W poszukiwaniu stylu żydowskiego

Imagined Identities

In Search of the Jewish Style. Archaeology of the Lviv Modernism

Publication: 17 August 2021

NO. 2 2011



The established belief that Jewish architecture was imitative and traditionalist discouraged researchers from asking the question about the Jewish idiom in this field, which made it impossible to capture the Jewish specificity in searching for forms and to properly evaluate the great contribution of the Jews in the development of architecture.

Much has been written about the polyphonic character of Central Europe, Galicia and Lviv at the turn of the twentieth century. Indeed, in that period Lviv acquired the rank of a multicultural metropolis, which became the birthplace of a number of national movements and above all a fertile ground for a proliferation of artistic styles and currents. And artists declaring membership of a particular national group freely joined the creative animation of other groups. We can question then, if it is right to distinguish a specific thread in such a tightly woven, although multicoloured fabric, but when doing so, one can find some fascinating trails – such as the Jewish contribution to the passage from Historicism to Modernism in architecture.

The established belief that Jewish architecture was imitative and traditionalist discouraged researchers from asking the question about the Jewish idiom in this field, which made it impossible to capture the Jewish specificity in searching for forms and to properly evaluate the great contribution of the Jews in the development of architecture. A review of religious and civic structures built for Jewish religious communities, for the Jews and by the Jews, reveals some features characteristic for this ethnic group and previously non-familiar names of artists emerge.

The basic concept of a national style (as well as a national movement) assumes a unity of a given human community and its territory. We can then speak about traditions and forms of being, customs and spiritual values shaped throughout centuries and preserved in a particular place. We use such a key when talking about Hucul or Zakopane style, or Alpine structures in Tyrol or Bavaria. But it cannot be employed in the term “Jewish style.”Fundamental to the culture of Galicia Jews is the sense of being in a diaspora, which produced a characteristic fusion of local rootedness and the sense of universality. Pointing at buildings as products of this special soil, I do not intend to confine my analysis to their appearance and attempts at defining their style, but also to uncover traces of beliefs and concepts which produced them and the community which created them. I mean both the people who formulated expectations and those who fulfilled them, that is the entire community of Lviv – Galicia – creators (architects, engineers, builders) of Jewish origin.

As I already suggested when describing the atmosphere of Lviv in that period, the demand for Jewish architecture was met not only by Jews. Suffice it to name the master architects Julian Zachariewicz, designer of the synagogue in Chernovcy built in 1873–1877, who in 1895 created the design of rebuilding the synagogue at Fish Square in Lviv, or Oskar Sosnowski, who at the first Exhibition of Polish Architects in 1910 presented his conception of a synagogue and in the debates on forms most adequate for Jewish architecture he stressed the importance of Polish (sic) Baroque.

National Romanticism

Beginnings of the search for the “Jewish style” date back to the early nineteenth century, when an attempt was made to liberate it from the Moorish style. Ogee arches, embrasures inspired by Islamic art, domes based on the Taj Mahal and the façade decorated with horizontal strips of red and yellow brick – this is the repertory of “Jewish” forms from that period[1].

The Moorish style, connected with the genealogy of the Sephardic Jews and through them reaching back to the legacy of Medieval Spain, was common in the nineteenth-century synagogue construction. This style has long been associated with the Jewish style, but not exclusively, for it was also used in non-Jewish office, residential and even industrial architecture. As a reference to distant and unfamiliar cultures, it played some role in the emergence of forms of Orthodox architecture, fusing with the neo-Bysantine style. Combined with the Rundbogenstil, it appeared in the military architecture of the Habsburg monarchy, located somewhere between Orientalism and the European Middle Ages. The architects Ludwig von Förster and Theophil von Hansen were great promoters of Orientalism and the Moorish style throughout the Empire. And, it is no accident that in the middle of the nineteenth century Hansen designed the massive complex of the War Invalids’ Home of the Austrian army in Lviv (1855–1861), with a yellow and red colour scheme and pointed arch windows. Obviously the Moorish style could not become exclusively Jewish. The fusion of Bysantine, Spanish, Italian and German features witnessed the openness of the enlightened Habsburg Empire and its role as a bridge between the East and the West[2]. Still associated with Jewishness, it was selected as the most adequate for the Jewish Hospital in Lviv, created by Slavic architects: Kazimierz Mokłowski and the building company of Jan (Ivan) Lewiński. Raised at the turn of the century, the new hospital was sited in a street named after a representative of the Haskalah, a physician and poet Jakub Rappaport, and it was financed by banker, philanthropist and social activist Markus Lazaurus. The structure was crowned with a typical Eastern dome, and decorated with stripes and pointed arch windows. Ten years later the hospital complex was annexed with an outpatient wing, in keeping with the style of the main building. The work was carried out by the company of Michał Ulam (1879–1938). It was one of the latest employments of the Moorish style, but dictated by compositional requirements. Starting from the turn of the century, with representatives of national currents ever more visible, the style was going out of use.

