David Fisher’s papercut reproductions of wooden synagogues burned down by the Nazis during the Holocaust provide only a shimmer of the structures’ once-breathtaking magnificence. But for the Jerusalem graphic artist, they represent a deeply personal way to honor these architectural wonders.
“As the son of a survivor, I sought a way in which I could create a memorial to the communities that were wiped out in the Holocaust,” he says. “Since the art of Jewish papercutting [a popular folk art form in Europe] almost entirely disappeared, I chose that medium to preserve the memory of the synagogues that were destroyed.”
Before World War II, approximately 100 wooden synagogues stood throughout Eastern Europe. They represented a unique, beautiful, hand-crafted form of vernacular architecture.
Recognizing their importance to world architecture, they were carefully documented in photographs and blueprints by the Polish government. This was an amazing stroke of fortune, for as the Nazis swept through these countries during the war, special German troops set the synagogues on fire, sometimes with the inhabitants of the community inside. By the end of the war virtually none remained.
“My goal is to bring back to life the mikdash me’at (miniature temple) and remind us what these wooden synagogues were like in their glory,” says Fisher, 46.
Several of his works are currently featured in a group papercut exhibit at the Kehillat Yedidya synagogue in Jerusalem. During the opening of the exhibit, an elderly woman approached Fisher in tears, relating that she remembered praying at one of the synagogues he had depicted.
So far, he has created papercuts of 8 wooden synagogues. Among them is the Gombin Synagogue in Poland, built in 1710 and restored in 1893. It was considered one of the most exquisite wooden synagogues in Poland. The extremely tall wooden ark, 3 stories high, was magnificently carved and contained tens of Torah scrolls. It was destroyed by fire by the Germans in September 1939.
Another is the Wolpa Synagogue, near Bialystok, Poland (now Belarus), built in the 17th century and considered the most beautiful of the wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe. The exquisite aron kodesh and bima were made of painted carved wood.
Since Fisher began this project in 2005, he has spent countless hours in his spare time pouring over archival documents and historic books, examining the facades and interiors of these lost synagogues. He has received assistance from academics at leading research institutes, as well as from Holocaust survivors, who send him photos and recommend books.
“I need the images of the synagogues, but I must also study the story behind each place. Since I don’t read Yiddish, my father reads and translates those books to me,” he says.
His sleuthing on the Internet led to an unexpected find: a YouTube video, posted by Polish non-Jews, of historic photos of the Zabludov wooden synagogue taken in the decades before the Holocaust. By piecing together the frames of the video, he was able to recreate papercut images of the breathtaking interior of this historic house of worship, built in 1646 in Eastern Poland. In 1941 it was utterly decimated when the Nazis doused the building with gasoline and burned it to the ground.
In instances where the pictures only showed fragments of the interior of the synagogue, Fisher took some creative license and used his imagination to complete the rest. He has had to redo some of his papercuts, as he uncovers new historical information about the wooden synagogues.
The self-taught papercut artist is extraordinarily passionate about his project, which he diligently pursues in his spare time. To illustrate how much this is a sacred mission for him, he pulls out a special plastic pouch, in which he preserves every scrap of paper that he has cut away. These paper remnants, he explains, are also part of the story.
“For me, it’s another way to symbolically remember the destruction.”
This week marks the anniversary of Kristallnacht (the “Night of Broken Glass”, a Nazi-inspired pogrom that took place in Germany and Austria on Nov. 9-10, 1938). It has been considered a foreshadowing of the destruction of life and property that the Nazis would later inflict on the Jews during World War II. During the rampage, 36 Jews were killed; 191 synagogues were set on fire, and another 76 were destroyed.