Fairfield University's Bennett Center for Judaic Studies presents "The Lost Wooden Synagogues of Eastern Europe," a screening and talk


For hundreds of years, Jews throughout Eastern Europe built houses of worship out of wood. More than 1,000 of these wooden synagogues existed before World War II, but only a small number of them remain today. Most were burned down during the Holocaust, and those left standing are now either boarded up, in great disrepair or long abandoned.

On Monday, March 16 at 7:30 p.m., Fairfield University's Carl and Dorothy Bennett Center for Judaic Studies will screen the award-winning documentary, "The Lost Wooden Synagogues of Eastern Europe," which explores the history of these holy places. The film, narrated by Theodore Bikel, tells the story of what happened to the synagogues during the last 50 years, and the life that surrounded them before the Nazis came to power. The film's producer, Albert Barry, a photojournalist and graphic artist who worked for Time and Life magazines, will be at the event to share how it became vital to him to make the documentary.

Barry, an aerial photographer for the Army during World War II, first came across photos of the structures in a secondhand store. Barry said, "This interest started back in 1969 when a book was published in Poland, entitled "Wooden Synagogues." I purchased this book which contained many photos of exterior and interior shots. The thing that was really interesting was that all of these synagogues were in the rural areas and not in the big cities."

In the decades since, Barry collected rare photographs of the synagogues and extensively researched them. Barry said, "For years, everyone thought they were all destroyed in the Holocaust. Not too long ago, a team from Hebrew University notified me that they discovered (six of the wooden synagogues) in Lithuania."

With Emmy Award-winning filmmakers Carl and Kathy Hersh, Barry traveled to Lithuania to find the synagogues in the small towns, also known as shtetls, where Jews worshiped together in large numbers before the Nazis came to rule. The documentary also traces how the filmmakers found four additional synagogues in the countryside by chance after talking to locals.

Dating as far back as the 1700s, the wooden synagogues were considered architectural marvels. There often wasn't enough money for prayer books, so Jews painted prayers on the walls and ceilings. The structures were also decorated with folk art consisting of birds, animals and prayers written in Hebrew.

The event, free and open to the public, will take place in the Dolan School of Business Dining Room. Call (203) 254-4000, ext. 2066, to reserve a seat. For more information about the Bennett Center and other events it sponsors, visit fairfield.edu/judaic.

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Media Contact: Meg McCaffrey, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2726, mmccaffrey@fairfield.edu

Posted on February 20, 2009

Vol. 41, No. 222