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This article was written by Kate Suvorina of Grodno
School No. 14, and Kate Grib of Grodno School No. 30,
from the words of Mikhail Boyarski, the Chairman of
the Grodno Jewish Community in Belarus.
The Great Synagogue of Grodno
The history of the Grodno Great Synagogue dates back to the first half of the sixteenth century, when Rabbi Iofia invited the Italian architect, Santi Gucci, to Grodno and asked him to design a project for a future synagogue.
At that time, Grodno was a very small town with mixed religions. In the center of the town, the building of a beautiful Catholic church was coming to an end (it still exists). The building of another one was started. The bells of the Orthodox church were heard through the town every day, and the people of different religious views were living in peace and kindness.
At that time, the Jewish population was approximately 2,000. The Jewish people began to settle in Grodno in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, mainly coming from Germany. Families were big; each family had five to seven children. The mothers were not working outside of the home, because they were taking care of the children. The fathers usually were owners of a kind of a small workshop to bake bread, make shoes, or make dresses and suits. They were teachers, lawyers, and doctors. They were the owners of small shops and workshops. At that time, the shops were called lavki.
Jews were living on a street called Bolshaya Troitskaya, and at the beginning of this street, Rabbi Iofia decided to build the Great Synagogue. At that time, people lived only in wooden houses, and the synagogue became the first brick building on this street. In front of it there was a building of an old castle where Polish kings used to live (it still exists). On the other side, there was a small, Orthodox church which was built in the twelfth century, named Kalozha Church (and it still exists).
The building of the synagogue was started in 1576 and was finished in 1580. There were two other synagogues built, according to the same drawings in Grodno Gubernya -- one in Slonim, and the other one in Novogrudok. But Novogrudok's synagogue was blown up in 1964 by the order of the local Soviet government.
After the Great Synagogue was built, it became one of the most beautiful buildings in Grodno, representing a Baroque style. Until 1899, the synagogue did not undergo any reconstruction. In 1899, however, there was a big fire in Grodno. Ten houses and two schools were burned down. The fire touched the synagogue, too. The roof and the facade were burned.
In 1902, the Jewish community of Grodno made a decision about the reconstruction of the building. There is a document in the Grodno archives which is signed by the governor of Grodno and by the rabbi of the synagogue, the honored citizen of Grodno, Iya Frunkin, about the beginning of the reconstruction. Under the supervision of Iya Frunkin in 1905, the Great Synagogue was reconstructed.
After the revolution of 1917, the Great Synagogue was not nationalized and was functioning as the property of the Jewish community. There was an elementary school in the synagogue. After World War II, for fifty years, the synagogue was not used as a temple for the Jewish population, but for the needs of the Soviet government of the town. First it was used as a store for food goods and then as a medicine store; later, the local art workshop opened there. During these years, the synagogue was ruined and damaged.
Only in 1992 was the building of the Great Synagogue returned to the Jewish cultural community of Grodno, and on April 5 at the Jewish meeting, in the presence of twenty-six people, the chairman of the Jewish community was elected.
He is Mikhail Boyarski, and he is doing much in order to find funds to restore the synagogue, one of the most beautiful buildings of Grodno.
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