Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. II, Nos. 1- 2 / Spring- Summer 1998
From the President
 

Message from the President
First, We Document:
ISJM Announces Prizes to Encourage Quality Surveys

The preservation of the past involves much more than saving old buildings.  A vital part of preservation is the collection of information and the description of places.  The world changes, and nothing can be maintained in its pristine state.  So, we document the ways in which our monuments – and our lives – change.

For the past year, ISJM has reported on, and in some cases helped fund, numerous projects to document the material culture of the Jewish past.  These efforts, whether local or international, whether funded on a shoe-string by individuals or undertaken with significant resources by government agencies, are all a necessary part of preserving our past.  ISJM tries to tie many of these efforts together.  We make introductions, compare methodologies, and offer suggestions to make seemingly disparate efforts undertaken for diverse reasons (personal, artistic, historical, architectural, political) compatible on as many levels as possible.  We all must do more of this, encouraging those inquiring in the field or digging in the archives to ask more and broader questions, to make their private searches more meaningful to a wider public – for  today and tomorrow.

To this end, ISJM has established two awards to encourage high standards for documenting Jewish monuments as well as for creative and adventurous documentation methods.  These awards, named after pioneers in the field, will be in the form of unsolicited and unrestricted research grants of $500 to individuals or institutions engaged in the documentation of Jewish buildings and cemeteries.  ISJM will also help to arrange publication when appropriate.  The Szymon Zajczyk Prize will be given on an annual basis in recognition of achievement in the recording of the architectural heritage of the Jewish people.  The David Henriques de Castro Prize will be awarded in recognition of achievement in the documentation of Jewish cemeteries.  The achievements of Zajczyk and de Castro are described below.

Survey is nothing new
The process of gathering information on site is called surveying.  Surveys of individual buildings are used to assess significance and condition.  Architectural survey can require detailed recording, through drawings and photographs, of an individual site.  Surveys can also be undertaken of groups of buildings spread out over considerable distance.  Town surveys, regional surveys and country surveys are designed to collect information about a large number of sites using a standardized methodology, and to present this information so that descriptions of individual sites can be easily compared and contrasted.

Surveys can be open-ended and inter-disciplinary, designed to ask a wide range of questions and to meet still-unanticipated needs.  A good survey should assume the eventual disappearance of first-hand information and seek, therefore, to collect without prejudice as much is available.  I always tell people going into the field, "Think that you are the last person ever to see and describe this site.  Everything the future will know about it depends on the detail of your observation, on the accuracy and comprehensiveness of your description."  Ideally researchers must be part historian, artist, architect, genealogist, anthropologist, and much more.

Unfortunately, I frequently hear of buildings or cemeteries that are vandalized or destroyed without previous adequate documentation.  But there are exceptions.  A few weeks ago The Great Garden Street synagogue in London was demolished.  Fortunately, Evelyn Friedlander of the Hidden Legacy Foundation had managed to photograph the intact interior before its demolition.

The Rewards of Documentation
Because few Jewish remains can be identified from medieval Europe, understanding of that culture derives from a collection of objects and buildings that is accidental, and may not be representative.  Beginning in the late 19th century, however, many Jewish scholars began to systematically record inscriptions and describe cemeteries and buildings in order to preserve information, knowledge and memory.  Seeing the destructiveness of modern warfare and witnessing the modernization of European life, they anticipated change and loss.  Though they could not know the level of destruction that was to come, their efforts provide us with glimpses of the past.

For instance, in 1923, an inventory of synagogues was begun by the Institute of Polish Architecture, under the direction of Szymon Zajczyk.  Zajczyk, who had witnessed the destruction of monuments in the First World War, took thousands of photographs of Polish Judaica and synagogues, and then prepared detailed descriptions.

