LONDON — A leading European body has called for action to preserve historic Jewish synagogue buildings across the continent after research uncovered that nearly one-quarter are in a “poor or very bad condition.” Only 22 percent of the structures, it found, are still functioning as synagogues.
A resolution passed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe labels Jewish cultural heritage “an integral part of the shared cultural heritage in Europe” and says there is a “common responsibility to preserve it.”
The assembly is the parliamentary arm of the Council of Europe, a 47-nation, continent-wide organization. It consists of 324 members drawn from the national parliaments of the Council of Europe. Israel’s Knesset has observer status.
A report adopted by the assembly and prepared by Swiss parliamentarian Raphaël Comte argues that “by ensuring the survival of Jewish historic sites, collective memory would also be preserved.”
“Valuing and having a deeper understanding of Jewish culture and heritage, which reveal significant cross-cultural exchanges and mutual enrichment with other cultures, will also contribute to inter-cultural dialogue, promoting inclusiveness and social cohesion, and combating ignorance and prejudice,” the report says.
But, it warns, “this ancient heritage has been under attack through neglect, natural forces, and human actions – and today remains in many places in crisis.”
The resolution passed by European parliamentarians calls for the establishment of guidance for the protection and preservation of Jewish heritage sites, and for the development of educational programs on the value of Jewish cultural heritage in schools, universities, museums and the cultural sector. It also recommends the creation of an award for outstanding volunteer work on Jewish heritage preservation.
“National heritage surveys should include Jewish heritage as a distinct category, identifying sites at risk, providing statutory protection, developing action plans and directing resources to the most urgent cases, ensuring that Jewish heritage is receiving the same level of protection, conservation and maintenance,” the report says.
Comte’s report was prepared with the assistance of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage which works to promote Jewish heritage preservation globally.
The Foundation’s chair, Dame Helen Hyde, welcomed the proposals. “We hope this recognition by the Council of Europe of the value of Jewish heritage will lead to greater action by the countries of Europe to preserve Jewish heritage which is particularly vulnerable given the tragic events of the 20th century,” she said in a press statement.
The report contains key findings from research commissioned by the London-based organization to create an inventory of all the historic synagogues of Europe. In order to provide as comprehensive a picture of the current state of these buildings as possible, each was rated according to both its significance and condition.
The research, undertaken by the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, found that there are 3,237 historic synagogue buildings in Europe. It calculated that there were 17,000 synagogues in Europe in 1939. This suggests those that survived World War II represent 19% of the 1939 total.
Of the 3,237 sites, 718 – or 22% – remain functioning synagogues. The research therefore indicates that more than three-quarters of the historic synagogues that were working in 1939, and which survived the war, are either used for other purposes or are abandoned.
Those purposes are varied: 133 are places of worship for other faiths, 180 are museums, 289 are cultural and art centers, and 900 became homes or offices. Others are used as gyms, theaters and cinemas, storage spaces and restaurants, as well as garages and fire stations. Three hundred former synagogues today stand abandoned.
Twenty-three percent of historic synagogues, a total of 757 in all, were found to be in a poor or bad condition and consequently at risk.
The research points to stark variations across Europe in terms of the proportion of synagogues which survived the war. The bleakest picture is in Eastern Europe.
The lowest level of preservation was found to be in Belarus, where only seven percent of synagogues that once existed remain in existence. (Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe but was included in the survey due to its important Jewish heritage sites). In Ukraine, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Republic of Moldova and Serbia around 10% of synagogues are preserved, with the figure reaching 14% in Poland and Croatia, and 18% in Romania. In Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Hungary, and Bosnia and Herzegovina 30% of synagogues have survived.
In western Europe, the situation is more positive. About half the prewar synagogues in Italy are still in existence, along with about 60% in France, the Netherlands and the UK.
In the UK, which did not experience the Holocaust, the pattern of synagogue preservation rests on demographic shifts, as British Jews moved from smaller to larger cities, and from inner-city areas to the suburbs.
The research also suggests that the disappearance of synagogues in the old Soviet Union began before WWII and the Holocaust.
“It appears that the synagogues in the former Soviet Union tended to disappear much more than in other countries,” the report says. “However, the synagogues in the territories that were Soviet prior to the Second World War have been preserved to a far lesser degree in comparison to the territories that were annexed by the USSR as the result of the war.”
The report notes, for instance, that two-thirds of the synagogues that survive today in Belarus are situated in the western part of the country, which was annexed in 1939. By contrast, only one-third are in the prewar Soviet Belorussia. A similar picture exists in Ukraine.
The report says the higher levels of preservation in the former Eastern bloc countries beyond the former USSR is in part due to the fact that “Jewish communities continued to exist as legal entities and the state-sponsored destruction of synagogues was not so intense.” Nonetheless, it notes, under communist rule many East European synagogues were “demolished, reconstructed for various purposes, or simply abandoned.”
Today, the report warns, Jewish heritage buildings face a raft of challenges. Many lack an “active community of users” leading to them being seen as “minority heritage.” The sheer scale of the task and the “sophisticated and costly process” involved in preserving and reconfiguring old buildings compound are also key.
But, it warns, the weight of history also poses a major threat. “There is still a legacy from the policy of ignoring Jewish history prevalent in former communist countries and, most worryingly, significant levels of antisemitism, which has plagued Europe for centuries, are still being documented across Europe which may also be a factor,” the report says.
“Many of these buildings reflect a deep societal trauma whose barbarity is hard to face,” it continues. “It can be more comfortable psychologically to simply ignore such sites and what they represent. There can also be an issue of competing narratives surrounding the events of the Holocaust, for example in relation to the level of collaboration with the Nazis, which can add to the sensitivities and difficulties in addressing such sites.”
Nonetheless, the report also highlights “increased efforts to preserve, protect and present Jewish heritage as its historical, architectural and social significance has become more recognised, as well as its educational potential for contemporary society.”
It presents evidence of how, via a combination of local people, who are often not themselves Jewish, and financial assistance provided by bodies such as the European Union, “sites can be sympathetically brought back into use and given a sustainable future.”
The White Stork Synagogue in Wrocław Poland, for instance, was seized by the Nazis and used as a garage and warehouse for property stolen from Jews. It was not returned to the Jewish community until 1996. but years of communist-era neglect had seen it fall into a “perilous state of disrepair.” Today, however, it houses the Wrocław Center for Jewish Culture and Education and is used for exhibitions, film screenings, workshops, lectures and concerts. It also contains a permanent exhibition entitled “History Reclaimed: Jewish Life in Wrocław and Lower Silesia.” Its educational theater performances on Jewish historical themes have been seen by 25,000 young people.
In 2014, the small functioning synagogue celebrated its first ordination of four Reform rabbis and three Reform cantors since WWII, in a ceremony attended by the German foreign minister.
The report notes the desire, in those sites where Jewish communities were wiped out in the Holocaust, to tell “the full story” and ensure that “the educational focus is not just on how the community came to an end, but also on the centuries beforehand demonstrating the life and contribution of the community.”