Historic European shuls ‘falling apart’

By Ruth Ellen Gruber, September 26, 2008
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Time is running out to save scores of historic former synagogues in Central and Eastern Europe, a heritage foundation has warned.

"If we want to be serious about saving this heritage, we must do it now, as the synagogues are falling apart," said Monika Krawczyk, CEO of the Warsaw-based Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland.

Nearly 20 years after the fall of Communism, a question-mark still looms over the fate of scores, perhaps hundreds, of former synagogues ravaged during the Second World War.

Most were abandoned or transformed for other uses during the Communist era. While restitution returned many to Jewish ownership, others still remain public or private property.

Some have been restored and are used as museums, cultural sites and - in rare cases - as houses of worship.

But a good number still stand abandoned or in poor condition, with either insufficient funds - or interest - to restore them.

"We are doing whatever we can," Ms Krawczyk said. "The more property we get, the more critical mass, and more complaints from visitors that cemeteries are neglected. There are also more problems if we get a summons to carry out emergency repairs in many sites at once. We don't have the resources. Roofs can't be fixed with kind words and good advice."

Ms Krawczyk said gaining restitution of a property could be difficult, time-consuming and complicated.

"We have to prove even the most obvious cases," she said. "The law was enshrined in part in the spirit of helping redress the wrongs that were done. But the authorities are not living up to the spirit."

In addition, she said, the costs of repairing a synagogue, or the complications of preservation norms on historic buildings, often made local authorities reluctant to contribute.

Even synagogues that may seem protected can be at risk. Last year, one of the two historic synagogues in Joniskis, Lithuania, collapsed, even though it was listed as a historic monument.

"Proper care of these properties, often involving substantial costs, difficult planning and use issues, and demanding historical and architectural preservation concerns, have preoccupied many Jewish communities for years," said Samuel Gruber, president of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments.

"In many cases, and especially for smaller communities, the needs of these properties continue to stretch their professional and financial resources."

Protests failed to save a former synagogue in the Bosnian town of Travnik. Built in 1860 on the site of an earlier synagogue, the building was damaged during World War II and has not been used for Jewish worship since 1941.

The Bosnian Jewish community, numbering under 1,000, sold it to the city in the 1950s, and it had served as a metal workshop for decades.

Still, said those campaigning to save it, the synagogue was "one of Travnik's symbols and a testament to the centuries-old religious and ethnic diversity and life in Bosnia".

But their efforts to save it were futile, and the building was torn down a few weeks ago to make way for a new shopping centre.

    Last updated: 11:31am, September 24 2008