Ten of 2000 Synagogues in Belarus

Yana Shydlovskaya, photos Sergei Plytkevich


The architectural appearance of Belarusian cities and towns has been, to a certain extent, determined by wooden and stone synagogues for many centuries. By the beginning of the twentieth century, they totalled nearly two thousand.

Alas, the wooden structures of Jewish communities did not survive in Belarus. They were burned and destroyed during the war. Only few drawings, postcards and photos remind of them. Synagogues of stone and brick, which partially survived, were turned into warehouses, cultural centres, cinemas and clubs. We have selected ten of the surviving synagogues of Belarus. Some of them lie in ruins or are undergoing restoration. Only a few examples of synagogue architecture are used as synagogues. The proposed trip will help you to see and appreciate the magnitude of the spiritual culture of the people for whom the synagogues were built.

1. Great Synagogue in Bykhov

The great synagogue appeared in Bykhov in the first half of the 17th century, a few years after the castle was built here. For two centuries this was the only big stone structure in the city.


The great synagogue in Bykhov has features characteristic of a defensive structure. The impregnable castle-like view of the synagogue is created by two-meter thick walls and a round tower at a corner with niches, resembling loopholes. The interior was richly decorated with modelings and paintings. Today it is one of the four synagogues in Belarus where the bimah survived. It is located in the centre of the sanctuary, surrounded by four pillars, with a raised platform from which the Torah and excerpts from the books of the prophets during the service are read. The surviving bimahs can be seen in the synagogues of Slonim, Grodno and Ruzhany.


On the old map of Bykhov, the great synagogue occupied a whole quarter in the northern part of the city. In the neighborhood there was a market square and the city wall with the Mogilev gates.

2. The Great Synagogue in Slonim

The Jewish community appeared in Slonim in the mid-16th century and three centuries later it became one of the most numerous in Belarus. At the turn of the XIX-XX centuries, in the city there were 21 synagogues, a Talmud Torah, several dozen cheders and four Jewish schools.

The construction of the great synagogue of Slonim began in 1642 near the market square. Six years later, its baroque façade with a figured pediment harmoniously blended into the historic centre of the city. The powerful character of the building enhanced the city's defensive system. Outwardly the synagogue looked reserved and strict with its high window openings, narrow niches and loopholes, located in two tiers.


The almost two-meter-thick walls protect an exquisitely decorated sanctuary with a balcony above the entrance where women prayed. Its interior is partially preserved: today inside the synagogue you can see a bimah surrounded by four columns and aron-kodesh. The walls of the synagogue are decorated with old frescoes depicting ritual and secular musical instruments, flowers. The synagogue has often suffered from wars and fires. In the post-war years it was turned into a warehouse and a commercial premises. Now the building of the synagogue that adorns the historic centre of the city is under restoration.

3. The Synagogue in Ruzhany

Having taken possession of Ruzhany, Lev Sapieha turned the locality into his residence. In the XVII-XVIII centuries the court architect of Sapieha, Jan Samuel Becker worked in Ruzhany. He designed Trinity Church, the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, the Basilian Monastery, the Church of St. Casimir in Ruzhany.

At the end of the 18th century, the architectural appearance of the town was enhanced by a two-tiered building of the synagogue, built according to a new type, because the elements of defensive architecture were completely replaced by the baroque forms during its construction.



The basement of the synagogue featured small lancet windows. The window openings above were arched shape. The exterior was decorated with thin pilasters, a wide cornice and decorative arches. The sanctuary inside the synagogue looked commodious, and today one can see the old bimah surrounded by four columns.

Near the synagogue, a one-storeyed yeshiva with arched windows was built. After the war, the building was used as a warehouse, a mill, a boiler room and a garage.

4. The Great Synagogue in Stolin

By the end of the XVIII century, the Jewish community of the city totalled over four hundred people. By the end of the next century the population of the city was predominantly Jewish. In Stolin there were four synagogues, mikvahs, Jewish schools, mills, shops, pharmacies.

The great synagogue, built in Stolin in 1792-1793, is a two-storey building with arched windows, a pediment, pilasters and cornices on the second tier. Inside the walls were decorated with colourful murals, which have been partially preserved to this day. The fire of 1827 did not spare the bimah. Forty scrolls of the Torah were also consumed by fire, which were stored in silver cases with gilded finials.



The peculiarity of the Stolin synagogue was a complex roof construction, which was often used in folk architecture, in particular, when to cover big barns. Alas, today the walls of the synagogue have no roof above them.

5. The great synagogue in Grodno

The great, or choral synagogue on Bolshaya Troitskaya Street in Grodno is considered one of the most beautiful and oldest in Europe. To construction the house, in 1572, comes to Grodno the Italian architect Santi Gucci. But even this stone house suffered greatly from the fires of 1885 and 1900.


The construction of the present-day building of the Great Choral Synagogue in the style of Russian Art Nouveau was begun in 1902. Its appearance partially incorporated some architectural features of the old synagogue, dating back to the 17th century. The house had two elegant, decorated with pilasters, cornices, fascia and high arched niches and windows.

