Thursday, January 1, 2009

Poland -- Orla Synagogue; a Fund-raising/consciousness-raising video

The wonderful synagogue in Orla, eastern Poland near Bialystok, needs restoration -- and the tireless Tomek Wisniewski has posted a YouTube video (in English and Polish) on it to help raise consciousness -- and, it is hoped, funding!

The striking synagogue, with a distinctive scalloped facade, was originally built in the 17th century. Its sanctuary has nine bays and a vaulted ceiling, and there are still some traces of marvellous painted decoration -- vines, garlands, floral motifs, and animals.

The building dominates the little town, where before the Holocaust Jews made up nearly 80 percent of the local population.

The synagogue was listed as a cultural heritage monument before World War II. Tomek reports that when it was all but destroyed in a huge fire in 1938, the Polish government stepped into to reconstruct and restore the building.

The synagogue was reconsecrated in 1939, but then the Nazis used it as a field hospital and later turned it into a warehouse for chemical fertilizer. For decades it has stood empty and in ever-deteriorating condition.

When I visited Orla in 1990, the entire facade was covered in rickety scaffolding and more scaffolding filled the sanctuary inside -- indeed, the outer front wall and entrance were restored then, and in the 1980s the building got a new roof.

There was talk that it would be restored for use as a local culture center -- back in 1990 the mayor and other town officials seemed obsessed by the project and eagerly showed us around the building. But funding dried up, and nothing ever materialized....

Tomek rightly suggests that, if the synagogue were restored, it would add an important component to a cluster of restored synagogues in northeast/eastern Poland that are used for cultural purposes and draw thousands of tourists.

These include the massive, 17th century synagogue at Tykocin, a wellknown Jewish museum.

The synagogue in Sejny, to the north near the border with Lithuania, is used as a theatre and exhibition space, forming part of the cultural complex utilized by the Borderland Foundation, an innovative cultural and educational organization that promotes knowledge of the multi-ethnic history of that part of Poland.

Synagogue in Sejny, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber


  1. The Original painting at the synagogue was painted by my great grandfhather Yisthak Meir Dayan. Who was the Shohet.

  2. Batya -- that's fascinating. Do you have any more information you could share here?

  3. My great-grandfather Zvi Hershel was a young rabbi from Orl. Around 1896, he left Poland for England, then the U.S. Here in the states, he took the last name Orliansky, which my grandfather eventually changed to Orleans.