Zajczyk's research team consisted of architects from the Institute of Polish Architecture of the Polytechnic of Warsaw who made hundreds of measurements of synagogues.  Copies were made of the polychrome decorations.  The primary sponsors of this project were killed in the Holocaust and much of the information gathered was destroyed.  Some material, however,  was saved, and this forms the basis of existing information about Polish wooden synagogues and other Jewish art.
Thanks to Zajczyk's efforts we know that in Warsaw alone, apart from the Great Synagogue at Tlumackie Street and the synagogues at Twarda Street and in Praga, there were over two hundred prayer-rooms in private houses (one of these has been recently discovered).  Elsewhere, the situation was similar.  In small Osweciem (Auschwitz), there were over twenty (See story p. 17).  There would have been many more, since Zajczyk did not consider all of the synagogues of the guilds and brotherhoods worthy of recording, nor all of the prayer rooms (stiebels) of the Hasidim.  He did not think that it was necessary to record each house of study (beth midrash), especially those built in the 19th and 20th centuries.  These were not architecturally interesting to him.  The Holocaust radically changed this situation.  After, only a few hundred buildings were left through out all of modern Poland that could be identified as former synagogues—and many of these buildings were in ruins.

Recording should always begin with the site or object itself, but can include documentary searches, oral histories, and archaeological excavation.  The wider the approach and the broader the method, the more information will be gathered and the larger the audience will be for the material.  Historians, genealogists, preservation planners, artists, and many more will benefit.  Szymon Zajczyk surely never anticipated that his measurements and photographs of Wooden synagogues would influence contemporary abstract artist Frank Stella, who created a series of paintings inspired by Zajczyk's photographs and reconstruction drawings by Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka.

In another early instance of fortuitous documentation, David Henriques de Castro, a 19th-century member of Amsterdam's Portuguese community, transformed the Oudekerk burial ground from a Jewish cemetery into a cultural and historical monument of interest and importance to a wide population.  Spending his own money, he excavated buried stones, carefully mapped the site, and raised and restored the stones that he felt were of particular interest.  In all, about 6,000 grave stones were uncovered, mapped and recorded and then reburied, for their protection.  In 1883, de Castro published a book about the cemetery and his work.

It was only in the 1960s, however, that de Castro's work was seriously picked up and continued.  Following de Castro's lead, more than 27,000 graves in the cemetery have now been mapped. Restoration and preservation of tombstones has been carried out under the supervision of the State Institute for the Preservation of Historic Monuments.  Continuing this tradition, J.J. de Vey Mestdagh, the Dutch government archivist of the province of Groningen, has for many years documented the tombstones in Jewish cemeteries in the province and has published the epitaphs from the Ashkenazic stones.  Similar studies have been carried out at Sephardic cemeteries in the Caribbean, and ISJM is proud to be the sponsor of a current project in Surinam that sent architect Rachel Frankel and Hebraicist Prof. Aviva Ben-Ur to continue recording the architecture and cemetery inscriptions at Joodensavannah in the summer of 1998.

Another early instance of meticulous pre-Holocaust documentation which subsequently helped restore a site was told by ISJM founder Philipp Fehl at an ISJM meeting a few years ago.  Fehl described that fate of Vienna's oldest cemetery at #9 Seegasse in Vienna, closed in the 18th century.  A history of the cemetery was published by Bernhard Wachstein from 1912-1917 and included a plan and description of each stone.  In 1943, the stones were removed and the cemetery was flattened for use as a football field.  After World War II, it was generally assumed that all the stones of the cemetery had been destroyed.  The only indication of the cemetery itself was the surrounding wall.  In the 1980s, however, a discovery on the grounds of one of the Jewish sections of Vienna's Central Cemetery revealed piles of old tombstones.  Because of Wachstein's study, they could be traced to the desecrated Seegasse Cemetery.  Though no one knows how these stones were saved from the Nazi destruction, those that survived were restored and returned to the places they had occupied before the war.

Elsewhere, however, stones frequently did not survive at all and 19th century documentation is all that remains.  In what was the Ottoman Empire, particularly Turkey and Northern Greece, the only evidence of the existence of thousands of Jewish epitaphs from the 16th and 17th centuries from the cemeteries of Salonika are the transcriptions of Isaac Emmanuel, who copied more than 2,000 inscriptions in an effort to document Jewish life in lands formerly under Ottoman control.
In recent years, Emmanuel's work has been continued by a team led by Prof. Mina Rozen of Hebrew University, which recorded inscriptions on gravestones in Jewish cemeteries throughout Turkey, resulting in the most extensive cemetery recording project in the world.  Cemeteries were located, ground plans made, and individual stones were cleaned, photographed and copied.  Over 80,000 individual tombstones were registered.

