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The Jewish heritage trail in Bialystok includes 36 places scattered mainly in the city center. Is it a lot? Taking into account a few hundred years and the wealth of social life of the Białystok Israelites – very few indeed. World War II put an end to the existence of the Białystok Jewish community forever. People were murdered, districts burnt down, most of the representative buildings were ruined. In the first part of the article I wrote about long past synagogues whose mere memory remains. Today I shall elaborate on three buildings which survived, real landmarks to visit during your stay in Bialystok (contact the guide HERE).
Piaskowa Synagogue or Piaskower Beth Midrasz. Jewish heritage trail in Bialystok
It was the religious center of the Piaski district. Some sources say that in this place, in Sucha Street, an older synagogue existed since 1820. The documents mentioning the private founders have been preserved, we also know the name of the owner of the plot – Mojżesz Nowik. The building was used not only for prayer purposes, but also as a religious school of Talmud-Torah. The Piaskowa Synagogue was considered to be very modern. With a gallery on the first floor, with a coffered ceiling and wall paintings, it had a sewage system, and its its impressive lighting with electric lamps, of which there were 73 in total, has gone down in history! The building itself resembles a building made of bricks, plastered, erected on a rectangular plan, covered with a gable roof. The building was devastated during the military occupation, but until 1968 it served as the seat of Białystok Jewish organizations, including the Social and Cultural Association of Jews in Poland. During the renovation carried out in the 1970s, the features of the synagogue disappeared: numerous details from the façade, including arches on the western wall, disappeared. The building served as a cinema, theater and community center. The act of ultimate destruction ensued in 1988 when the synagogue burned down.
After many perturbations, the synagogue was restored in 1995. Today’s synagogue at 3 Piękna Street has little in common with the original one, built around 1893. “The arrangement of window openings was randomly reconstructed – among other things, the eastern elevation was completely new, with different divisions than the historical ones. The articulation of risalits, profiles and course of cordon cornices, profiles and drawing of lesenes (pilaster strips) were changed. As the top layer, the external walls were plastered (…) while introducing a new color – white. The level of the former prayer room was raised (…) The window opening turned into a door. Among other things, the historic grate disappeared, new elements appeared on the facades – cornices, window bands. The new covering was also designed in a discretional way. The roof was partly mansard, double-blade, where the lower part is formed from the ellipse section, while the central cover of the central part is a flat roof with slight slopes to the outside. (Quote from the Center for Citizenship Education Poland-Israel)
Samuel Mohilever Synagogue or Beit Shmuel. Jewish heritage trail in Bialystok
Fortunately, the Jewish heritage trail in Bialystok is marked – even a man with a lively imagination would not have thought of what used to be in this destroyed, inconspicuous tenement house. Walking around today’s Branickiego Street (formerly Bulwarowa Street) we pass the pre-war building of the most representative and impressive private synagogue. Jews of the highest social status used to pray here.
The very location of the synagogue tells us about its character. Built far away from the Jewish districts, in a prestigious location – i.e. next to the city garden, riverside boulevards and in the vicinity of the Branicki Palace. It was precisely because of the proximity of the palace and the school church that the tsarist authorities initially refused to issue a building permit (1897). At the next measurement the project was approved as compliant with the restrictive standards. The development works started in 1899 and in April 1901 the building was submitted for the final acceptance. The synagogue was named after Samuel Mohilever, a prominent and distinguished rabbi for the Bialystok community, one of the initiators and promoters of the Zionist movement. As Małgorzata Dolistowska writes in a study by Białystok – Mayn Heym: “…the synagogue on the Boulevard was far from the previous provincial investments of Białystok’s Jewish houses of prayer with its thorough architectural design, thoughtful composition of the body and façade, style and ideological expression”. Indeed, the description of the abundance of Bejt Szmuel’s façade is at least a few dozen lines. Suffice it to mention that there were portals with ogees, cornices, a prominent attic, and neo-gothic traceries, finials and pinnacles. The whole was supposed to testify to the wealth and progress of the founders – it resembled more of a residence or a city palace than a synagogue.
During the war occupation the synagogue was set on fire and after the war it was renovated and rebuilt several times. It served, among the others, as a cinema and a sports club and lost its original architectural layout. There is not even a trace of the richness of details left. Only semi-circularly closed windows, visible from the courtyard and the apse, which once housed the aron ha-kodesh, have survived to this day. A few years ago, the Białystok city hall announced a competition for the design of a new synagogue facade. After the renovation, the seat of the City Council was to be located here. The ideas were presented by 29 architectural studios. We must admit that the architects’ imagination was some of the kind… it is a great pity that our city has not yet managed to find funds for the implementation of the winning architectural design.
Citron Beth Midrasz or Citron Beth Midrasz prayer house. Jewish heritage trail in Bialystok
The most important Jewish prayer houses in Białystok were established under the partitions of Poland. In the interwar period, only one significant synagogue was built in Polna Street (today 24 Waryńskiego Street). In 1936 the ceremonial opening of the new synagogue took place. It was founded by the Cytron family – wealthy owners of a textile factory in Supraśl and a tenement house in Warszawska Street (today the Historical Museum). The building from the outside looked relatively modest, but its rich interiors delighted. Wall polychromies with animal motifs, especially the wooden coffered ceiling made of several types of exotic wood were truly beautiful. The candelabra in front of the Torah ark had 150 light points and was considered a masterpiece of decorative art. On the website of Sztetl.org we read:
“During the occupation, the synagogue was one of the few to remain active in the ghetto, illegally of course. After the war, until the end of the 1960s, the building served as a meeting place and funeral home. Funeral academies, theater performances and other events held for the few surviving Jews took place here. Interestingly, just before the general renovation in the 70s of the twentieth century, wonderful decorations were recorded on film; unfortunately, it was during these works that the whole decoration was completely destroyed (!)”.
Today, the Sleńdziński Gallery operates in the Citron Synagogue, whose main goal is to develop, share and spread the legacy of the Sleńdziński family and to collect collections thematically related to the culture of the eastern borderlands.
Synagogues in Białystok. The Jewish heritage trail
I would like to thank Mrs. Grażyna Agnieszka Rogala for the opportunity to use the photo of the Piaskower synagogue.
The most important information for this text was taken from the book “Bialystok-Mayn Heym” edited by Daniel Boćkowski, published by the Military Museum in Bialystok. Białystok 2015