The book, Heaven’s Gate: Wooden Synagogues of Poland, describes in detail 76 synagogues from Birez to Zydaczo, located all over Poland, utilizing all the information available from assorted records, surviving Kehillah Pinkasim, pictures and even postcards. Not only is it an important scientific publication, but an amazing volume of Jewish history worthy of any library of Judaica, as well.
The synagogue buildings that survived are among the last remaining vestiges of Jewish life in Poland today. Often these buildings are praised as being architectural masterpieces. The columns and frescoes are heralded for their beauty and ingenuity. While these buildings deserve the accolades, there used to be another category of synagogue buildings that sadly has disappeared from the Polish landscape, that of the wooden synagogue.
The history of the wooden synagogue in Poland is as old as Jewish existence in Poland itself. When Jews first arrived in the country they were often considered temporary residents and the local governments did not give them permission to build permanent buildings of stone and mortar. Over the years the wooden synagogues developed into major architectural masterpieces in their own rights, and were able to serve their communities for generations. Sadly they were made of very flammable material and often burned or were easily destroyed. Not one wooden synagogue survived the Shoah.
In 1957 a book was published, Boznice Drewniane (Wooden Synagogues) in Polish describing, in detail, the history and architecture of the synagogues that had all been destroyed.
Typical page in Heaven’s Gates showing “Picture of A Wooden Synagogue” and an architectural drawing of the building.
Using old plans, as well as pictures, the authors Maria and Kazmirez Piechotka brought this unique architectural form back from oblivion. The scholarly work, though very technical, is also filled with information that laymen can enjoy. The text is very informative and easy to understand and the pictures of the old synagogues are very clear, showing amazing detail.
These were not simple structures like American log cabins. Often they had multiple rooms with very high vaulted ceilings. Built in Poland, a land of harsh winters, the roofs often had a hollow space for insulation so that the outside profile was in no way similar to the inside shape of the ceiling. The Aron Kodesh was always on the eastern wall and often rising to the roof, at times even curving in toward the center of the ceiling, rising higher then the walls themselves.
The Bimah, central feature of the synagogue, also often towered over the congregants. Some synagogues had decorative pillars on the corners to help hold up the ceiling. It has been speculated that this custom arose from the tradition that the giving of the Torah by Hashem was similar to a wedding between Hashem and the People of Israel and the four pillars represented a wedding canopy.
Cover of Heaven’s Gates: Wooden Synagogues of Poland.