Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Lost Synagogues of Europe

 I just received a remarkable little book—Where We Once Gathered, Lost Synagogues of Europe by Andrea Strongwater.

The artist/author wisely calls this "a children’s book, suitable for ages 5-95." It remembers and celebrates the role of the synagogue in Jewish life. And it implores us never to forget.

The book opens with an introduction from Stephen M. Goldman, of the Holocaust Memorial Center, in Farmington Hills, MI. Mr. Goldman puts it right on the line: "Lost Synagogues? They are lost only if we forget."

Where We Once Gathered: Lost Synagogues of Europe is a gallery of paintings of synagogues destroyed by the Nazis—from Germany to every country where their bloody boots touched down. The paintings are drawn with loving detail. They practically glow on the page.

Each painting faces a page with a concise history of that synagogue. The descriptions are more than dry encyclopedia entries. Strongwater shows her Polish, Jewish roots in the ironic kicker to her description of the great synagogue of Lodz, Poland:
On the night of November 14-15, 1939, the synagogue, including the Torah scrolls and interior fixtures, was burned to the ground by the Nazis. In 1940, the remains were removed. The site is now a parking lot.
The book had an added personal significance for me. This past summer, we made a family pilgrimage to my wife's grandmother's shtetl—Glina (formerly part of Galicia, now Glinyany, Ukraine). There is no vestige of Jewish life in Glina. The old cemetery is a field... with not a single gravestone. And all that was left of the old synagogue was a hill and a locked doorway to a basement.

A few days later, we visited the tomb of the Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edels 1555 - 1631) and the remains of his synagogue—The Great Synagogue in Ostrog (Ostrig, Ukraine). Like the ruins of an ancient temple taken over by the jungle, the once magnificent building lies desolate.

Let us not forget.

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