the world. Even if we take into account the fact that the Jewish community of inter-war Poland was undergoing a process of secularization, the number of religiously observant Jews undoubtedly exceeded 200,000. A large number of synagogues, prayer houses, shtiebels, batei ha-midrash, and other places of worship was required to serve the religious needs of this population. Yet we know little about them and publications have been devoted to only a few synagogues. This book is thus a pioneering attempt to present the entire history of the buildings used by Jews in Warsaw for the fulfillment of their religious obligations.
Unfortunately though, it is a project undertaken over seven decades too late – in the meantime, a significant number of the buildings which survived the Holocaust mostly as ruins have been destroyed, sometimes completely, as a result of the ignorance and carelessness of successive generations of city and building administrators. Documents, including drawings, plans, and photographs stored in institutions and private apartments located in the walled district during the occupation, were also destroyed – they burned along with the buildings in the ghetto.
I have known the author for a long time and I know the difficulties she faced and how much effort she put into collecting any traces not only of major synagogues, but also of the small, modest synagogues which barely drew more than the minyan necessary for communal prayer. The list of sources and the bibliography attest to her thorough research in libraries and archives, particularly Polish and Israeli. The bibliography is twenty-one pages long and it incorporates items in Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, English, German and Russian. It is possible that further information will be found in the future, for instance in newspapers recording local events such as weddings and other celebrations, with their location. However, to search these out will require an effort beyond the capabilities of a single researcher. Perhaps, in addition, letters have survived preserved by Jewish families from Warsaw who are now scattered all over the world. One can only hope that whoever comes across such documents and materials will inform the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.
Despite the incomplete nature of the preserved materials and the inconsistencies in official lists of synagogues and other buildings in which people congregated for prayer (there were many reasons for religious Jews to avoid the gaze of the all-too-curious authorities…), this book provides an impressive amount of information with an abundance of details and illustrations. The input of an experienced researcher of urban architecture and space is evident, though a reader unfamiliar with art history – and there will be many such readers – would benefit from a small glossary of specialist terms.
The book will be an invaluable source of information for all with an interest in Warsaw and its complicated history. The author treats the history of synagogues and other buildings used for prayer as closely related to the evolution of the Jewish community of Warsaw and its spatial distribution in the city to which the first part of the book is dedicated. According to the introduction: ‘The main aim of my work is to inscribe synagogues/houses of worship in the space and history of Warsaw. My goal is also to present the history of individual buildings, though this has often been hampered by lack of sources’ (p. 23).
The volume begins with an analysis of the ‘Jewish space in the city’ and its evolution from the fourteenth century to more recent times. Even though Jews were prohibited from living in Warsaw between the end of the fifteenth and the end of the eighteenth century, there were various ways of circumventing this ban, especially thanks to the jurydyki – private (or royal) estates, independent of municipal laws – which willingly accepted Jews. The municipality subsequently attempted to prevent Jews living on the most desirable streets in the town. These prohibitions were gradually modified and the geography of the Jewish settlement in Warsaw changed accordingly.
The author points out that the establishment of Jewish concentrations of population was the result not only of administrative restrictions but also stemmed from the fact that Jewish residents (especially those from Orthodox circles) preferred to live in neighborhoods in which their mother tongue was spoken and where people had the same religious needs and customs. The distance to the nearest synagogue or prayer house was also important. The author contests the view of those historians who stress the significance of the restrictions on where Jews could live while not taking into account the free decisions of the Jews themselves. Bergman often corrects traditional views on other issues, justifying her argument with the extensive sources she has consulted.
Historians hostile to Jews usually claimed that the streets inhabited by them were dirty and their houses run-down. The author reminds us that the dirt, dilapidation and the overcrowding of apartments are characteristic of poor streets and districts, and Jews were mostly poor people. Moreover, administrative restrictions caused an excessive concentration of population in districts where Jews could legally settle. At the same time Bergman presents evidence (including archival photographs) which attests to the fact that in favourable circumstances Jewish settlement in new areas led to the creation of buildings of architectural value as well as to the development of the city.
