Refurb syn
Damaged wall painting Note the bullet holes Damaged wall

Restoration of the Synagogue on Brothers Mikhnovskych Street

A trip to our twin community in Lvov is always a roller coaster of emotions, highs and lows, ups and downs. For many visitors the most breathtaking moment comes when they enter the Shul for the first time and gaze at the paintings on the walls and the ceiling.

Before WWII there were between 40 and 50 functioning Shuls in Lvov and, of course, innumerable shteiblach. Today the only working survivor is Rabbi Mordechai Shlomo Bald’s Synagogue on Brothers Mikhnovskych Street. It was erected in the late 1920’s and is, therefore, a contemporary of our own shul in Norrice Lea. The Honours Board commemorating the Building Committee and Board of Management has miraculously survived and now hangs on the north wall.

The Shul’s survival is a remarkable tale in itself. The Nazis used it for horse-stabling, the communists used it for warehousing. Only after Glasnost and Perestroika was it redeemed from abuse and returned to Jewish control. Although it is now dry and heated, it has been visibly ravaged by 50 years of neglect. The murals have suffered damage (principally from damp and bullets) but retain their dramatic impact.

From the 17th Century onwards, many synagogues in Eastern Poland and Ukraine were decorated with wall paintings, of which only a few remain. The most famous examples were even signed by the artists: Mogilov (1710, Belarus) by Haim Segal and Chodorow (1714, Ukraine) by Israel Lisnicki.

At the time of WWI, Shlomo Ansky (author of The Dybbuk, who was one of the pioneers of research into the folklore and ethnography of Eastern European Jewry) sent delegations to Jewish settlements throughout the Diaspora, to document works of art. One of his researchers, Lissitzky, related how, in his search for the popular sources of Jewish Art, he went to Mogilov and was amazed:

“A rich bestiary, both local and exotic, realistic and symbolic, with the zodiac occurring next to the major symbols of Judaism, menorah and the tablets of the law, landscapes including scenes of Jerusalem or divine evocation, biblical inscriptions, are all intermingled in a system of foliated scrolls and of medallions covering the ensemble. Such are the characteristics of these paintings that reveal an art both popular and scholarly: a mixture of scenes from daily life, religious references, copies of motifs from books or engravings”

Similarly in Chodorow the ceiling showed floral and animal theme decorations, with the zodiac in the very centre of the ceiling, accompanied by inscriptions of the Bible.

The photographs of the Lvov Synagogue interiors, reproduced alongside this article, reveal the same themes of animals and Torah symbols.

Chief Rabbi Dr Sacks has written that “Judaism - in sharp contrast to Ancient Greece - did not cherish the visual arts” and attributes this to the biblical prohibition against graven images. “Judaism”, he says, “is a culture of the ear, not of the eye”. Nevertheless, quoting a responsum of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, there is no trespass in 2-dimensional illustrations, hence the elaborate mosaics found by contemporary archaeologists in the synagogues of ancient Israel.

Just as those mosaics blended in with Hellenistic methods of artistic expression, just as the stained glass windows of our own Shuls correspond to a favourite medium of western European church art, so there would appear to be a relationship between synagogue murals and the iconography of the Orthodox Christians. Nevertheless there is a crucial distinction: for the Christian the Icon itself is holy. By contrast, as Dr Sacks puts it, Jews believe in the beauty of holiness, not the holiness of beauty.

Professor Shalom Sabar of the Department of Jewish and Comparative Folklore, Department of Art History of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem describes the Lvov murals:

“They carry on the familiar iconography of older (18th-19th century) Polish synagogues; but a new dimension is added -- modernity; modernity not in the sense of new ways of expression (it is not Chagall) but rather a more professional style than the one commonly used in the older synagogues. The artist was not an amateur or folk artist as in the previous generations, but someone who is familiar with three dimensional illustration, perspective, landscape, etc. (but it is not "high art" -- rather something in the middle). He probably used photos (such as those printed on postcards, Mizrach tablets, and other materials current in those years) as his source of inspiration”

His colleague, the Lvov-born Dr Sergei Kravtsov architect and architectural historian at the Centre for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University comments:

“The murals, though typical for the 1920-30s in the Eastern Europe, are unique in the Ukraine of today. Unlike those of another known monument Beit Tefilah Binyamin in Czernowitz, produced by a non-professional painter, the Lvov murals are a professional work. They resemble to me paintings by the Fleck Brothers of Lvov, e.g. their sketches for the Great Suburban Synagogue in Lvov”

Both of them plead for the preservation of these paintings. As Professor Sabar puts it:

“My humble opinion is that it is important to preserve these paintings as they record a transitional stage in the development of Jewish art in Eastern Europe. In Jerusalem we have one such a synagogue -- the Great Yeshivah in Me'ah She'arim - that is painted in a similar style (by Yitzchak Bak, in the late 1940s).
So I'm all for preservation if possible; not many monuments with such splendour and bright colours survived the Holocaust”

Without detracting from the wonderful financial support that HGSS provides for the Shul, welfare and education programmes in Lvov, we feel the time has come to raise funds for the conservation of these paintings and the restoration of the Synagogue on Brothers Mikhnovskych Street. We have started to receive substantial donations from outside the community.

Anyone who would wish to be associated with this project is invited to contact us.

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