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[Page 216]


[Page 217]

The Synagogues in Brzezany

By Menakhem Katz

Translated by Moshe Kutten

Edited by Jane S. Gabin



[Pages 218-219]

  1. The Large Synagogue
  2. The Beit HaMidarsh Habaui [“Built”]
  3. The Stretiner Kloiz
  4. The Rozlower Kloiz
  5. The Bait HaMidrash of the “Khazan” [Cantor]
  6. Tchorkower Kloiz
  7. Beit HaMidrash of Rabbi Yudel
  8. Potiker Kloiz
  9. The synagogue “Yad Kharutzim”
  10. The synagogue of Rabbi Mendeleh
  11. Ya'ir (Jair) Synagogue
The map of the center of Brzezany and its synagogues

[Page 220]


by Menakhem Katz

Translated by Moshe Kutten

Edited by Jane S. Gabin

To my mother, from the home of Mendel David

Close to forty years passed from the outbreak of the Second World War, the day when the synagogues in Brzezany ceased to serve their worshipers.

As early as the first day of the war, an immense influx of refugees arrived, who flocked to our city and converted the houses of prayer into poor slums. A great outcry arose in our city. Despite all the lobbying, the city's leaders could not find a way to prevent the invasion of the refugees into the prayer houses. Tens of families, not only poor ones, settled in the synagogues temporarily but made it into their permanent homes, thereby sealing the fate of the synagogue to cease serving as a place for prayer. Only two synagogues - the Great Synagogue and the Synagogue of Rabbi Yudel - remained free of settlers and served the community for two additional years (1939 – 1941).

With the invasion of the Nazi oppressor, the destruction of the eleven synagogues of the city was complete. I want to memorialize those synagogues in the following articles. The pain about the destruction and the longing for what was dear to our hearts, which would never come back, motivated me to contribute, at least a little, to the memorialization of the legacy and the sacred and precious memory that has been destroyed. As an architect, I preserved the elevation silhouettes of the buildings and translated them into plans and descriptions. I used sources from the city's map, discussions with the worshipers, and books in Polish about Brzezany. I also relied on my memory and my extensive knowledge of the city.

[Page 221]

The Great Synagogue

by architect Menakhem son of Shimon Katz

Translated by Moshe Kutten

Edited by Jane S. Gabin


The Name

The “Great Synagogue” – is the name of the main synagogue in Brzezany.

Here, my mind wonders. Why wasn't the Great Synagogue called after somebody, as customary with the rest of the synagogues?

It is inconceivable that for generations (from the beginning of the 18th century), there was no philanthropist, rabbi, or Tzadik was found who was worthy of memorialization by calling the synagogue after him, particularly after the death of the last Posek [religious decider], Gaon Rabbi Mordekhai (the Maharsha”m), the eminent rabbi of the city for many years.

I searched the literature and made comparisons, and I think that because of the sizable measures of the building (23 x 21 some meters), rare for other synagogues in Galitsia, the community leaders did not want to change its name for prestige reasons since they felt that by doing that, they would diminish the value of the synagogue.

Thanks to the undisputed rule of the Polish princes' dynasty of the Sieniawski family during 1530 – 1726, Renaissance architecture was incarnated in all its glory in the city churches and testified to the tight connection between the construction style in the city and the construction in the civilized world in general, particularly in Italy. Thanks to the cultural relations of the Sieniawskis, exceptional builders were brought to the city from the outside. That level of construction affected the design of the Great Synagogue. As additional proof, we can point to the “Turie Zahav” [“Golden Columns”] synagogue in Lviv, which was designed by the Italian architect Paulo-Romano.

After a thorough review of Y. Finkerfeld's book “Synagogues in Italy from the Renaissance Period until Today[1],” I concluded that all the synagogues in Italy, at all stages of their development, did not reach the size of the Great Synagogue in Brzezany, except one – the Sephardic synagogue in Livorno. To my surprise and joy, I found an analogy between the two structures.

Livorno's synagogue - a bigger and more luxurious building, contained a unique feature that distinguishes it from the rest of Italy's synagogues – three arcades encircling the hall on three sides. The hall was nearly square-shaped (28.2 x 25.8 meters). The Great Synagogue in Brzezany was also nearly square-shaped, but its measures differ somewhat (23.2 x 21.1 meters).

