BCD SPECIAL REPORT ON HISTORIC CHURCHES 27 TH ANNUAL EDITION 35 EUROPE’S JEWISH ARCHITECTURAL HERITAGE and the work of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage Michael Mail S TANDING ON the bimah of the Great Synagogue of Slonim in what is now Belarus is a profound and moving experience; the ghosts swirl, someone in our group is crying. The Nazis set out not just to annihilate the Jewish people, but also to destroy their culture, consigning their very existence to oblivion. In places like Slonim you feel that they succeeded. Nothing is taught today in the local schools on the Jewish history of the town and the local museum does not mention the Holocaust, yet Slonim in 1939 had 17,000 Jews in a town of 25,000. It was a thriving Jewish centre noted for its Rabbis and scholars, including a famed Hassidic dynasty. Very few survived the mass executions that took place during World War II, brutally extinguishing a community which stretched back centuries. The only surviving witness to this Jewish history is the Great Synagogue itself. Built in the 1640s, it remains a brooding presence in the centre of the city – shattered, yet majestic. Following the war it was used to store furniture but for the last 20 years it has lain abandoned. So what do we do with the Great Synagogue, with all these synagogues across the landscape of Europe that so tragically lost their communities of users? There are many who will question why we should bother with buildings that can no longer serve their purpose. Yet the Jewish presence in Europe goes back over 2,500 years. The Jewish people evolved a distinct and rich culture which made a unique contribution to wider European civilisation and remains a remarkable legacy to this day. Jewish heritage sites – synagogues, Jewish quarters, communal buildings, cemeteries and monuments – are repositories of Jewish life, art and customs. Many are unique and beautifully constructed reflecting real architectural and artistic accomplishment. The Great Synagogue of Slonim in Belarus lies empty and decaying following the loss of the city’s Jewish community in the Holocaust. The 16th century Baroque synagogue of Casale Montferrato is a physical reminder of the thriving Jewish community which existed in Italy prior to World War II.