The establishment of many separate synagogues and buildings used for services, prayers, and studying of the Torah and other holy books was a result of the fact that not only was there a considerable Jewish population, but it was also diversified in terms of its worldview. Its members belonged to different movements of Judaism (serious conflicts divided particularly the supporters of the reform of the liturgy and hasidic and traditional Orthodox Jews) and, from the end of the nineteenth century, various political groups; there were also followers of different tsadikim. Another significant factor was the influx of immigrants from shtetls of the Kingdom of Poland and, in the second half of the nineteenth century, also from the tsarist Empire. The newcomers usually formed their own local environments, founded small prayer halls, and sometimes synagogues. Although the Jewish Community of Warsaw had its own synagogues, including the largest at Tłomackie Street, most Jews prayed in private synagogues and prayer houses. Many of them existed for a relatively short period of time, though the author found evidence for the longevity of many modest prayer houses, which are recorded in documents under the same address for decades. Registers of synagogues and prayer houses (which are included in the book) prepared by the administrative authorities proved to be very valuable sources; the last one was prepared in 1926. Though their accuracy leaves much to be desired, they are enough to show the most important trends especially the shifting of the two major regions of Jewish settlement in Warsaw within the period of two centuries. The eleven coloured maps (there are also topographic sketches in the book which show the location of certain buildings) are real gems. They constitute an excellent picture of the layout of main centers of Jewish life in Warsaw in different periods. The map for 1926, on which other buildings used for public purposes are also marked, is especially impressive.
The second part of the book is entitled ‘Synagogues of which more is known than their location’. It includes the history and architecture of the ornaments and interiors of the most well-known synagogues – the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie Street and the Nożyk Synagogue on Twarda Street. The section contains only limited details (due to lack of sources) on small prayer houses about which only short notes in newspapers or mentions in other sources remain. There are numerous photographs in the chapter, as well as some site plans or project sketches, and drawings of planned synagogues, some of which may not actually have been built. We also have fragmentary information about the appearance of some synagogues as there remain photographs of their interiors from the period of German occupation when shelters were established there for homeless expellees from provincial ghettos. In many cases these are the only traces left of hundreds of small and sometimes larger Warsaw synagogues. Single photographs are left of some buildings whose locations have not been determined. That section of the book ends with a brief overview of architectural styles of Warsaw synagogues.
This chapter is followed by a glossary of terms encountered in descriptions of synagogues – invaluable for those readers who are not very familiar with Jewish culture. There are also 17 source annexes, including the order of the chief of the Russian Army, major-general Buxhövden, of August 1795, containing regulations for the Jews of Warsaw; a memorial of October 1812 of the minister of the police of the Kingdom of Poland, Ignacy Sobolewski, which the author admits she included with distaste (I share this feeling) and various regulations concerning Jews, both listing restrictions for them and reducing them. The last document, of 1 May 1915, is a list of institutions for Jews who were under the authority of the Citizen’s Committee of the city of Warsaw. There is also an interesting letter of 1 August 1810 from Frederick Augustus I, Duke of Warsaw, giving the Jew, Berek Szmulowicz Sonnenberg, the right to live with his family in any chosen place in Warsaw, wear traditional garb and not to shave his beard, all in recognition of his service to the country. ‘The last two rights are for Berek Szmulowicz Sonnenberg alone: they do not apply to his offspring’.
This book is a substantial study of major academic importance. The first section reads very well, but inevitably the subsequent discussion, which contains extensive lists of synagogues and prayer houses (some in the form of photocopies of the original documents), statistical information, and other specialist data, makes higher demands of the reader. At the same time, the book is very personal. The factual and ostensibly dry treatment conceals the personal feelings of the author. The reader sees the tragedy of the Holocaust which affected the Jewish community of Poland through the fate of its synagogues. At times the author’s satisfaction is evident at the fact that even though nowadays Jews comprise a fraction of a per cent of the population of Warsaw, Jewish life is reviving. The reader learns that, apart from the renovated Nożyk Synagogue, a prayer house founded by the Beit Warszawa Jewish Cultural Association has been open for several years. Regular prayers and religious family ceremonies take place there. In her introduction, Bergman quotes a description of a large procession with music and torches, passing through the streets of the New Town district at the end of the nth century to mark the occasion of completing the reading of the Torah. It ends with a thought the author had when reading the source: ‘we will never witness such an event in Warsaw again’. Bergman concludes this passage with a footnote which contains a quotation from a recent newspaper: ‘On 17 June 2005, a processional relocation of the 129-year-old Torah from the Blue Skyscraper [...] to the Nożyk Synagogue took place’ (p. 15). I share the satisfaction hidden behind this seemingly dry piece of information.
I remember when tsadikim in characteristic hasidic garb (we can also read about traditional hasidic clothing in the book), gesticulating and loudly discussing matters of concern to them, were a common sight years ago in the streets of many little towns and of the Warsaw district of Muranów. Today, the appearance of the streets in small Polish towns is somewhat unfamiliar to me. Those passers-by whom I did not know personally but who co-created the unique atmosphere of familiarity of many Polish town, have not been there since the end of the war. Sometimes foreign guests in traditional garb visiting the country where their ancestors lived for many generations appear here and there. There can, however, be no going back to the past. Eleonora Bergman’s book brings back the atmosphere of that past. At the same time the description of the Beit Warszawa prayer house brings hope that the cultural diversity of Warsaw, though (so far) on a modest scale, has not been lost.
Jerzy Tomaszewski, University of Warsaw