The columns that form the arcades in Livorno were built on the first floor in Brzezany as support pillars with grates between them, forming the (poor) women's sections on the southern and northern sides and the main entrance to the hall on the western side. The rainbow shape of the curvature arcades' arcs in Livorno[2] was identical to the two-floor women's section arcs' curvatures in Brzezany. In both buildings, the measures of the flat wooden ceiling were larger than the customary measures.


A diagram of the Sephardic Synagogue in Livorno taken from Ya'akov Finkerfeld's book

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In both synagogues, the Bimah [the raised platform from which the Torah is read, and prayer is led] was located in the center, the Holy Ark was placed at the short wall, and the benches encircled the hall from its three sides. The octagonal windows in Livorno took the shape of circles in Brzezany, but their location was identical. The metal grates, separating the women's section in both synagogues, reached only half the height and did not completely close the opening.

One hundred twenty-seven years separated the construction of the two buildings (the Livorno synagogue was built in 1591, and the one in Brzezany in 1718). Due to the similarity between the two plans, it is logical to assume that the Livorno synagogue served as an example for the one in Brzezany. The differences between them were in the degree of splendor, the shape of the front, and the marble pillars with arcs in Livorno. Also, the two-story women's sections in Livorno were on the second and third floor, while they were on the ground section with one floor above it in Brzezany. The extensive measures led to the name of “The Great Synagogue.”

Other synagogues throughout Galitsia and Bohemia, including the large and palatial ones, were smaller than Brzezany's (approximately 21 x 23 meters, 483 square meters). For comparison, a few examples are listed below:

Rzeszów [Reisha] 16.52 x 13.00 (380 sm) (according to Grutta [synagogue listings])

Lutsk 21 x 19.2 (410 square meters) (according to “Boznice Drewniane” [by Kazimierz & Maria Pichotka], pg. 28)

“Turei Zahav” Synagogue in Lviv – about 200 m, Zhovkva [Zolkova] - 400 sm, Khodorov (the hall) – 100 sm (according to the book “HaUmanut HaYehudit” [The Jewish Craftsmanship], pg. 249).

Based on the theory presented here about the size of that building, I conclude that the community leaders refused to change the synagogue's name from “Great” to anything else.


The plan for the women's section

[Page 223]

A width cross-section of the synagogue


The hall plan

[Page 224]

The Synagogue and its Location

The Great Synagogue was built in 1718, and its name from those days was mentioned in the documents of the Roman Catholic community from 1762. The structure constituted a central building in the plaza, officially named “The Synagogue Plaza” during the Polish regime.

The synagogue constituted a frontal edge on the southern side of the plaza. It was surrounded by small houses of prayer and public Jewish institutions. In the east were the “Beit HaMidrash “HaBanui” [Built] (served the Stratyn Hasidim), the Jewish hospital, and the public ritual bath. In the West – the Rozlower Kloiz, the Jewish poor shelter, and several Jewish residential structures. The main entrance to the plaza was on the northern side, through a narrow street perpendicular to Zigmontovska Street. The positioning of the public buildings encircling the plaza testifies to the deliberate planning in constructing the plaza. It is not coincidental that the main building was positioned across the main entrance, and the rest of the structures constituted a frame for the plaza. The design was undoubtedly done by a professional architect with an urban sense, who planned the plaza according to the function of the synagogue. Other plazas in the city, such as the one in front of the Roman Catholic church, the one in front of the Greek Catholic, and other public buildings, were also similarly designed.

The construction and the Jewish ownership of the structures around the plaza indicate that Jews concentrated there for many generations. That was the cradle of the Jewish community in Brzezany. From there, the Jewish neighborhood spread northward and eastward. The synagogue and a group of structures appeared on the 1755 map of the city.


[A key for] The Plan of the Great Synagogue Plaza:
  1. The Great Synagogue
  2. The Beit HaMidrashHabanui” [Built]
  3. The Rozlower Kloiz
  4. The Beit HaMidrash of the “Khazan” [Cantor]
  5. The Jewish Hospital
  6. The poor shelter house

[Page 225]

The Description of the Synagogue

The Great Synagogue replaced an older 17th-century synagogue. The latter is mentioned in church archives (Lib. Instr. [?] from 1639, pg. 241). There are no additional details available on the old synagogue.

