hidden europe 10

Europe's lost synagogues

by Nicky Gardner


Shoah survivors and their descendants come and stand silent in the synagogue where once an entire kehillah worshiped together. hidden europe finds out what has become of some of Europe's former synagogues.

So often, in our travels, we run across, entirely by chance, hidden corners that evoke memories of Europe's rich Jewish cultural and architectural heritage. An old mikvah in a cellar in Görlitz in eastern Germany, now redeployed as a fish pond, storing fresh carp for a restaurant up at street level above; a stark monument by the gateway to the former ghetto at Grodno in Belarus; a stone lavabo in a sunny vine-clad courtyard by a simple white synagogue in Ioannina in northwestern Greece. Not to mention the references to lost communities in street and place names: Zydu (Street of the Jews) in Vilnius, Ulica Zudioska in Dubrovnik and a simple bar deep in the folds of Poland's Bieszczady mountains with a rusting sign outside: U Zyda.

But these are details that are easily missed. Many are the tourists who stop off in Kazimierz Dolny, arguably the best preserved small town anywhere in Poland - and a place not to be confused with the Kraków suburb of similar name. But how many remark that the town's cinema, just off the old square, is housed in an old synagogue? In Zilina in Slovakia the exotic domes of the old Neolog synagogue no longer echo to the reading of the psalms, but rather to the soundtracks of modern movies. Just east of Zilina, in the nearby small town of Dolny Kubín, a small Star of David on the community's blue and white cinema is a reminder that films are now screened in the space where once the devout attended to the Torah.

There is quite probably no natural affinity between cinema and synagogues, although visitors to Turin might think otherwise. For the city's most famous spectacle, the Mole Antonelliana, was conceived and designed as a great synagogue for Piedmont's Jewish community. Sadly, the great domed temple was doomed never to be used by Turin's Jews, for a financial debacle during construction meant that the half-finished building was ceded to the city authorities. Today it is put to good use as a temple of another kind, documenting the history of the silver screen. Italy's Museo Nazionale del Cinema, an exuberant tribute to a century and more of moving images, is now housed in the Mole Antonelliana.

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