Synagogue Roof


This construction is a masterpiece of timber framing and painted decorations dazzled with the richness of colors and patterns. The replica of the Gwozdziec synagogue roof is the first assembled piece of the main exposition of the Museum of History of Polish Jews.


In the basement of the museum building in Muranów, also called “minus 208 level”, one can hear drills whirring and hammers knocking. A team of several people is working on a wooden structure reminding of a tent.

A complicated skeleton, made out of circa 400 elements, is hanging on massive chains and slings, 1.6 m beneath the ground. From below, temporary beam cribbing provides support. Thanks to that, without fear, one can stand underneath and see the ceiling formed out of more than 300 hundred boards. It is hard to take eyes off the paintings- You can see mythical and real animals here, zodiac signs, and floral motives. They all form a visual prayer and lead worshipers towards the East side, where the Aron ha-kodesh altar was situated- explains Rick Brown, in charge of works.


The idea to include this replica the synagogue roof in the gallery presenting old Jewish towns was born long before work on the construction site had begun. Architects submitting their projects had to design a special place for it. In order to fit such a big construction, 8 m tall, it was necessary to leave a hole in the ceiling between the basement and the ground floor- We are making a building inside a building- says Robert Supel, director in charge of the main exposition.

In 2008, American organization called Handhouse Studio from Massachusetts, contacted the Museum. The Studio, run by Laura and Rick Brown, provides classes in reconstructing historical wooden objects. They have already prepared an exhibition about XVII and XVIII century synagogues from historical Poland. The Browns proposed to make especially for the Museum, a replica of a roof of a wooden synagogue from Gwozdziec, near Kolomyja (today Ukrainian territories), which was built in the first half of XVII century. The roof reminded of a tent, hiding a two-level ceiling over the room of prayers. Paintings were made by two local artists: Izaak Bar with his son, Israel Lisnicki from Jaryczów, and later Izaak Leb, son of Jehuda Hakohen from Jaryczów.  This ceiling was a breakthrough in the architecture of synagogues, and also had it’s decorative value, explains Robert Supel.

The synagogue in Gwoziec, just as other wooden synagogues, did not survive WW2. We know it only from the photographs and drawings. In order to reconstruct it’s roof, Handshouse Studio called international group of art historians, architects, artists and timber framers. Under the eyes of specialists, there were 200 Polish, American, and Ukrainian students working over two summer seasons. The construction was made in the skansen in Sanok, while the paintings- during workshops organised in the synagogues- in various polish towns and cities. Everything was done with tools and techniques used in the XVII century. Even the same kind of wood was used for this- silver fir. All of the projects were funded by Australian-American donor Irene Pletka.


The replica is slightly smaller than the original. In November it was brought to Warsaw, in pieces. The install in the building has started on 14th January. Apart from Handhouse Studio, Timber Framers Guild and polish company Stanko took part in the works. Until now (at the time of this photo), the frame of the roof and the ceiling have been installed. In February the frame will be covered with shingles, but only partly, in order to let the audience admire complicated combination of the beams. In the beginning of March, all the construction will be raised to a height of 2.5 m over the ground. It will be hung on 16 steel rods attached to the ceiling. Thanks to the hole between two levels, the top part of the rood will be seen from the ground floor. Just as a priceless exhibit- behind a barrier and fire resistant glass.

The most difficult part was to transform black and white documentation into colour images. Each element required detailed process, investigation of the history of architecture, and research on the ornaments from this particular period and area, says Laura Brown.

Similar constructions were found by the team, in the church of Drohobycz for example. Colours of the decorations- with major part of blue, red and yellow- they found in works by painted named Isidor Kaufmann and anthropologist named Alois Breyer, who one hundred years ago were documenting Jewish towns on the eastern border of Poland.

In the basement of the Museum, other works take place as well. Assembly of steel construction for the main exhibition is about to finish. This multimedia exposition- as director Andrzej Cudak has recently announced- is going to be finished by the beginning of 2014. Top part of the building- starting from the ground floor- is already finished, in some parts even furnished.

The opening for the public occurred on 19th April- as a part of the celebration of 70th anniversary of the Ghetto Uprising.

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