The square shape embodied an architectural space of a defined cube emanating from the specific design of that building, as mentioned above in the analogy to the synagogue in Livorno. According to the book by Metzishevski (1), the builders agreed to construct the pine-made flat ceiling using the method customary in the area. The breadth of the square hall was reduced by the three arcades that formed the women's sections on the two floors. Poor women, who could not afford to pay for the seats, used the northern and southern sides of the ground level free of charge. The three galleries on the upper floor were rented for a fee, the amount of which depended on the location of the seats.

I was deliberating over the shape and the construction method utilized in that structure, since it was unusual compared to what was customary in that period. It was not a square with arches like the other synagogues in Galitsia. It did not have four central pillars and did not belong to the family of fort-like buildings like the one in Zhovkva [Zolkova] or Brody. However, there were some fort characteristics on the building's east side – four external pilasters that narrow toward the top. They served as support for the walls in the fort-like synagogues.

In summary, I conclude that the unique plan was copied from the Sephardic Synagogue in Livorno[2], where the arcades on the ground floor formed the women's sections on the sides, allowing for a long entrance hallway, from which two main gates opened toward the east side. The floor level of the praying hall was lower than the outside ground level by about two meters.

There was a staircase between the level of the ground outside into the entrance hallway and an additional four stairs from the hallway level onto the praying hall.

Like in other cities in Galitsia, the governors of the Catholic cities did not allow the building of tall synagogues. These were the rigid laws of those days. Therefore, the structure here was not designed to rise above the Christian churches. It was built on the lowest topographic location [so, even with the two floors] it was much lower than the nearby Christian church, which was positioned on the mountain slope.

The interior of the building, surrounded by the women's section on the ground level, was covered by grated oak dividers, and above them, open arcades in the shapes of arches separated by artesian metal grills. A Bimah rose in the center. People climbed up to it using three steps from the northern and the southern sides.

[Page 226]

The Holy Ark in the Great Synagogue


The Bimah was surrounded by an engraved wooden railing with four lamps in the corners. The canopy mentioned in Metzishevski's 1910 book was not there. Possibly, when the Bimah was revamped in 1886 the canopy was removed. The synagogue was completely renovated in 1880 by a city-native Jewish constructor, Shimon Meiblum. The concern for the preservation of the building was great. Before the Second World War, the walls were renovated. They were covered with a wooden oak coating, and all the seats were replaced. The entrance hallway, including the wooden entrance gates, was covered by oil wall painting. The old wall pictures and the engraved stucco were not renewed for lack of an appropriate artisan or perhaps for lack of budget. [The rest] of the walls were painted in bright colors. The ceiling was painted light blue with tiny golden stars. The holy ark on the east side was the dominant element in the prayer hall. It rose about a pedestal made of stone and marble. You went up to it on a staircase surrounded by metal grates. The baroque engravements of sea creatures, trees, flowers, fruits, and other ornaments attracted the eyes of the worshippers with their beauty and rich shapes. The dominant colors were green and gold, except for the white marble pillars.

[Page 227]

I will not dwell on the rest of the synagogue features, such as the standing and hanging copper lamps, but I would like to mention the western wall. It was decorated with swirl paintings and the following items concentrated around it: the eternal light, a crafted sink made of hammered-out copper with a towel rack near it, a memorial plaque for the benefactors and synagogue's gabbais [administrators], and a decorated recess where the Matzah Shmurah was hung.

In its exterior, the synagogue resembled a cubic monolithic structure. It was an architectural entity that projected strength and stability while at the same time demanding respect – an objective any builder aspires to when building a chateau.


The Great Synagogue in 1978

[Page 228]

The Folklore and Goal

In 1570, 40 years after the establishment of the town of Brzezany, there were only four Jewish families in it. It was the cradle of the Jewish community in the city. At the time, they could not gather enough people for a Minyan. One hundred years later, in 1674, a Belgian tourist, Ulrich Wardom, mentioned in his description of his trip that there were 100 families in the town. From the beginning of the Jewish settlement until one hundred later, this was the location of the public praying in the city. Unfortunately, we do not have details about when was the first synagogue built. Several sources mentioned that a synagogue existed where the Great Synagogue was later built.

We all understand the gatherings in the synagogue to pray, but that was not the only objective. Every house of prayer had something unique in it. One was not the same as the others. In our city, the main goal of the Great Synagogue was to represent the community toward the outside world - the gentile world that surrounded it. That was the main building that the community identified themselves by. Every house of prayer in town had a different character. The Great Synagogue was not the same as Beit HaMidrash, the Beit HaMidrash was not the same as the Kloiz, and the latter was not the same as any other house of prayer.

