The Zamosc Synagogue in the Old Town

The Synagogue in the Old Town

Based on an article by Engineer David Davidovich, written in 1957

The synagogue in Zamość was one of the most interesting Jewish architectural creations in Congressional Poland: It was built at the end of the 16th century. (According to Balaban, the synagogues in Zamość and in Szczebrzeszyn were built during the same period, at the end of the16th century, but the exact date is not known.) Judging by its design, it was one of the square Renaissance synagogues, common in Poland from the middle of the 16th century.
Professor Szyszko-Bohusz, the well-known researcher of old buildings in Poland, has given us a detailed description of this synagogue in his important study (A. Szyszko-Bohusz, Materjaly do Architektury Boznic w Polsce, Krakow, 1926).

“In the whole complex of synagogues in Zamość today, with its many shapes, certain parts are ancient and organically connected: the main hall and the women's gallery, attached to it along its southern and northern sides, and possibly also the existing ‘pulish’ or the previous one; anyway it is similar to the one we see today. There may also have been a women’s gallery above the pulish. The other parts of the building and its additions stem from a much later period; they were mostly added in recent years, when important changes were made both in its external design and the whole internal area.
The synagogue’s pulish (entrance/hallway), is reminiscent of the passages in the stone houses in the town square (the ‘rink’). It comprises a wider front part with a barrel-shaped cupola with luntas (from Latin: Luna=moon like shape). Its floor is sunk more than a meter under the ground. On its eastern side is the entrance to the prayer hall, its floor is a little below ground, and on its western side some steps lead up to a smaller prayer hall. At the end of the narrower part of the pulish, whose arch is made up of two intersecting parts, lies the entrance to the courtyard: on the western side is the entrance to the Talmud-Torah and on the eastern side to the women’s gallery. The space between the two parts of the pulish is taken up by the steps leading to the choir.
The main part and, of course, the only one interesting from the architectural and artistic points of view, is the large prayer hall, presumably stemming from the 17th century. The synagogue is almost square (12.22m x 11.57m). Its measurements and vault are reminiscent of the synagogue in Szczebrzeszyn (13.43m x 11.35m), but the wall decorations and the copula are somewhat different. In the Zamość synagogue there are also eight luntas, attached in pairs in the corners of the hall… but these corners are structured in a different way, they are shell-shaped. The Zamość synagogue has a richer architectural design. In the walls on its northern and southern sides there are hollows (four in each wall), linking the hall to the prayer rooms of the women’s gallery. Above them there are a type of tablets, whose frames are richly decorated”.
(A drawing of these galleries can be seen in the book by Z. Gloger, Wooden Buildings and Objects in Ancient Poland, but their traces have disappeared in the course of time.)
“The place of the central pilaster in the eastern wall is taken up by the raised Holy Ark, set between two Ionic columns…
The light penetrated into the hall only through windows in the eastern wall, while the two windows in the western wall may have at first been connected in the women’s gallery. Today, after the changes made in the building, the four side windows serve as transparent screens to the women’s galleries on the sides.
A few years ago the western wall of the hall was still lined with wooden galleries for the choir of the “cheder children”. Szyszko-Bohusz defined ‘chorki’ as small choirs or places for the choirs. They were certainly intended for the “cheder children” or the singers in the chazan’s choir. As to the outward appearance of the synagogue, it is difficult to say anything about it today.
Apart from its barrel-like shape, the building is in the Renaissance style, typical of the Polish synagogues of the time. It is noteworthy that the Zamość synagogue has important additional artistic value, in some sense also first of its kind, reflecting clearly the influence of the Italian Renaissance.
Among the known Renaissance synagogues in Poland, the Zamość synagogue serves as the first example of the appearance of architectural-decorative ornamentation on the inner walls that can be considered as the “blind arcade”, so typical of the fortress-like synagogues, built there beginning with the middle of 17th century: The wall decorations are defined by Szyszko-Bohusz as “a type of tablets, whose frames are richly decorated”. They do not yet feature the same ancient motives – the interesting external decorations of the fortress synagogues – transferred to the interior of the building, and it has even less of the triporium of Christian churches; but how subtle and architecturally refined is the modest Frieze (a long band of painted, sculpted or even calligraphic decoration, above eye-level. Frieze decorations may depict scenes in a sequence of discrete panels. In this case, the frieze was made by plasterwork), enlivening the wide area between the tall windows of the synagogue from above, between the hollows connecting the prayer hall with the women’s galleries below. The two tablets with the prominent decorations appear here on both sides of the pilasters (a slightly-projecting column built into or onto a wall), i.e. four on each of the walls (including the eastern one). Their shape is rectangular, their upper horizontal line is not straight but semi-circular in the center, unlike its edges, and forms a kind of square with a lily within it. The plastic motives of the line framing it are intertwined, reminiscent of the form of arabesques, found in Sephardic synagogues in Toledo. (Today the churches of Santa Maria Blanca and El Transito.) This is particularly obvious in the bottom line and the Frieze  above the two frames, between the pilasters of the whole wall of the building.
The copula decorations, in the form of prominent decorative ribbons along the edge  of the luntas, in the center of the girdles or between the pilsters and the girdles, are products of magnificent craftsmanship of stucco artists. Particularly worth mentioning is the prominent decorative folk motive on the corner of the building, above the shell decorations – the container with flowers and two lilies alongside it. Such ornamentation in the Italian Renaissance style on the sides of arches is particularly typical of the Zamość synagogues (G.K. Lukomski, Jewish Art in European Synagogues. London, 1947, p.34).
The iron ‘bima’, one of the most beautiful original ones in Poland, is reminiscent in its shape of a huge Torah crown with eight attached sides. The bima’s upper part also ends in a tiny Torah crown, this one in a more realistic form. The ornamentation is delicate, the decorations on the upper part of the bima are in the shape of plants (leaves and acorns) and contain on the eastern and western sides two oval tablets, bearing the names of the donors (the bima was donated to the synagogue by Shmuel Barzilai; this name may also indicate the donor’s Sephardic origin). However, the ornamentation at the base of the bimah is made up of geometric motives with rosettes between them and stylized acacia leaves. This bima was built in 1788.
The synagogue has a huge Hanukkah lamp with nine branches. The pulish is noteworthy for the entrance gate to the prayer hall, covered with an iron grid in the form of a stone portal composed of two Baroque columns, crowned with a semi-circular arch. This part contains inscriptions in the form of an Frieze  on its sides with the verse “How awesome is this place, for it is the House of the Lord and the gate to the heavens”; and in the center, most prominent, is the verse ”This is the gate for the four righteous men to enter”.
After his visit to Poland, M. Tzanin writes about the tragic end of the synagogue (On the ruins of Polish Jewry. Davar, 28.1.1948): “When the Zamość Jews were expelled to the ghetto, a suspicious commotion spread in the town. Within a few hours the synagogue was stripped to its bare walls.”


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