Large tribute to miniature models

The legacy of Polish Jewish artisans is commemorated in an exhibition dedicated to ancient wooden synagogues at ORT College in Jerusalem.

miniature 521 (photo credit: Batsheva Pomerantz)
miniature 521
(photo credit: Batsheva Pomerantz)
Thanks to the determination of a skilled kibbutznik, the legacy of the hundreds of wooden synagogues of small Polish and Lithuanian towns, most of them destroyed by the Nazis during the Holocaust, is kept alive in a permanent display at the Joseph Harmatz ORT School of Engineering in Givat Ram (known as ORT College) in Jerusalem.
The late Moshe Verbin was born in 1920 in Sokolka (near Bialystok). Immigrating to Israel in 1935, he was among the founders of Kibbutz Yakum in the Sharon. His relatives had advised him to immigrate, and he believed that his parents and two young brothers would follow him. To Verbin’s deep grief, that did not happen. His family was caught in Sokolka and deported in January 1943 to Auschwitz, where they were murdered on the spot. From his entire family in Poland and France, no one survived.
The young Verbin had seen some of the structures of the synagogues in Polish towns. His interest in them was sparked when he received the book Wooden Synagogues of Poland, published in 1959 in Warsaw by architects Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka. Originally written in Polish and later translated into English, the book includes photographs and drawings of the synagogues. \\ In the book, Verbin discovered an almost unknown treasure of Jewish art and culture.
He decided to construct models of the impressive buildings based on the illustrations.
“His aim was to revive the synagogues in the memory of those Jews, and even non-Jews, who arrived from ancient Poland and to present them to those who did not know them at all,” wrote the Piechotkas in a catalogue on the exhibition published in 1990.
Since the Polish Jews used wood as their construction material due to its availability, Verbin chose to use straw, which was found near his house. He spent more than 20 years reconstructing these synagogues to bring their story to the public. Verbin’s exhibition was held 18 times in various museums, galleries and institutions in Israel and generated much interest.
Its permanent home since 2003 is at the entrance to ORT College near its central atrium.
“Hundreds of our students walk by this exhibition every day,” says Rivka Givony, executive staff member. “Before the students go on the trip to Poland, they receive detailed explanations about the synagogues, with an emphasis on the historical and artistic value of the synagogues, as they represent small Polish towns.”
The display includes a map of Poland and photos of shtetl craftsmen before the Holocaust.
The exhibition of 24 miniature synagogues is encased in two long display windows. Behind each model is a mirror to provide a view of the synagogue from the back. Under each model is a panel with information, sketches and photos of the town, the edifice’s interior, sometimes focusing on the Torah ark, bima or decorative ceilings.
According to the Piechotkas, the mid-16th century until the mid- 17th century was a period of peace and prosperity for the Polish- Lithuanian Jewish community. The Republic of Poland and Lithuania, encompassing the territories of ancient Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine had the largest Jewish community of those times.
The Piechotkas write in the catalogue: “In Poland, a country abounding with forests, wood was a building material used everywhere. The woodcraft was of a high quality. Due to [natural] deterioration, numerous fires and war destruction, the oldest wooden synagogues known to us from preserved descriptions originate only from the middle of the 17th century. Many of those synagogues were built in little villages during the second half of the 18th century, using forms and constructions characteristic of the Polish wooden architecture. This included multi-layered high roofs, multi-beamed domes, galleries, wooden balconies and arches.”
Before World War I, some 130 families lived in Shukian in the Shavli province of Lithuania. Shukian’s wooden synagogue was considered to be the oldest and most beautiful in Lithuania and was probably built in the late 18th century. It was destroyed during World War II. The central building used as the prayer hall was square and surrounded by other buildings. The women’s prayer rooms were to the north and south. The four-tiered pyramidical roof rested upon the decorated ledges of the central building’s walls.
In addition to commemorating the synagogues and Jewish communities long gone, the display’s sketches and photographs pay tribute to the Jewish artisans and craftsmen of the 16th –18th centuries whose golden hands transformed the interior of the often plain-looking synagogues into quality art. While the exterior was influenced by Polish architecture, the interior was distinctly Jewish.
A panel lists the names of only 45 artisans and artists – “the few whose identity was verified from hundreds who remained anonymous.”
Among them were Moshko the Embroider from the mid-1700s, who was also a commander of the Jews defending his town; Schnitzer, the woodcarver from the 18th century; and Simcha Weiss, a builder from the 18th century. Artists included Zalman and Chaim, sons of Aharon, designers of the holy ark at the Krakow High Synagogue; and Manes Nussimovitz, head of the Jewish silversmiths’ guild of Lvov.
The synagogue of Przedborz, in the Kielce province, built in 1760 and destroyed in 1939 by the Germans, was known as the most elaborate in Poland due to the carvings and colorful wall paintings done by Yehuda Leib. Among the paintings on walls of these synagogues were animals, floral designs and Hebrew inscriptions.
Poland’s name in Hebrew, Polania, may have derived from “Here dwells God” (po lan Ya). This was reinforced by the abundance of synagogues dating back centuries, none of which exists today. Moshe Verbin’s gem of a display represents the skill and soul of the artistic wealth of Jews in Poland.
Visitors are welcome to view the exhibition during school term, from 7:30 a.m – 4 p.m.