You may have read, here on RealPoland Blog, about the Museum of the Polish Jews – one that promotes the culture of Polish Jews. There’s some really interesting things to see, in the museum and out there in the country, of the Polish Jewish heritage, and the Moorish Revival Synagogue in Ostrów Wielkopolski is one of them.
Ostrów Wielkopolski is a city in central Poland with a bit of a chaotic history. The settlement was accorded town status in 15th century, but a series of misfortunes, mostly widespread fires, and the numerous wars of 17th century made the inhabitants actually renounce that position. However, at the turn of 18th century, a powerful magnate, Jan Jerzy Przebendowski, a general and holder of both Polish and German nobility titles, became the owner of the region. It was due to his efforts that Ostrów gained town status again, as well as certain privileges and a serious makeover.
And it was because of Przebendowski that the town gained its Jewish diaspora, because he commissioned craftsmen from Germany to aid the town’s reconstruction, and a fair amount of them were Jewish. The community grew fast, encouraged by subsequent owners’ fair treatment (until, in 1846, about thirty percent of the population was Jewish), and as it grew, it built the structures it needed, one of them being the synagogue.
The first synagogue was wooden, and placed with the most important town buildings by the town square. The wooden construction deteriorated over the years, and in 1857, works started on a new building, designed by the senior local craftsmen with the help of the crown’s clerks. Finished in 1860, it was (logically) called the New Synagogue, and built in the then-popular Moorish Revival style, with additional inspirations of Byzantine and Renaissance Revival styles. The idea was to symbolise the oriental provenance of the Jewish community, and to refer to the grand synagogues of Berlin and Budapest. The grand interior prayer hall is lined with arcades, and its galleries were dedicated to women according with the precepts of Judaism. Unfortunately, very little remained of the interior decoration – geometric and foliage motifs.
The fact that the synagogue survived at all is miraculous in itself, as it is the only such building that stood in a town center – a metropolitan synagogue, in fact – that was not destroyed in World War Two. This was due to the interior having a very specific microclime, which prompted the Nazis to use it as a storage space for foodstuff and alcohol – while destroying practically all of the Jewish quarter. The communist government then ruined what was left of the interior after the Nazis – though on one of the pillars there remains a Nazi seal, an eagle holding the swastika. Just in case someone thought we’re making this all up.
Today, the building has been renovated and is the most valuable monument of sacral architecture in Ostrów. It is not used as a synagogue, however: and agreement with the Jewish community allowed the building to be adapted as a concert hall and art gallery, while still admitting visitors interested in the building itself.