Tracking the vanishing world heritage of Jewish buildings
By Amiram Barkat
Last June, news agencies reported that authorities in Tajikstan intended to demolish the last remaining synagogue in the capital city of Dushovna to put up a new office complex for the state president.
International Jewish organizations and the Bukharan emigre community in the America launched a public campaign to save the synagogue. In Israel, the affair barely made the news and apparently made little impression on the Israeli public.
Nevertheless, one Israeli body did join in the effort to rescue the synagogue. Staff members of the Hebrew University's Center for Jewish Art read about the plan on the Internet and approached UNESCO, the UN agency responsible for the preservation of historic sites, and asked that it intervene urgently.
UNESCO did take action. In early August, the agency told Tajikstan authorities that any damage to the synagogue "would contradict existing international standards for the protection of cultural heritage."
The World Jewish Congress hastened to issue a press release about this and claimed credit for UNESCO's involvement in the campaign. Other Jewish media - affiliated with Chabad - attributed the UN agency's action to Bukharan-born businessman Lev Leviev, who sent a letter about the matter to the president of Tajikstan.
The Center for Jewish Art, on the other hand, preferred not to comment. "Shortly after approaching UNESCO, we learned two facts," says the director of the Center, Professor Aliza Cohen-Mushlin. "First, there are two synagogues, not one. Second, both of them were demolished two months ago in early July."
Race against time
The Center for Jewish Art describes itself as engaged in the comprehensive, systematic documentation of the visual culture of the Jewish people. Among other things, this includes synagogues, ritual bathhouses, cemeteries and even private homes of Jews, from all movements and communities - "from Haredim to Karaites, from India to Morocco and the British isles," as Cohen-Mushlin puts it.
The Center does not document destroyed buildings, but "endangered historic buildings" - structures built up to World War II about which there is no existing preservation plan or other arrangement that would protect them from demolition.
All of the buildings are inactive. They are either deserted or have been converted to other uses - cinema, theater, residence, barn or even public restrooms.
Cohen-Mushlin "cautiously estimates" that around 3,400 such buildings exist around the world. So far, students and architects affiliated with the Center have documented 814 buildings and cemeteries. The documentation includes photography, sketching the buildings' layout and, in special cases, preparing computer models of the structure as it looked at its dedication. Some of the already documented buildings, such as the Great Synagogue of Berezhany in western Ukraine, built in 1714, have been destroyed.
Cohen-Mushlin has no way of knowing how many of buildings are destroyed before being documented, or how many of those that were documented are no longer standing. "I can say for certain that this is a heritage that is being lost at a very rapid rate. We are in a race against time because within 20 years very little will be left."
Ironically, the center Cohen-Mushlin heads faces a danger of extinction as real as the buildings she documents. The center was founded in 1979 by Professor Bezalel Narkiss of the Department of Art History at Hebrew University. Since the early `90s, the center has been directed by Cohen-Mushlin, his student. She also teaches in the Department of Art History, and researches Christian manuscripts of the Middle Ages.
Hebrew University provides no financial support for the Center for Jewish Art. It's activities are financed by contributions from individuals and groups in Europe and the U.S., most of whom are not Jewish. In the past two years, the Center has faced a crisis as its annual donations have fallen by a third, from $600,000 to $400,000. Cohen-Mushlin was compelled to halve the number of researchers and to cut to a minimum all "salvation" activities.
Delegates of salvation
"It has often happened that we send out a salvation delegation without any financing, on the assumption that the financing will come in later," she confesses. Until the 1990s, the Center's researchers worked mainly in museums, archives and libraries of private collections. But since the 1990s, the emphasis has shifted to salvation delegations - documentation of structures and objects facing threat of extinction.
The shift in the center's orientation came in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet bloc. "When we arrived in Eastern Europe in the early `90s, we were still under the impression that the Jewish world of Eastern Europe was destroyed and wiped out in the Holocaust," recalls Cohen-Mushlin.
"We were astounded by the wealth that we found. We discovered that there was enough material there for 200 years of research." One of the most important discoveries made by the center's researchers was the stone "fortress" synagogues in Ukraine - synagogues from the 16th and 17th centuries, with thick walls and gun slits, which the Jews used to defend their towns from attacks by the Cossacks, with the permission of the local rulers.
"The discovery of these synagogues changed out entire conception of the Jews of the Diaspora. It turns out that what is called "Jewish heroism" was not born in the Warsaw ghetto, but, in fact, much earlier. It's a shame that pupils in Israel don't learn about it."
Another significant discovery was 12 wooden synagogues, among the last in the world, which were documented in out-of-the-way rural areas of Lithuania. The synagogues in Germany, on the other hand, surprised the researchers for other reasons.
"The large synagogues in Germany were destroyed on Kristallnacht," says Cohen-Mushlin. "We looked for the small synagogues in villages, which survived mainly because they had been converted into residential or commercial buildings. We found quite a few architectural pearls. We discovered that the Jewish communities were very up to date in contemporary styles and saw to it that the synagogues, even the smallest among them, would be designed in accordance with the finest avant-garde of the period."
While documenting Jewish residential buildings in Shargorod, in southern Ukraine, another surprising fact came to light: "We noticed that only the windows of Jewish homes had shutters. We found out that this was because of their fear of riots or even just acts of vandalism by youths who threw rocks and broke windows."
Heart of the minefield
Some delegations have gone to regions that are less than friendly to Israelis, such as the island of Djerba in Tunisia, and Morocco. The center did not discover Bosnia-Herzegovina until 1998, after the end of the war there. Even then, the researchers were exposed to dangers - one of the cemeteries they documented was in the middle of a minefield, although the researchers only found that out after the fact.
Frequently, the center's researchers are themselves expatriates of the countries they are documenting. The documentation work in the Balkans and former Yugoslavia, for example, is coordinated by the architect Ivan Ceresnjes, who before his immigration to Israel was president of the Jewish community in Bosnia.
"Acquaintance with the region leads to the biggest discoveries," says Cohen-Mushlin. On one occasion, for instance, Ceresnjes received information about a Jewish ritual bathhouse that was in a dense thicket, in a region where Jews had not lives since World War II.
"The undergrowth was so thick that we felt like the prince who came to release the sleeping beauty. Suddenly, in the middle of all this, we saw a gorgeous ritual bathhouse in the Jugendstil style," Cohen-Mushlin recalls.