This effort was a race against time.  In many places the surviving cemeteries are some of the most important, and at times the only, testimonials of Jewish life from the 17th to the 20th centuries.  Many of these cemeteries are disappearing, falling victim to extensive urban expansion throughout Turkey, where, as in many other countries, unused cemeteries (and other religious sites) are often forfeit to the government.

The value of a site is often only fully understood in the widest possible context of its creation.  No restoration, no matter how careful, can recreate this, but broad documentary surveys can help.  In order to maximize the value of collected information, it is necessary to be inclusive in collection, thorough in approach, and consistent in method.  For information to be comparable from one place to another, certain minimum standards should be adhered to and certain criteria should be maintained.  Comparison is best made from views, plans, and drawings of different sites that are consistently scaled and presented.  Whenever possible, the same set of questions should be asked at each site, with an indication when they are inapplicable or unanswerable, and the same terms should be used in description.  Each site will also reveal unique characteristics and these must be noted with careful observation and recording.

The very process of conducting a survey can prove valuable in ways never expected.  By deliberately looking for information, asking questions, and examining remains, a survey can excite local interest and recruit local involvement.  People will tell what they know, show what they have seen, and can be relied on, if included in the process, to share new information.  Local people made aware of the significance of their own history, of their local monuments, will usually take better care of them.  Unfortunately, there is a sad corollary.  A survey can draw attention to a previously little known place or thing.  This attention, creating a renewed sense of its value, may lead to theft or vandalism.

There are many kinds of documentation to accommodate the different situations that require varied approaches.  Accordingly, there are also many kinds of surveys.  Some, with short-term goals, search out specific types of information with particular uses in mind.  A preservation survey may collect material on a site's condition, or on its current use.  In restoration, a site or building should be fully documented before any intervention is taken.  This documentation can then guide decisions and provide a record of what is changed.  After documentation, restoration can begin.  While layers of history are stripped to reveal the building as the restorers believe it was originally conceived, documentation preserves information and memory of a more diverse history -- one that reflects the full life of the site and the varied activities, tastes and fortunes of it the community it served.
Restoring a building's "original conception" can often obscure or deny centuries of use.  The recently completed restoration of the Izaak Synagogue in Cracow is a good example.  The exterior of the 16th century synagogue now looks clean and bright, perhaps (though we can never be sure) as it did over four hundred years ago.  This stands in stark contrast to its grubby appearance in a half-century of photographs that document its earlier dilapidated state.  Which part of the building's history is more significant?  The pristine restoration may take us back to the intent of the synagogue's founder, but it is a far cry from the building as experienced by generations of Cracow's Jews.  This is a problem confronted in all art restoration.  In the restoration of Jewish sites, the choice we make reflects the type of Jewish history we choose to teach.

Good documentation, and documentary research prior to restoration, can help ameliorate this problem.  Many changes, once made, cannot be reversed.  Especially at older sites, the process of restoration itself causes destructive change.  After restoration, it is always possible that new information might arise to change interpretations.  If the site has been documented properly, both previous to and during restoration, any restoration errors can be corrected.  Documentation provides the information about what is old and what is new.

Around the world, interest in Jewish history, and the material culture of the Jewish past is increasing rapidly.  Tourists, governments, museums, and collectors all are eager to exploit the important sites of Jewish activity, and the artifacts that define these sites.  Religious Jews and genealogists are paying more and more attention to the condition of Jewish cemeteries around the world.  These include, of course, the thousands of cemeteries either desecrated during the Soviet period and or during the Holocaust, and neglected and vandalized ever since, but also sites further afield -- in Asia, North Africa, Latin America and even in small towns across the United States.  This interest affords many opportunities for expanding our knowledge of Jewish history, Jewish life, and the interaction of diaspora Jews in the non-Jewish world in which we have always lived.  But pressures for change are strong, too, and it is important that every effort be made to fully document the existing remains of Jewish sites before it is too late -- whether because of the destruction brought about by ignorance, greed or hatred; or the changes brought about by increased access and demand.

It is a central tenet of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments to foster these surveys in every way we can.  With our members’ help, we can continue and expand this work in the coming years.

Samuel Gruber


Veroia, Greece.  Cross-section of syangogue looking towards the ehal.  Part of documentation of synagogue by the Municipal Company for Public Works "Ifestos" and Municipality of Veroia; Elias V. Messinas, Project Coordinator.  Project funded by the Getty Grant Program, 1995.




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