Prior to the Second World War, there were some 17,000 synagogues in Europe. Today, a little more than 3,300 of those remain, with 750 in poor or very bad condition, some on the verge of collapse.
These statistics only came to my attention in recent months. However, one synagogue among those most ‘at risk’ made its mark on me 10 years ago, for very personal reasons.
In 2007, as part of the programme I made with the BBC, Who Do You Think You Are?, I visited Slonim in Belarus to find out more about my ancestry. While there, I discovered that a number of my relatives on my father’s side had perished in the Holocaust.
The Great Synagogue in Slonim was one of the synagogues where they would have worshipped – and on that same visit I stood inside its crumbling walls as my father’s cousin recited Kaddish for our lost family.
Ten years on, this beautiful synagogue is even more run down, vandalised and structurally in danger.
As the last testament to the estimated 17,000-strong Jewish community that had lived there for centuries up to the Second World War, it feels very important to me that it is restored and preserved for future generations.
This is why I support the work of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, which is working on precisely that.
It is not just about saving architecturally beautiful and significant buildings – important as that is. It is about saving the last physical evidence of once vibrant communities.
These buildings should serve as portals to history, educating future generations about the Jewish life and their contribution to wider society, as well as the diversity of communities that once existed.
With Slonim, and with the other synagogues highlighted by this project, the vision is for these buildings to incorporate Jewish museums, educational facilities and cultural centres.
In the same way as my work with Holocaust commemoration was motivated by the need to create a record for future generations to learn from, the Foundation for Jewish Heritage’s programme is not just about acts of preservation. It is about increasing understanding, knowledge and empathy so we can combat the growing intolerance in the world today and the dangers of what that can lead to.
A couple of years ago, my extended family and I returned to Slonim, 27 of us in all. We visited various places of significance to our family who had lived in the town, including the synagogue. There were hoardings around the building and we had to find a gap to enter but, once inside, we all felt the impact of this imposing building, which was part of our family’s roots.
However, it was in very poor condition and we understand that its beautiful ceiling may not survive another winter. I know we were all struck at the time by a feeling that we had to do something to preserve it and memorialise its community.
On our return, we discovered the Foundation for Jewish Heritage had already begun a project to map the historic synagogues in Europe – and that Slonim was among those deemed a priority.
While Slonim Synagogue has a special significance for my family, we are just one example among so many others whose history is tied to lost Jewish communities throughout Europe. Some of these communities migrated to other areas, but in many cases they disappeared as a result of the terrible events of the 20th century.
These buildings are the last witnesses to their existence. Let’s save them before it is too late.
- Natasha Kaplinsky is a TV presenter and newsreader who has worked for BBC, ITV and Sky. Last year, she was awarded an OBE for services to Holocaust commemoration.
- The Kaplinsky family are working with The Foundation for Jewish Heritage to try to help preserve The Great Synagogue of Slonim