The law and court, punishment, holidays, birth, and death all revolved around that holy place. According to a [Latin] manuscript “Descriptio Status Ecclesiae” [“Description of the State of the Church”] from 1762, an iron “cage” was positioned at the synagogue. A Jew brought to trial and punished by a court (consisting of regime representatives and Jewish rabbinical judges) was brought to the “Pillar of Shame” inside the cage. His hands and legs were tied with iron chains. He stood there for everyone to see and fear. It was a sad sight of a Jew bound by chains, his soul tormented, and his sore body was displayed for all to see. His Jewish brothers passed by to enter the synagogue to pray and looked at the offender. All of that happened against the synagogue gates at the plaza.

Starting with the invasions by the Tatars and the Turks, the First World War until the days of the Nazi oppressor, the synagogue served as a shelter for refugees and shelter from pogroms and persecution, as the people considered the building a physical fort, and a mental sanctuary. The synagogue walls witnessed many hardships, troubles, suffering, and sighs over many generations, but it also experienced days of joy and glory.

Fitting its name, the Great Synagogue served for community gatherings, particularly on holidays. It was then crowded with worshippers and was too small to accommodate everybody. People stood in the passageway and entrance hallway, and the believers and their children filled every corner. A great deal of crowding prevailed everywhere. The air was stifling, filled with the scent of a mixture of fabric, furs, spices, and candles – the smell of the synagogue during the holidays. –. It is an indescribable and unique mixture: sweet and intoxicating, inducing a unique atmosphere of togetherness in which you feel and experience holiness, the power of the community in its gathering, and the power of faith throbbing within yourself. The crowding, smell, and the many voices with all their nuances and variations, that surrounded the worshippers – did not prevent them from secluding themselves in prayer, covered with the praying shawl, and devoting themselves to G-d's worshiping.

[Page 229]

Spice box for Havdalah – property of the Brzezany community

A completely different atmosphere prevailed in the Great Synagogue during Shabbat – calmness and majesty, exemplary order, and fresh air. Not all the seats were taken. Jews in Shabbat clothing sitting and listening pleasantly to the chorus, cantor, and Ba'al Tfilah [praying leader]. Only a few faces of old women were seen peeking out into the space of the main hall. Shabbat experience – comfort and tranquility prevailed everywhere.

The synagogue also served the community on state holiday gatherings during the Austrian and Polish regimes to show empathy toward the ruler. The Jews identified with the Polish holidays - Independence Day or the anniversary of the Polish Revolt. You haven't seen a staged show until you saw the thanksgiving holiday at the synagogue.

The preparations began a few days before the holiday. The exterior of the synagogue was thoroughly cleaned. Dust was wiped, the windows cleaned, and the floors were oiled. Fragrant pine wreaths were hung among the galleries' arcades. The main gates were decorated with green branches and national flags. The copper lamps and candle holders were polished, and they shone with golden sparkles emanating in all directions. Everything looked new and specially prepared for the holiday. On the day of the holiday, the decorated gates were opened early in the morning. A special carpet was unrolled in front of the main entrance. The ceremony began at a predetermined time in coordination with the city's schools, the authorities, and the military.

Row after row of Jewish students from schools throughout the city flocked and marched to the synagogue plaza. Two Polish Army companies consisting of Jewish soldiers, with their commanders, followed the students. All of them were positioned on one side of the plaza. Opposite them stood the community representatives, in uniform, some wearing cylindrical hats. Behind them, the Jewish crowd. Stores were closed on that day, and people came to watch the regime representatives arriving at the synagogue.

The regime's representatives began to arrive. They walked in the gap between the students and the Jewish soldiers on one side and the Jewish crowd on the other, and so did the deputy mayor, several council members, “dolled-up” and decorated with medals, representatives of the Polish Army battalion, a representative of Prince Potocki (to whom most of the land around the city belonged), representatives of the fire department and professional guilds and other city dignitaries. They all passed on the avenue between the two sides of the plaza, with the community representatives waiting at the main gate shaking their hands, and everyone was accompanied inside by one of the community receptionists.

At the end of the representatives' procession, the students followed by the Jewish soldiers, and the crowd began to move inside. A chorus stood on the stage headed by the synagogue's cantor and sang an appropriate thanksgiving song. The community representative (most of the time Dr. Pomerantz or Lawyer Grossman) would then deliver an emotional speech in which he blessed the dignitaries, president, government, and everybody else who could be blessed and express loyalty and best wishes. The chorus would then sing several songs and prayers appropriate for the circumstances. After the official ceremony, the crowd dispersed in a praise-worthy order, fitting a state event.

