Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Hitler destroyed it, Jews rebuilt it


NEW YORK, Feb. 15 (JTA) — Many Jewish educators try to provide students with a solid foundation of history.

One Jewish historian, however, just wants to provide generations of Jews with solid foundations.

Samuel Gruber, the director of the Jewish Heritage Research Center in Syracuse, N.Y., embarked on a mission more than 10 years ago to preserve and restore old synagogues.

This year, his decade-long restoration of a synagogue in Poland should be finished.

“Sam is really the principal author of the growing field of Jewish heritage preservation in Europe,” said John Stubbs, vice president for programs for the World Monuments Fund, an organization that encourages conservation and preservation of historically significant works of art and architecture.

Built in 1862 by a congregation religiously similar to the modern Orthodox movement today, according to Gruber, the Tempel Synagogue in Krakow, Poland, was designed to seat approximately 800 people.

Most of Krakow’s Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and the building was left in ruins after being used as a stable during World War II.

Gruber first saw the synagogue when Poland was just opening up to domestic travel in 1990, soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A year later, Gruber had a powerful experience when he attended a rare concert in the synagogue.

“Its impact on me was overwhelming,” he said. “Seeing the synagogue full of people made the place come alive.”

Tempel’s future holds special meaning for Gruber because of its practicality for the community.

“I see the Tempel Synagogue as an ‘international synagogue,’ ” Gruber explained. “Congregants will be coming from around the world,” he said, because of the town’s proximity to the site of the Auschwitz death camp. While the synagogue will not employ a permanent rabbi or convene regularly, it will operate on the High Holidays and other special occasions.

“When the synagogue is completely restored, it will be an affirmation that Jews go on,” Gruber said. “It will show that Hitler didn’t really win.”

Gruber foresees the temple’s completion in August, ready to hold High Holiday services. The religious style of the synagogue, however, remains to be seen, as Gruber said, “It will serve more modern needs.”

Once completed, the synagogue “will be held up for a long time as a textbook example of the best way to restore an historic synagogue,” Gruber said. “We’ve kept its patina of history and followed it from prosperity to annihilation to quiet rebirth.”

Gruber began his career by accident.

While in Rome in 1987, Gruber met an elderly couple and sparked their interest in a Texas synagogue founded by his great-grandfather in 1893.

The Illinois-based couple, founders of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments, convinced Gruber to give presentations on that synagogue and later on synagogues in New Jersey. Eventually he turned to restoration.

The restoration of the Krakow temple was easier than other projects Gruber has supervised because it was “one of the few synagogues that had most of its original decorations and Jewish religious features.”

Although the synagogue had lost its original bimah, the platform from where the Torah is read, its stained glass windows and ark wall were undamaged.

Gruber was instrumental in raising the more than $850,000 in funds and construction work — most of it from American Jews, including the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation — needed to restore the building.

“We received wonderful cooperation on all levels,” said Gruber of the assistance given by the Jewish and non-Jewish populations of Krakow.

Gruber and the monuments fund sponsored events to reach potential donors and affirm their commitment to the project. After holding a concert in the synagogue in the early 1990s, “We had to pay the Krakow Philharmonic in cash — I think I had $10,000 in cash strapped to my body going over there,” Gruber said.

For Gruber, the project is evidence of a welcome change in public opinion toward Jewish restoration projects. “American Jews have never been slow to give money to the symphony or an art museum,” said Gruber, “To convince the same people that Jewish sites are of that same worth is not always easy.”

Gruber attributes the increased interest to American Jews — and Israelis — who are searching for their roots.

Increased tourism to Central and Eastern Europe also resulted in the discovery of abandoned synagogues that are now being brought to preservationists’ attention. Four Jewish sites — in the Ukraine, Greece, Surinam and Yugoslavia where Gruber is working to restore a synagogue in Subotica — have recently been added to a global list of the world’s 100 most endangered cultural sites.

Engaging American support for the latter project, though, has not been easy because of the tumultuous political situation in the Balkans. Workers are currently stabilizing the building and Gruber hopes to raise $200,000 by spring.

“It’s such a shame to lose it,” Gruber said, “because once it’s lost, it’s lost forever.”

Recommended from JTA