Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, Nos. 3-4 / Winter 1997-98
Pinczow Synagogue

Poland's Pinczow Synagogue Receives Help

Pinczow, Poland.
Pinczow, Poland. Painted decoration in vestibule. Photo: Samuel Gruber/WMF.

The synagogue at Pinczow, Poland, celebrated for its pure Renaissance form and its splendid wall paintings and fine stone carving, remains in desperate need of restoration. The structure, which was included in the 1996 list of Jewish Heritage Preservation Priorities published by the World Monuments Fund, has not received significant attention or financial assistance.

In 1997, however, the regional conservator of monuments for Kielce gave 10,000 zlotys [approx. US $3,000] towards conservation. In addition, a considerable private donation (US $10,000) came from Mr. Leon Radinsky, an American citizen. These funds, the first significant private contribution, are already being used to rebuild the foundation of the Ark and to repair mural paintings and the floor in the main prayer hall.

In August 1997, the local newspaper Slowo Ludu (Kielce) reported that bids would soon be closed for refitting of the carved limestone Ark, which for many years existed as an assemblage of broken fragments reconstructed on the synagogue floor. According to Jerzy Znojek, Director of the Regional Museum at Pinczow, work is scheduled for next year. Still much remains to be done, like renovation of internal plastering, cleaning and restoration of the 17th and 18th-century mural paintings in the main prayer hall, the staircase and exterior elevation.

The Regional Conservator of Historic Monuments estimates total conservation amounts of 350,000 zlotys (approx. US $101,500), but to restore the building and make it accessible to visitors and equipped to handle exhibitions or other events will cost considerably more. Delay, however, means increased deterioration of the site and rising costs due to Polish inflation. Every seasonal change witnesses greater loss of the plaster and fresco decoration. The unsolved humidity problem continues to weaken the masonry structure. This building urgently requires immediate intervention, and ISJM hopes that the international community will join with the local Polish conservators and the World Monuments Fund in contributing to this important Jewish site.

The Pinczow synagogue is among the most impressive surviving synagogue in Eastern Europe. It is especially important because of its relatively early date, its full expression of contemporary aristocratic Renaissance architectural models, and the extremely effective adaptation of the Renaissance style for synagogue use. For example, it is one of the very first synagogue buildings to include a women's section within its original architectural design. Even before the extensive destruction wrought during World War II, the significance of the Pinczow synagogue was recognized. Today, it has added importance as a rare survivor.

The district of Pinczow was especially famous for its stone carving, and the synagogue incorporated many fine examples of the local art. The carved stone Aron still exists in fragments. The carved stone bimah, however, was destroyed and is known only through photographs. Several carved stone lintels and door jambs are still in situ. Many wall paintings survive, particularly the Hebrew texts which filled the walls and the brilliant blue ceiling paintings. On the interior vaults and near the Ark are traces of polychrome decorations. The most precious wall paintings, dating from the second half of the 18th century and attributed to the Jewish painter Jehuda Leib, are on the vaults of the porch. These floral and vegetal decorations are in extremely fragile condition.

Pinczow. Poland.Pinczow, Poland. Main sanctuary of synagogue. Photo: Samuel Gruber/WMF.

Preservation work has taken place on the exterior where the masonry of the lower walls has been consolidated and repointed. These sections were probably originally below ground level, hence their rougher and more deteriorated condition.

The cube-shaped synagogue consists of a square main hall covered with a cloister vault with lunettes. There is a porch with a separate room, and the women's prayer hall is above this. Access was given to the women's room by an exterior wooden stairway. This is one of the oldest examples of a synagogue in which all the rooms which constitute the unified compact form were built at the same time. The thick walls are further strengthened by massive exterior buttresses. A sunken roof covers the vaults and is screened on the exterior by a parapet-wall of severe outline, without decoration.

Pinczow was founded in the 15th century. In the 16th and 17th centuries it was an important center of stone working. The precise date of arrival of the Jews is unknown, but they probably settled in the town during the 16th century. By 1673 Pinczow had a population of 1,273, of which 496 were Jews. The synagogue was erected at the turn of the 17th century and it survives essentially unaltered. During the Second World War the Jews of Pinczow were deported to Auschwitz where they died. A small number managed to survive by hiding in neighboring villages, but all survivors have since either died or emigrated. The synagogue was substantially damaged when it was used by the as a warehouse.

After the war the accumulated rubble was moved out and the building was secured. The government has listed the building as an historic monument, and the Regional Conservator's office made limited repairs to the roof and windows from the 1960s to the 1980s with the intention of adapting the building for use as a museum of artistic stonework. The repairs, however, were inadequately planned and funded, and work soon stopped. The water penetration into the masonry fabric of the building continued. Indeed, the repairs exacerbated the level of humidity throughout the building causing a rapid increase in the rate of deterioration of the precious frescoes, as the dampness causes the plaster to fall from the walls. Only when this problem has been fully addressed can other building repairs and further conservation take place. Meanwhile, the building continues to decay.

Preservation efforts will be coordinated by the office of the regional conservator in Kielce, which has long had a strong interest in seeing this building saved. Locally, the mayor, the Roman Catholic Bishop and the Director of the Pinczow Museum are all supportive of the project. There is no Jewish Community in Pinczow today. - SG

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Updated: 23-Jul-98