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The Great Maharsha Synagogue in Ostroh: Memory and Oblivion. Have we reached the point of no return?

22.12.2015, 16:19
The Great Maharsha Synagogue in Ostroh: Memory and Oblivion. Have we reached the point of no return? - фото 1
Today it is a vulnerable ruin – but it also, nonetheless, remains a powerful place of Jewish history and memory, heritage and lore.

The Jewish community of Ostroh, dating back to the fifteenth century, was one of the oldest and most affluent communities in Volhynia, then a province of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and presently part of Ukraine. The community was home to outstanding  rabbis and scholars, among them Shmuel Eliezer Ha-Levi Edels – Maharsha – who lived from1555 to1631. Its tragedy during Khmelnytsky’s uprising in the mid-17th century was described in Abyss of Despair by Natan Hanover, whose own father perished in Ostroh. This Jewish chronicle, a first-hand account of the devastation wrought by Khmelnytsky, describes the desecration of the Great Synagogue and its conversion into a stall.  Centuries later, the building was damaged during the Holocaust and then used as a pharmacological warehouse under the Soviets.

Today it is a vulnerable ruin – but it also, nonetheless, remains a powerful place of Jewish history and memory, heritage and lore.

Indeed, like many other old synagogues, the Great Synagogue has its legends.

One recounts that Maharsha himself laid its cornerstone, and thus it bears his name. Another story says that the synagogue existed before Maharsha, and that he only added the women’s section. Yet another narrative, recorded by the ethnographical expedition of S. An-sky in 1913, holds that the synagogue was – already then ‒ 800 years old. A story reflected in a special scroll, the Megilat Tammuz of 1793, celebrates a  miracle: that the synagogue was hit by Russian cannonballs with the whole congregation assembled inside, but the shots did not explode….

In fact, the synagogue was built after 1627, when an owner of the town issued a privilege prohibiting the erection of synagogues taller than churches, conducting Jewish burials during daytime, distilling spirits on Sundays, and selling beverages before the end of the Holiday mass.

Maharsha synagogue, Ostroh, pre-World War II. Photo: Yad Vashem

Maharsha synagogue, Ostroh, pre-World War II. Photo: Yad Vashem

The synagogue design was novel: the spacious prayer hall had four interior columns and twelve perimeter pilasters, which support nine equal vaulted bays. Another, slightly earlier, synagogue of this type was the Great Suburban Synagogue in L’viv, built in 1624–32 and ruined during Holocaust. This synagogue shared some almost identical design forms with the Maharsha synagogue, namely the ground plan, the octagonal column shafts, and capitals so like each other that they eliminate any possibility of accidental similarity. This suggests that the same architect designed both synagogues, and this apparently was Giacomo Medleni (d. 1630), a L’viv guild master who subsequently also worked in Volhynia. The inverse (Doric over Corinthian) placement of the architectural order, the nine-bay scheme of the ground plan, and an addition of the slanting buttresses in the Ostroh synagogue suggest that the architect employed an imagery published in 1604 by the Jesuit theologian Juan Bautista Villalpando, which presented the Temple envisioned by prophet Ezekiel as a nine-bay compound adorned with a specific order featuring Doric elements over the Corinthianesque ones and retained by slanting  buttresses.

The nine-bay layout, which symbolized the Twelve Tribes of Israel surrounding the Sanctuary, stipulated three large windows on each of four sides of the synagogue. In the eyes of believers, this concept was probably reinforced by the Kabalistic idea of the “upper synagogue” featuring twelve windows, a divine prototype existing in Heaven (Zohar II:251a). The synagogues of L’viv and Ostroh coined the scheme of twelve windows illuminating the prayer hall that would become a design found frequently in the Commonwealth.

This seminal design emerged in 1620s, years of messianic fervor preceding the catastrophic 1648 – the year of the Khmelnytsky uprising. In synagogues of western Europe, a similar design concept based on Villalpando’s imagery of the Temple  was adopted only in 1670s. This was applied to the Great Ashkenazi and Portuguese synagogues of Amsterdam, both built in the early 1670s.

Each of these three synagogues, in Ostroh and in Amsterdam, has a spectacular historical record, an authentic built fabric, and elaborate and meaningful design, and each of them would serve as a pattern for synagogue architecture in coming centuries. All three are listed as a national heritage sites. They differ greatly, however, in their present condition and preservation perspectives.

In Amsterdam, both the Great Ashkenazi synagogue and the Portuguese synagogue remain famous and well preserved monuments of Jewish sacred architecture. Both major tourist attractions, they form part of the city’s well publicized “Jewish Cultural Quarter,” with the Ashkenazi synagogue one of four synagogues that house the Jewish Historical Museum there.  The Portuguese Synagogue, or Esnoga, is still used for religious services but also serves as a venue for public cultural events and houses the important Ets Haim Jewish library.

In Ostroh it is quite a different story, thanks to different geography, different history, different economic possibilities, and different local attitudes to the heritage of the past.

Synagogue in Ostroh, 2011. Photo: Sergey Kravtsov © Center for Jewish Art

In recent decades, the pharmaceutical facility was removed from the Maharsha Synagogue, and its roof collapsed and also disappeared. The building is deteriorating rapidly, no longer protected from harsh winter weather. Descendants of Ostroh Jews who now reside in Israel came to an agreement with the regional authorities some years back to convert the ruined building into a museum, and the plan for its reconstruction was prepared. The Ukrainian side had even assembled timber for a new roof. The financial crisis of 2008, however, paralyzed all further efforts, and by now even the construction material that had been assembled has vanished.

What we have now is a synagogue, the Great Maharsha Synagogue, that – like those in Amsterdam ‒ fulfills all the criteria of being an internationally recognized built heritage asset. But it faces a far different fate. Though a concerted conservation effort is urgently needed, I’m afraid the reaction to the synagogue’s continuing decay does not go beyond airing increasingly dramatic photos by numerous visitors: we can watch its deterioration online.

Who knows? Maybe the European Union can somehow be called in to protect this monument, whose legends are so vivid and whose history is both so rich and so tragic! And maybe the descendants of Ostroh Jews can reassume their activity, working together with Ukrainian public bodies, authorities, and professionals. What can we do to get something done, to motivate action?

We’re not yet at the point of no return on this building, I just hope we don’t reach it before it’s too late.

Sergey R. Kravtsov

Jewish Heritage Europe