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Inside the Choral Synagogue is as good as outside. In the middle of the prayer hall decorated with stucco moulding, where the choir of boys once used to sing, there is a bimah, in the eastern wall - a niche for the storage of the Torah, and along the western - a gallery for women. During the war, the synagogue was in the centre of the ghetto and served as a gathering place for Jews before being sent to concentration camps and to executions. After the war, the magnificent building was used to store food and medicine, and then adapted to art workshops. At the moment, work is underway to restore this synagogue in Grodno on the banks of the Neman River. The services take place in the prayer hall. There is a Jewish Museum in the building today.

6. The Great Synagogue in Kobrin

Built in the XVIII-XIX centuries, the synagogue Kobrin is considered one of the largest in Belarus. This is the only surviving of the seven synagogues that existed in Kobrin, where Jewish population prevailed before the Second World War. In the years of the war the synagogue appeared in the centre of the ghetto. After the war, devastated and plundered, it was closed and used for other purposes, in particular in the 1980s, beer and a berry drinks were produced here.


In 2003, the registered Jewish religious community of Kobrin raised the issue of restoring this architectural monument. However, it has not yet been possible to implement plans to establish the cultural centre of Jewry of Western Belarus, the Museum of History and Ethnography of the Jews of Brest Region, as well as to make the synagogue acting.

7. The stone synagogue in Luzhki

The village of Luzhki stands on the bank of the Mnuta River near Sharkovshchina. At first those were the holdings of Sapieha, later the Zhabov family held them. Luzhki was granted the status of a small town with the right of holding fairs. In modern Luzhki and its surroundings, the historical architectural ensemble, consisting of the estate of the Counts Plater, the churches, the water mill and the synagogue, built in the mid- 19th century have recently received the status of historical and cultural treasure.


The building of the synagogue is built of quarry stone and brick on the right bank of the Mnuta. Once there was an acting cheder, which until 1872 attended Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who he was born in Luzhki, and Leiser Yitzhak Perelman attended the cheder, who later will be called "the father of modern Hebrew." On the site of his house in Luzhki there is a memorial, and in Glubokoye his bust adorns the Alley of famous countrymen. The walls of the synagogue in Luzhki survived, featuring unusually beautiful stone masonry and arched window openings. Near the river banks, the ruins of the mikvah have been preserved. That is a water tank with walls of rubble and bricks.

8. The synagogue in Oshmyany

At the beginning of the XIX century, the stone synagogues in Belarus acquired a form more typical to secular architecture, with the features of classicism. At the turn of the XIX-XX centuries, the Jewish community of Oshmyany, which about half of the city's population comprised, received permission to build a stone synagogue. The building is made of red brick, strict and rectangular in shape, decorated with pilasters, with slightly elongated windows. The peculiarity of the Oshmyany synagogue is its three-tiered roof, which has survived to this day. Its two lower tiers have four slopes, while the third highest one has two slopes and triangular, board-clad gable-shields.



During the Second World War, the synagogue and the adjoining territory were turned into ghettos. After the war the building belonged to the regional consumer cooperation. Now it is in the possession of a local museum of local lore, named after Frantishek Bogushevich. This is the only synagogue in Belarus, in which the original interior is well preserved, including wall and vault murals and individual architectural elements.

9. The Great Lubavitcher Synagogue in Vitebsk

The last authentic building of the stone synagogue in Vitebsk stands on Revolutionary Street, which used to be called Bolshaya Ilinskaya. It was erected in the early twentieth century, when the city had about 60 prayer houses and synagogues. They were built mainly of wood. There were only a few stone synagogues. The Great Lubavicher was one of them. Not far from Bolshaya Ilinskaya is Pokrovskaya Street, where the family of the artist Marc Chagall once lived. The rich history of synagogues in Vitebsk has to be studied on the basis of archival documents, old postcards and photographs, as well as paintings made by artists. For example, Marc Chagall showed a wooden synagogue in Vitebsk on his gouache drawing "My Village", and in the drawing "Synagogue", dating to 1917, the artist depicted the interior of a prayer house with a bimah and aron-kodesh.


The Lubavitcher synagogue was used for a short time. In 1923, it housed an aeroclub, and after the war the building was transferred to one of the city's enterprises to establish a House of Culture. The Great Lubavitcher synagogue in Zadvinye is getting dilapidated every year. Not once the question of its restoration was raised, but to this day the synagogue remains in ruins.

10. The Choral Synagogue in Minsk

At the very beginning of the 20th century, on the Serpukhovskaya Street in Minsk, which will later be named after Volodarsky, a Choral Synagogue was erected, in the architectural style in which the Byzantine and Arab motifs intervene. On the facade there were also an elongated Arabian arch, resting on Byzantine columns, tripled arches, a relief plastering, mimicking the Byzantine masonry, and Gothic round rosettes, the biggest of which symbolized Aaron's eye.



After the revolution, the Choral Synagogue was destined to perform exclusively cultural roles. It was a Jewish theatre, a House of Culture, a cinema for 1.2 thousand seats and, finally, in 1947 the Russian Theater moved here from Bobruisk. The building of the former Choral Synagogue was rebuilt after the war and now it looks different. Today the building houses the Maxim Gorky National Academic Drama Theatre. Fragments of the old masonry can be seen only on the walls, facing the yard.


published: http://planetabelarus.by