Now through September 8, 2017, the Museum at Eldridge Street is hosting Lost Synagogues of Europe: Eastern European Jewish Postcards from the Collection of František Bányai. This exhibition showcases a fantastic collection of historical images of synagogues in Germany, Poland, Ukraine, and the former Czechoslovakia which speak of an era long past. They also speak of the zenith of a culture which would near annihilation.
Most of the postcards in this collection depict synagogues that are no longer standing. Yet, it also contains a precious few which, despite the odds, managed to survive the Holocaust, two World Wars, Communism, and the 20th century itself. All synagogues share a common bond of history, culture, and tradition which runs through every such structure’s brick and mortar. These few synagogues, which managed to survive a tumultuous century, share a special connection with each other, and with our own Eldridge Street Synagogue, which itself managed to survive 130 of New York City’s most turbulent years. The synagogues below are among a few from the exhibition which exist today, managing to defy those who would see them reduced to rubble.
A few compelling stories of the exhibition are of those synagogues that survived in defiance of Nazi attempts to destroy them. The large and imposing Synagogue in Brody, Ukraine, survived in part because of its design and construction. Built in the 1740’s to provide a defensible military position for those inside, it came to be known as the “Great Fortress.” While most of its congregation did not survive the Second World War, the Great Fortress withstood the Nazi attempts to demolish it in 1943. Large sections of the stout structure remain to this day. Shortly after the exhibition opened, we were delighted to meet a family whose ancestors came from Brody and listen to their vivid descriptions and recollections of the Great Fortress today.
Another synagogue, the Stadttempel on Seitengasse in Vienna, bizarrely survived due to past intolerance. From the outside, even on the street, this synagogue bears no external indications of the true purpose within. It was built within a block of houses and is indistinguishable from them at any external perspective. This unusual design was created to comply with the edict of the penultimate Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II: that Protestant and non-Christian houses of worship not face the street. The synagogue, hidden to maintain the perception of another faith’s superiority, escaped notice of the SS and SA. It was the only synagogue in Vienna to survive Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.
Other synagogues were, ironically, saved by the Nazis themselves. The synagogue in Děčín, Bohemia, for instance, was used by Wehrmacht (Germany’s armed forces) as a warehouse and factory for the manufacture and assembly of Luftwaffe aircraft and munitions. After the war, under the communist regime, it was used as a government archive. Its incorporation into the German war machine and post war communist government saved the exterior structure of the synagogue. Its interior has since been restored after it was granted landmark status and returned to the local Jewish community in 1996.
The few Synagogues discussed here are but a slice of those now on display in the Museum at Eldridge Street’s Michael Weinstein Art Gallery. The entire collection is a tribute to those structures and peoples that are no longer with us. It is also a celebration of those which endure to this day. Visit us to see the other stories in this collection and to discover our own hidden gem: the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Learn about its preservation, and glimpse a view into the past.
by Scott Brevda, Educator