Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 2, 2016
Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka Landscape with Menorah: Jews in the Towns and Cities of the Former Rzeczpospolita of Poland and Lithuania Trans. Krzysztof Z. Cieszkowski. Warsaw: Salix alba Press, 2015. 184 pp.; 129 b/w ills. Paper € 22.50 (9788393093779)
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Landscape with Menorah: Jews in the Towns and Cities of the Former Rzeczpospolita of Poland and Lithuania is the revised and updated edition of Krajobraz z menora. Zydzi w miastach i miasteczkach dawnej Rzeszpospolitej (Wrocław: Zaklad Narodowy im Ossolinskich Wydawn, 2008), which was published during the lifetime of Kazimierz Piechotka (1919–2010). His wife and equal collaborator, Maria (1920–), supervised revisions and the fluent translation into English. The Piechotkas, trained as architects, are the source of much of today’s knowledge about synagogues, Jewish settlements, and other buildings for Jewish communities in the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Their earlier publications are essential to any study of Polish architecture, not just architecture for Jews, starting with Wooden Synagogues (Warsaw: Arkady, 1959) and including Heaven’s Gates: Wooden Synagogues in the Territories of the Former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Krupski i S-ka, 2004), Bramy nieba: boznice murowane na ziemiach dawnej Rezecsypopspolitej (Warsaw: Warszawa Krupski i S-ka,1999) on masonry synagogues in the area, and Oppidum Judaeorum: Zydzi w przestrzeni miejskiej dawnej Rzeczypospolitej (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Krupski i S-ka, 2004) on urban settlements, which contains maps that would have been useful in the present publication.

Landscape with Menorah provides a chronological account of the development of both wooden and masonry buildings, and offers information about the geographical extent of building types and technology. It describes Jewish settlements and their built forms from the Middle Ages to the Holocaust, arranged in six chronologically ordered chapters. For Jews, the Middle Ages, the subject of the first two chapters, extended to the early sixteenth century, owing to customary restrictions on their residences and occupations, and to the persistence of medieval town planning and architectural forms in eastern Europe. The chapter “The Golden Age of Polish Jewry” follows, containing an account of settlements and buildings beginning with the Union of Lublin (1569), which joined the Polish crown lands to those of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, creating the Commonwealth. The union ended in the second half of the seventeenth century, where the following chapter starts. In chapter 4, “Disasters and Reconstruction,” the authors record political changes, growing restrictions, and the effects of epidemics, famine, and the depopulation of towns, with the attendant loss of synagogues and increased building in wood until greater prosperity returned, enabling the construction of masonry buildings in some areas. The extent of recovery is recorded in chapter 5, focused on the mid-to-late eighteenth century. Chapter 6 summarizes information about Jewish settlements and buildings during the nineteenth century up to 1939, with a coda about the postwar situation.

From 1569 to 1795, the Commonwealth comprised much of eastern Europe. At various times, its maximum breadth of about four hundred thousand square miles included land extending from west of Poznań to Belarus into Russia and Ukraine, and from the Baltic Sea as far south as Moldova and Odessa. The area’s rulers and dimensions changed depending on wars and attendant depopulation, the migration of Jews to the eastern regions at periods of stress in the west, their flight from war and plague, the three partitions of Poland in the eighteenth century, and other factors. Nevertheless, this large area, considered overall, was home to the majority of European Jews after the persecutions in western Europe, the most famous being their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula in the 1490s. Perhaps because of their comparatively healthy practices related to cooking, bathing, and ritual, as well as their exclusion from the army, Jews increased in population even during periods of general stasis or decline, and despite legal and social disabilities. They were called to assist the development of new towns sponsored by entrepreneurial nobles, were at times protected by kings who needed their services, and constituted an essential group of traders and brokers in various agricultural and, later, industrial products.

