Fifty years ago this year, two young Polish architects published a book that would change the face of American synagogue architecture. Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka, both survivors of the Warsaw Uprising and German labor camps, collected and interpreted studies made before the war of the wooden synagogues that once dotted Eastern Europe. Most of the surveys were taken by people who died in the Holocaust, and all of the centuries-old buildings went up in flames. But much of the documentation pertaining to their architecture survived. The Piechotkas used this material, which included photographs, measurements, and descriptions, to recreate the destroyed buildings in their book Wooden Synagogues. Published in Polish in 1957 and released in English in 1959, the book revealed a lost world of interior spaces, shapes, and decorations, tremendously varied, expressive, and exciting—and all made of wood.
From 1959 to 1989, the Piechtokas, living in Warsaw, were severely restricted in what they could publish about Jewish art, despite the material they continued to gather and additional insight they might have offered. Thus, Wooden Synagogues became a sort of message in a bottle, sent out into the world on its own.
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One of my first and most intensive journeys tracing Jewish heritage sites was a trip with the Piechotkas through eastern Poland in May 1990.... Sam and his wife, Judy, and I traveled with Maria and Maciej to -- if I remember correctly -- 19 synagogue buildings in all states of repair and disrepair. (We also visited some sites on our own.) The trip opened my eyes to the extent, beauty and power of what survived of Jewish heritage in eastern Europe, and it formed the basis for much of the Poland chapter in the first edition of Jewish Heritage Travel.