The Great Synagogue of Brest
Brest’s wealthy cultural and material legacy from the Modern Period (16th – 18th centuries) is widely known. This is the result of the creative activity of its two most significant religious/ethnic groups: the Christians and the Jews. Christian culture and art have recently attracted increasing attention of scientists and ethnographers. However, the historical and cultural heritage of the Jews has not yet attracted significant interest among researchers. This article is dedicated to descendants of the Jews, who have built up this magnificent legacy of Brest’s culture.
• Synagogue (synonym: shul, literally: school) – is not only a place of worship as is usual in the Christian tradition. The synagogue is a place where Jews gather for prayer, studies, and discussion; where religious rules and laws are debated by learned rabbis; where court hearings on significant problems of the Jewish community are held.
• Aron Kodesh or Torah Ark – a cabinet, often decorated, in which the Torah parchment scrolls are stored.
• Zhyd – a traditional word in the Belarusian language, denoting a person of the Jewish faith, hence proper adjectives describing Jewish locations: Zhydouskaya School, Zhydouskaya Street, Zhydouski Market ...
The Jews were first granted the right to settle in Bieraście Litoŭskaje (Yiddish: Brisk de Lita) on July 1, 1388. The first houses of the Jews, most of whom were engaged in trade, appeared here by the old market-place on the right bank of the Muchaviec (Mukhavets) River. Here was founded the first synagogue, a necessity for a Jewish community of 10 or more adult Jews. Later, on September 25th 1411, Duke Witold granted the Jews the right to rebuild this synagogue in brick in recognition of the Brest Jews' great services to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In 1485, the construction of another synagogue was initiated in Niamieckaja (German) Street. Information is incomplete, but it is thought that the Jewish community may have purchased the unfinished building of the Orthodox Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus for this purpose.
However, in 1495, the Jews were expelled from Brest, and the building was transferred to Christian control. It was completed as a Chapel of the Holy Spirit. The Jews were allowed to return in 1504, and city officials were ordered to return to the Jews all the property taken from them earlier. In some cases, the original property was returned, in others, different property was substituted. The new sites were located outside the area of Magdeburg jurisdiction in the area defined by Niamieckaja, Zhydouskaya (Jewish), and Russkaya (Russian) Streets. As a result, the Jewish community grew along the Ugrynka River, and the Jewish Market was established at the intersection of Jewish and Russian Streets. Here, in the 16th century, significant new civil and religious structures were built. The most important of these was the Renaissance-styled Great Synagogue, whose striking architecture fascinated contemporary observers.
The primary force establishing the Great Synagogue was Ben Yehuda Shaul Wahl (1541-1617), also well-known as The King of Poland For One Night, a descendant of the famous Talmudist and philosopher Yehuda Mintz from Padua. Wahl attended the Brest Yeshiva, and was devoted to the Brest Jewish community. He was famed both for service to that community and to the Polish King Sigismund III, who in recognition awarded him a golden necklace studded with diamonds. Other wealthy citizens joined in financing the Great Synagogue of Brest. Among them were the richest among the Brest customs tax farmers, Lipman Shmerleyevich and Mendel Isaakovich.
The building process commenced with an agreement made in Warsaw in 1568 with the engagement of the Italian-born architect Peter Ronko, from Poznan. His name appears in the contract documents as del Ronchi, Derak, or Delranko. The Polish researchers Maria and Kazimierz Piechotko suggest that Ronko was a member of the Krakow House Painters' Guild. This is supported by evidence that house painters from Krakow and Warsaw joined the project in Brest, where they built a new brick-yard and, by July 1569, had fired the required quantity of bricks. Despite some early problems with financing, construction progressed. In 1570, the King confirmed in perpetuity the privilege for the brick synagogue.
This became the main synagogue of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It was associated with Brest's world-renowned figures: philosophers-Talmudists such as Yekhiel Shlomo Luria, the Maharshal (1510-1573) and the powerful personality of Ben Yehuda Shaul Wahl (1541-1617), reminding us clearly: this synagogue had very high status.