Many male Jews were literate, trained to read their own prayers, unlike Christian peasants who were primarily engaged in agriculture as serfs until the mid-nineteenth century. Jews were therefore prominent in the Commonwealth as factors and brokers for the nobility who oppressed the peasants long after serfdom ceased in western Europe. Protected Jews normally lived in towns and cities, although the authors point out that they were frequently restricted to nearby communities. Towns where Jews were permitted often had districts designated for their residence, although when the population expanded, the boundaries may not have widened, causing extraordinary overcrowding; the authors provide maps and examples, as at Vilnius. Elsewhere, restrictions were sometimes looser or evaded, as in Warsaw. Areas in a town might become primarily Jewish, as was eventually the case with Kazmimerz, adjacent to Kraków. In some smaller locations, as in Galicia (formerly Austrian, then Polish, now Ukrainian), almost the entire town was Jewish. In that case especially, a synagogue might be prominent architecturally, large by the standards of the locality. A large or handsome building might even be the gift of a nobleman who had reasons to invite Jews to his service.

Towns and some villages accommodated enough Jews for the formation of the quorum of ten men over the age of thirteen needed for full religious services. While many met in private houses for lack of funds to build synagogues, others constructed purpose-built houses of prayer, ranging from modest wooden buildings—now almost entirely destroyed through decrepitude, fire, and vandalism—to sturdy masonry buildings that denoted local status and were hard to burn down.

The authors also summarize the accommodation for women, noting geographical and chronological distinctions. The most remarkable phenomena were centrally planned buildings with multitiered wooden roofs, developed between the mid-seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. Their interior fittings are well described, and the authors note changes in the liturgical furniture, especially the Torah repository (ark) and the reader’s desk (bimah). The ark frame drew ideas at first from Christian altarpieces and may have been made by Christian artisans. Later, carved forms and plasterwork derived from Baroque altarpieces became common, followed during the eighteenth century by polychromed wood carvings created more often by Jewish craftsmen (some of whose descendants migrated to the United States and specialized in carving carousel animals, as a memorable exhibition at the American Museum of Folk Art in 2008 revealed). The authors do not speculate here on the participation of Jews in most synagogue construction, but since Jews were often restricted from the training and practice of building crafts, Christian designers probably created many or most of the buildings and—at least at first—their furnishings. The Jews must have instructed the builders about the functional and expressive aspects of the synagogues, since the buildings follow custom and written prescriptions created by Jewish theologians. During the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, Jewish painters and craftsmen executed wall and ceiling paintings, and symbolic decorations for the ark, bimah, and other ornaments.

Readers will mine this book for information about specific communities with the help of the index of places mentioned in the text, although it omits those named in the chapter endnotes. The list of captions adds information not found directly under the illustrations. The text itself was produced for Polish readers who know the locations of Red Ruthenia and Podolia, as well as the varying extent of the Commonwealth, which most English readers do not. In order to grasp the full context of the development of Jewish towns and urban districts, most Americans will need to consult historical maps of eastern Europe and may need to prepare themselves for the book by reading encyclopedia articles or longer works about the history of the Commonwealth. Not all authors referred to in the text appear in the chapter endnotes, but the interested reader can find titles in the catalogues of specialist libraries, e.g., those at the Center for Jewish History, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, Yeshiva University, and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Probably some text and useful apparatus was eliminated so as to publish the book efficiently and keep the price as low as possible for the sake of broad distribution. Within the necessary limits of economical publication, the production is attractive, and there are hardly any typographic errors. A few unintelligible words appear—incolat, salt-stall, Doric-Corinthian capitals—but they are of little consequence for the points made in this otherwise useful book.

While the focus is on the historic period of the development of the Commonwealth, the authors provide a coda about more recent history. During the early 1940s, they were active in the Polish resistance against Nazi domination, and later, while in their country’s historic monuments service, they worked on surviving prewar materials and their own additions about synagogues and Jewish settlements. The book’s last chapter provides an excellent brief summary of nineteenth- and twentieth-century synagogue building, destruction, restoration, and adaptation. It includes useful information about the location and extent of the Jewish urban and small-town (shtetl) population, prewar and postwar. The final paragraphs refer to the recent construction in Warsaw of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. I was glad to find important additions and corrections to information offered thirty years ago in my own Synagogues of Europe: Architecture, History, Meaning (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1985). In Landscape with Menorah, it is gratifying to see a summary of the Piechotkas’ more than fifty years of valuable scholarship, published while its coauthor is still alive.

Carol Krinsky
Professor, Department of Art History, New York University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.