The history of Ostrów Synagogue
Opened on 6th October 2011 after a complete renovation, the synagogue has a long and interesting history. It is worth remembering that it was built in the place of the first wooden synagogue which had been used by the Jewish community in years 1724-1860.
Soon after the Jewish community of Ostrów/Ostrowo was established in 1724, Jan Jerzy Przebendowski, the squire of Ostrów, Grand Treasurer of the Crown, allowed the community to build a synagogue in the area of the town. It was situated at a square at the back of today’s synagogue (today’s name of the square – Plac 23 Stycznia). The building was 53 feet long and 30 feet wide. Walls were made of osb wood panels, the ceiling was upholstered with wooden panels, and the roof was shingled. Since the building had no floor, worshipers had to stand on the threshing floor during prayers. The synagogue had three doors as well as 12 windows (6 small and 6 big).
However, having been used for over 130 years, the old wooden synagogue could not be used any longer. The building was so mouldered that it could fall down at any moment. Also, because of its low location, the synagogue’s floor was said to be often flooded which made worshipping impossible.
The construction of the building was made of thick boards, except for the dome that was made of roof shingles. The entablature inside the synagogue had already been exchanged whereas the timbering above the main nave was formed into a barrel vault. Since wooden walls of the building were old and lacked the connection with the entablatured roof, they softened and had to be strengthened from inside and outside with wooden braces, attached at a right angle and screwed so that they became a substitute of the decayed base. Also, lower parts of columns supporting walls were underpinned.
Despite all these improvements, the building was quite dilapidated. What was especially mouldered was walls out of which a few ones were completely mouldered: the southern and at the same time the longest wall, all the western gable walls and the eastern gable wall. They bent inside and outside the building so much that the wooden braces supporting them also became dangerously bent. That all led to a situation when the whole construction stood for short time only because of metal screws and good adhesion of clamps made of grainy wood.
Because of that and because of the decayed wood both inside and outside the building, the renovation of the synagogue became uneconomic. At the same time the building was posing a constant threat, especially when crowded during prayers. Therefore, Kasel, a building inspector, proposed that a new synagogue should be built.
In a letter written on 11 April 1855 to Odolanów’s/Adelnau’s landrat, the Jewish community of Ostrów emphasized that both in the wet autumn of 1854 and in the spring of 1855 the synagogue was flooded which made worshipping impossible. The landrat was also informed that because of the condition of the building the Jewish community decided to build a new synagogue in the town. What’s more, the letter also said that Mr Nasierowski, a landowner from Wysocko Wielkie, made a decision to financially support the community in erecting the building.
Moritz Landé (1829-1888), born in Ostrów, a master builder, a grandson of the first Ostrów’s rabbi Jakob Lande, was entrusted with the task of building the synagogue. The cornerstone was laid on 7 April 1857. The ceremony was attended by many, including Wocke, the starost of Odolanów, Augustin, a mayor of Ostrów, and Moses Aron Stössel, a local rabbi, and the board of the local Jewish community. The process of building supervised by Kasel, the royal building inspector, went according to plans so that the new brick synagogue built in Moorish Revival style was completed in 1860 and from that moment it was used by the Jewish community of Ostrów. The content of letters from Moritz Landé, the builder, written to his fiancée during the building of the synagogue suggests that he might have been also the author or the co-author of the project of this synagogue.
The synagogue was erected on the rectangular plan as a building with a wide aisle on the ground and two levels of balconies. What makes the building look richer is two towers situated in both corners of the building. The synagogue in Ostrów was built in Moorish Revival style which is rarely found both in this part of Europe and in this kind of buildings. The building was built in bricks and then plastered. The roof and cupolas on towers were covered with copperplate.
In 1868 gas lighting was installed in the first building of the town – the synagogue. Yet, four years later it led to a catastrophe that resulted in the death of a dozen of Ostrów’s citizens.
On 10 October 1872, on the day of Yom Kippur – one of the most important religious festivals for Jews, the synagogue was overcrowded. Worshippers filled the ground floor as well as balconies. At some moment there was darkness in the synagogue due to a lack of gas supply. That led to a panic on balconies as a result of which 19 people were trampled. Among them there were 18 Jews (women and children) and one Christian servant-girl (Evangelic) working for a Jewish family. Reasons of the breakdown have not been found; however, it cannot be excluded that it was an action of an outsider. Jewish victims of the catastrophe were buried in a common grave on the local cemetery located at today’s Słowacki Alley.
For many years the upper floors of the synagogue were closed for worshipers during the most important Jewish festivals because of the fear that overcrowding (and pretty narrow stairs) might lead to another tragedy. It was not until 1913 when the ban was cancelled after renovating and protecting works had been completed.
The synagogue was used by the local Jews until the outbreak of WWII. During occupation Nazis changed it into a warehouse of groceries, destroying the part with the alter. After WWII the building housed a furniture warehouse.
It was not until 2006 when an agreement was signed between Ostrów’s authorities and the Jewish community in Wrocław that decided to sell the synagogue to the town of Ostrów Wielkopolski. Ostrów’s authorities agreed to renovate the building and facilitate cultural events there.
An opening ceremony of the restored synagogue was held on 6 October 2011, after almost two years of renovations. Among invited guests there were two descendants of the synagogue’s builder: Bettina Landé-Tergeist from Paris and James Landé from Washington D.C.
Lila Landé from New York, another descendant of the builder, had also visited the synagogue before the renovation was completed. What’s more, in 2012 the synagogue witnessed a lecture of Professor Samuel Kottek from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a grandson of rabbi Heimann Kottek – a graduate of the former Royal High School in Ostrów.
Today the synagogue of Ostrów Wielkopolski attracts not only citizens of the town, but also tourists and descendants of Jewish families that used to live in our town.