Not only the staged show took place in the synagogue's plaza. The plaza also witnessed Jewish holiday celebrations. The event that topped all other celebrations was the one that accompanied the joyful bringing of a new Torah scroll to the synagogue, donated by the philanthropist Dr. Flikh [Flick?]. Everything and anything occurred on that evening in the streets and the plaza: drum and trumpets orchestra,

[Page 230]

a parade led by a torchlight procession and a canopy under which Jews danced with the scroll. Topping everything was the singing of the youth and the parade with the rabbi, an impassioned march that moved through the city streets and gushed in a mighty stream into the plaza. The people danced and rejoiced as elation engulfed them. The gentiles fell silent in reverence and peeked from afar at the crowd celebrating their faith. Nobody dared to try to disturb the Jews in their joyous ecstasy, never seen before. The entire Jewish community was in the Synagogue Plaza. Everyone, from young to old, rejoiced and danced until after midnight.

And the day of the Balfour Declaration - was that a state holiday? No, and no! It was a celebration for the city's Zionists. The Synagogue was decorated, gatherings were held, a prayer of thanksgiving was organized, and numerous speeches were given. The gatherings were held in the plaza. Endless debates took place there. Boundless excitement befell the masses. That was spontaneously realized in the plaza.

Additional events were held at the Synagogue, including formal gatherings of the Zionist parties, meetings for the community elections and the Zionist Congresses, and propaganda for the elections of rabbis (both by their supporters and opponents).

And last there were obituary ceremonies for dignitaries, activists, and city residents on their last way to the other world. Their funerals passed and paused here, in the plaza. Obituaries and speeches were delivered, and tears were shed in front of the synagogue gates and absorbed by the thick walls of the building. It was witnessed a great deal throughout the generations. Its secrets are impossible to decipher.

The Great Synagogue was the official home of the Jewish community. It was available for anybody within the community, with all its diversified sects and views, for social activities and prayers during sorrowful and joyful occasions.

The building stood strong, and served its worshipers for two hundred and fifty years. Many turnarounds and changes occurred during those years, but, the building always returned to serve its role until the Soviet conquest in 1941. With the entrance of the Red Army, the building served, for some time, as a shelter for the Jewish refugees from Western Poland. Over time, the refugees were removed by the authorities and they later converted the building into a wheat warehouse.

The Nazi oppressors did not change its function and the building continues to serve as a warehouse until today.

[Page 231]

Klei Kodesh

The Klei HaKodesh [Holy objects, literally ‘vessels of holiness’] of the synagogues in the city were numerous and splendid, particularly the ones in the Great Synagogue. Hundreds of objects, such as Torah Scroll crowns, trays, silver and copper candle holders, standing and hanging lamps, and multi-branched chandeliers, were donated from the 16th century until the 1930s. All, without exception, were lost during the Holocaust. A substantial part of these objects was buried underground by the activists of the Jewish communities. Among them were the Klei HaKodesh of Rabbi Yudel's synagogue, buried in the inner yard by the gabbai R' Shimshon Fogelman. The only surviving information are the pictures of the Torah Scroll and the spice box for the Havdalah, which were the property of the Jewish community, published in the book: “Zyddzi W Polsce Odrodzonej” [“Jews in Reborn Poland”][1]. The pictures of the other objects were identified by Moshe Bar-David as identical to those that exist in the synagogues and Batei HaMidrash in the city. These objects testify to the splendor of our community.


Klei Kodesh like the ones in Brzezany's Synagogue
(from the collection of M. Bar-David)


Sefer Torah crown from the 17th century
Property of the Brzezany Jewish Community


Translator's Notes:

  1. Mauritzi Metzishevski – “Brzezany, Historical Monograph”, 1910 (The National Library, Jerusalem, 36-1536:933.5 438). Return
  2. Ya'akov Finkerfeld – “The Synagogues in Italy”, diagram 23, pg. 37. Return

Translator's Note:

  1. “Żydzi w Polsce odrodzonej: działalność społeczna, gospodarcza, oświatowa i kulturalna”[“Jews in Poland Reborn, Social, Economic, Educational and Cultural Activities”], by Schiper, Ignacy, A/ Tartakower; and A. Hafftaki, Warsaw, 1933. Return


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