New York exhibit revives Europe’s lost synagogues

The lost synagogues of the old world are brought back to life thanks to the dedication of one collector.

Eldridge Street Synagogue Interior (photo credit: PETER AARON/OTTO)
Eldridge Street Synagogue Interior
(photo credit: PETER AARON/OTTO)
NEW YORK – Once pillars of Jewish life in Europe, hundreds of synagogues across the Old Continent were destroyed in the period around World War II. Now, in New York City, the Museum at Eldridge Street, a landmark synagogue itself, has decided to bring them back to life in an exhibition running through September 8.
The exhibit, “The Lost Synagogues of Europe,” features a collection of 156 postcards depicting shuls in Germany, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Ukraine and other countries.
The images, reproduced for the display, date from the last years of the 19th century through just before the start of WWII.
“Postcards are very eloquent little things,” Nancy Johnson, the museum’s archivist, told The Jerusalem Post, walking through the narrow exhibit. “They really tell you a lot about a time and a place.”
Organized geographically, the cards, which belong to Prague native Frantisek Banyai, reflect the vibrancy of the Jewish communities represented and show the diversity of synagogue designs. Depending on the time and place in which they were built, they range from humble wooden structures to grand synagogues.
Other postcards show life in the communities that existed around these synagogues including families on their way to worship; men praying; ghetto streets crowded with shoppers; and greeting cards for the Jewish holidays.
Of the 156 synagogues represented in the postcards, only 57 still stand today. And of them, only 14, like the opulent Jubilee Synagogue in Prague, are still Jewish houses of worship. The rest have all been destroyed.
“World War II was the biggest culprit,” Johnson said. “Thirty-eight were destroyed just during Kristallnacht [in 1938], some were destroyed by the communists after the war, especially in the Czech Republic, and there are 11 that we are not sure what happened to them.
“There are some that are churches, there are some that were used for storehouses and then kind of abandoned, there is one that is a fitness club,” Johnson said.
Banyai, who created the displays himself, grew up collecting vintage postcards on Jewish themes as a way to connect with the past.
“He was raised in Prague, after the Second World War, when the communists were in power and so he had no religious education,” Johnson told the Post. “He started collecting these cards as a way to reconnect with his Jewish past and in the process, became very involved in the Jewish community in Prague.”
Banyai believes that in addition to their authentic beauty, these postcards capture a sense of “indelible grief,” as they reflect a major part of the Jewish world that disappeared almost without a trace.
On many of the images, one may observe Moorish style architecture featuring horseshoe arches, keyhole-shaped windows, bulbous domes, and even minaret towers. This style gained popularity in the mid to late eighteenth century, and is reminiscent of a time when Jews, Muslims and Christians lived peaceably together in Spain.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue, housing the exhibit, was also built in this fashion, perhaps inspired by the European shuls portrayed in the cards.
Today known as the Museum at Eldridge Street, it was the first functioning synagogue built by Eastern European Jews in the United States, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which was once the main hub of Jewish life in the city.
“This congregation was unusual in that it brought together immigrants from all over Eastern Europe, not just from one place,” Nancy Johnson said. “They all spoke Yiddish.”
The building opened in 1887, to serve a flourishing community made of Jewish immigrant. By 1924, however, US immigration laws changed and cut off the arrival of most Jews from Eastern Europe. The Eldridge Street congregation started to shrink.
When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, it also begun struggling financially.
“Whatever money the congregation had, they used to share with people who were struggling,” Johnson told the Post.
The main space inside was too expensive to maintain and heat during the winter. The congregation stopped using it and it deteriorated over the years with holes in roof, leaks, stain glass falling out of the windows and birds flying around.
It is only in 1986 that a professor who visited the abandoned synagogue initiated its restoration. Twenty years and $20 million later, the process was completed.
Even though the congregation is very small and sometimes struggles to form a minyan, the Orthodox synagogue is functioning. After the space was fixed, it was granted museum status and today hosts various exhibitions, building tours, concerts and festivals.
Several shuls on Banyai’s postcards have undergone a restoration as well. This common aspect was one of the reasons Johnson and her team decided to host the “Lost Synagogues of Europe” exhibit.
“It was also a way to see into the minds of the early congregants and what they may have worshiped before they came here, or what the architects, who were German-born, may have seen to influence their decisions here,” Johnson said.
The exhibit is a reminder of just how much was lost in the Holocaust, she said.
“It’s harrowing,” Johnson said. “Everybody knows about World War II, everybody knows about Kristallnacht, but to see places that don’t exist anymore because of this, and then to think about the people who would have been associated with those places, it’s just incomprehensible.
“When we first put the show up in the spring, there had been a number of antisemitic acts in the city, and it was kind of scary,” she added, looking at one of the panel of postcards. “In a way you look at this and you think this would never happen again, but then, maybe it could happen again. You can’t just be passive about it.”