Location of the Great synagogue on the map of Brest, 1823 (from the archive of I. Łaŭroŭskaja)Photo © ²ðûíà Ëà¢ðî¢ñêàÿ | Year: 1823
In 1811, an architect named Toenis sketched its plan in the shape of a scalene trapezoid: sides 27.73 by 31.9 meters, with massive abutments. Excluding the shop, attached to the eastern wall, the space under the roof of the synagogue totaled 1244 square meters. Thus, it is clear that the square portion of the main hall comprised 9 equal parts, with a traditional Bimah (place for reading the Torah) in the center and the Aron Kodesh at the eastern wall. The design followed the concept of the inner space of a synagogue proposed by the medieval Talmudist Moishe Isserles (1520-1572) [www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/8340-isserles-moses-ben-israel-rema].
This concept supported gradual extension of the building over a long time, for which the need was very acute – the Brest Jewish community was growing rapidly, and the seats in the synagogues were considered as real estate. At the end of the 16th century, extra galleries were built for women. This generally coincided with similar additions for women in the synagogue Golden Rose (Lviv, 1597), in Kazimierz near Krakow and in Brest. The construction of the women's gallery in Brest was funded by Shaul Wahl to honor his wife Deborah, who was descended from David Drucker.
After the completion of the women's gallery, the synagogue was truly complete and it was designated as the most beautiful in the Grand Duchy. In the engraving of Erik Dahlberg it is presented as a two-story building with features of Renaissance architecture.
In the environment of the medieval Christian cultures, synagogues represented Judaism as a pre-Christian culture in the Old Testament tradition. Christians were well-aware of the fact that the stories familiar from the Bible took place in a landscape in which synagogues were a natural part of the scene. We can therefore assume that the reflection of the biblical scenes on the Uniate (Greek Catholic Church) icons Nativity of the Virgin (1648-1650), Protection (1649), and Assumption (1650) – which is ascribed to the Malorita Master – contain elements of the architecture of the Brest synagogue. Clearly-defined elements of the architecture and design of medieval buildings don’t arouse any doubt that they were painted directly from nature. These images do not conflict with the image of the synagogue seen in the engraving of Erik Dahlberg (1657). Further, they explain the hypertrophied proportions of the upper part of the building, and are in the accord with special allocation of Jewish buildings in the Zhydouski (Jewish) Market. Note that the right side of the icon Assumption shows a building, casting a shadow with a gallery (women's?) above.
The integrated arcades, featuring Corinthian architectural order, a developed stylobate, square window openings behind bars, and moldings around them has similarities to Venetian examples of Renaissance architecture. The stylistic connection with Venetian architecture could be ascribed, at least, to the traditions of the family of the main founder, who had come from the Venetian city of Padua.
The Brest Great Synagogue was a strong architectural success. This influenced the Jewish Va'ad - the regional governing body, an analog of the Diet - to favor construction and rebuilding of other synagogues along similar lines. Most kahals (Jewish community governing bodies) were subordinate to Brest in those days, and this Brest Paradigm strongly affected the architecture of synagogues throughout the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
Supplemental: In the mid-19th century, the city of Brest was relocated to make way for the construction of the Brest Fortress. The Jewish community received reimbursement of 80,000 zloty from the Russian authorities for the loss of the Great Synagogue.
Synagogue at the Millionnaya street in Brest. Built in 1842Photo © Zbigniew Wołocznik | Photo: ca. 1900
This was used for the construction of a new brick synagogue in 1842 on a new site at the intersection of Millionnaya (today, Savieckaja) Street and Zbiragovskaya (today, Budzionnaha) Street. Jewish community of Brest was destroyed on October 15, 1942, when about 30,000 Brest Jews were murdered. They left over 40 synagogues in Brest, many of which recalled grand features of 16th century architecture. Today few of them are recognizable.
Published here by courtesy of the author, Iryna Łaŭroŭskaja within the joint project of Radzima.org and the NGO Old Town. The publisher expresses sincere gratitude to the Archives of Brest Region, in particular to Anna Vasilevna Terebun for her personal assistance in preparing the article and providing archival materials.
Transliterated and translated from the original Belarusian. Initial translation courtesy of Google Translator [http://translate.google.org]. Completed, with extensive historical and cultural perspectives, by Oleg Medvedevsky (Brest, Belarus) and Hannah Kadmon (Tel Aviv, Israel). Final touches by Henry Neugass (Palo Alto, California, USA).