Thursday, March 25, 2010

"Negative Space" and the Synagogues of Eastern Europe

Recently I gave a talk in conjunction with a show of artwork by Andrea Strongwater at the Tychman Shapiro Gallery. Andrea is a NY artist who is focusing on the lost synagogues of Europe ( . She has created a series of paintings based on black and white photographs. Her vibrantly colored paintings bring these synagogues back to life. The narrative that accompanies each painting is like a drumbeat with the relentless repetition of the Nazis setting fire to synagogues across many cities in Europe. Before they murdered the Jewish people they sought to rip the heart out of the community as a synagogue is far more than just a building. Countless buildings were destroyed, many dating back many centuries.

I was asked to share some comments based on my travels in Eastern Europe and thought I’d share some of my comments within this blog.
During my travels in Eastern Europe I was struck with the sense of “negative space”. Negative space is an artistic concept. You may have seen the image of two silhouettes of faces facing each other. First you see the faces, but if you look at the area between them you see a vase or a goblet created by the edges of the face. Negative space is what you see in the absence. In Eastern Europe there is a great deal of negative space. Synagogues together with whole communities of people have been destroyed. Former synagogues have been re-purposed into other functions, but seldom is there any mention of what they once were. Similarly many people have no knowledge of the significant presence within their city that was once filled by the Jewish community.
The synagogues in Eastern Europe fall within three categories. There are those which are still functioning as synagogues. Unfortunately that number is small as is that of the remaining Jewish community. There are those that have been re-purposed into other functions and there are those that are in negative space. They exist no longer, destroyed by the Nazis in flames. Often they required the Jews to pay for the removal of the debris.

In Latvia there is one synagogue that remains. The major synagogue was destroyed in flames with 300 Jews locked inside. Today there is a memorial on the site of that synagogue which appears to be in the footprint of the synagogue. A red and white cracked floor has grass growing through it. One cannot stand in that space without thinking of those 300 Jews and wondering if the floor cracked from fire.
The synagogue which survived exists only because the local priests went to the Nazis and protested that burning the synagogue would also destroy the church and the neighboring buildings, too much collateral damage. Today a van sits in front of the synagogue up on blocks. Two policemen guard the synagogue 24/7 as there was a bombing some years ago. While I was there the synagogue was being refurbished and there is now a youtube video which shows the interior in its refurbished state.
In Vilnius the great synagogue survived the war, but was badly damaged. It was torn down by the Soviets after the war. It was located on Zydu Street (Jew Street) and in 1938 was celebrating its 500 year anniversary. When they built the synagogue they were not permitted to build it taller than any church so they dug down to get the required height. Its doors were armored so it could serve as a place of safety for Jews during times of pograms although as we saw in Latvia, the synagogue was not always a place of safety.

While I was in Vilnius I visited with the owner of a local restaurant which sits in front of the area where the synagogue once stood. She noted that when they renovated they discovered a tunnel under their restaurant which ran across the street and out the ghetto gates, so presumably there was an escape route from the synagogue. Today a building stands on the site of the old synagogue and interestingly its windows are filled with photographs of sections of the old synagogue.
Once there were over 100 synagogues in Vilnius with 30 in the small ghetto alone. They were organized by guild so there was a dressmakers’ synagogue, a shoemakers’ synagogue. The synagogue which survived in Vilnius survived because the Nazis took over the Jewish hospital across the street and used the synagogue for storage. After the war many Jews came back from Russia. They had gone there out of fear that their daughters would be conscripted into forced labor. Little could they have imagined. After the war they gathered at the synagogue to see who had survived. Under the Soviets they had a matzo bakery and a kosher butcher secretly housed in the synagogue as they were not permitted to have either. Today you can still see the matzo making machinery off of the women’s balcony.

In Kaunas you will find the second remaining synagogue in Lithuania. It survived because the Nazis used it for storage of the clothing they took from the Jews before they murdered them. There was a thriving business in used clothing in those days.
There is also a synagogue in Kaunas which has been turned into an autobody shop. The only giveaway that it was once a synagogue are the arched windows in the back. The middle window is bricked in as that was where the Torah ark was located.

In Mariampole there is a repurposed synagogue with a sculptural detail of the ten commandments at the top of the structure.

 In Siauliau there is a building which I found interesting and took a photo of it only to learn later that it was the former synagogue. A wide plank way enters the building crossing over a waterless moat. A religious statue caught my eye through the window. It now serves as a church.
Next door stands the Chaim Frenkel house. Chaim Frenkel owned the tannery business and the shoe factory. He built many of the important Jewish buildings including the hospital and the synagogue. As an orthodox Jew who walked to the synagogue, he made sure to build it conveniently next door. The building has the double arched windows that resemble the Ten Commandments and are found on many Jewish buildings.

I have an upcoming trip to Budapest-Warsaw-Krakow and Prague and anticipate that I will encounter many more synagogues, past and present, so more to come. I’ve been deeply engaged in a wonderful book called The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe by Eli Valley. The book addresses the four cities I’ve noted above and shares much of the history and legends from the Jewish communities as well as the synagogues that once stood and those that remain.

1 comment:

  1. Looks like you're building a body of important commentary, Susan, and adding significantly to the canon.