From Jugendstil to “Judenstil”

The new centre of the search for the “Jewish style” was Berlin, where the epic poem Juda by Börries von Münchhausen was published in 1900. Münchhausen, progeny of an illustrious family of German barons, took the subject of his work from the Hebrew Bible[3]. The poem was illustrated by an excellent German engraver Ephraim Moses Lilien, a Jew from Drohobycz. Combining Art Nouveau aesthetics with Hebrew themes, Lilien used the motifs of the menorah, the Star of David, the characteristic features of the Jewish face and Hebrew letters, symbolically inaugurating the heated debates on “Jugendstil” in the Jewish diaspora.

Early twentieth century was the period when national elements were discovered in art. Artists from every field strived at sounding national or folk, but always had a characteristic own note. This is what produced the ambivalence of the style prevailing in those times – Art Nouveau. It had a non-historical agenda, it broke with references to forms from previous epochs, but replacing them with elements of national and local traditions (that is also of history). This is how the Polish and Ukrainian national style developed. Jewish artists from Galicia took the same path. One of the first attempts at creating a Jewish Art Nouveau[4] was the House of the Jewish Community Council (1898) at 12 Bernstein Street (today Sholem Aleichem Street), with interiors designed by Antoni Fleischl and completed in 1899–1900. “Thorn‘s Coliseum” theatre, raised in 1898–1900, also belongs to the heralds of Art Nouveau in Lviv. The idea was based on the need to find a use for the metal structure of the dismantled Jan Matejko Pavilion from the National Exhibition in 1894 and the possibility to assemble it back as a separate structure in the Hermans’ shopping arcade. And thus, financed by bankers and philanthropists Abraham and Jakub Hermans, a theatre for one thousand spectators was created at Słoneczna Street. This is what Tadeusz Żeleński (Boy) wrote about it later:

Warsaw is happy about its Philharmonic
Where our little Joseph still greens serenely;
But also this time the frivolous fate
Elevated Lviv above other cities:
Thorn’s Coliseum it gave to it of late
So it wouldn’t envy us our bigwigs.

While designing the new theatre at the turn of the century, the architects Michał Fechter and later Artur Scheyen endowed the façade with a lot of dynamic curvatures, still reminiscent of neo-Baroque rather than Art Nouveau forms. Both in the House of the Jewish Community Council and in the façade of the theatre we see a predilection for arcaded windows, but instead of the Art Nouveau omega opening a more elongated triple-arched one was used.

A few years later the Jewish part of the national discourse in Lviv architecture was already declared openly. The most prominent figure was the architect Józef Awin (1883–1942), a contributor of the press (Przyszłość, Wschód, Moria, Chwila, Korespondencja Żydowska), a designer and a collector of artefacts of Jewish culture. In order to understand the essence of Jewish art on which the new “Jewish style” was to be based, Awin recommended turning not to the broadly conceived Orient, and still less to the art of Islam, but to the European Jewish traditions. Part of this legacy was for him the one-time ghetto tradition, where due to its isolation peculiar ethnic “Jewish forms” were supposed to have survived. Of course, he accepted certain modifications and interpretations, allowing for the local colour, but preferably without reaching for Slavic elements[5]. The Jewish identity for centuries has been connected exclusively with religion, and therefore Jewish art is inextricably bound with Judaism. Liturgical objects and fabrics, manuscripts, crafts – this is the storehouse of forms which the new style was to draw from. But precise motifs were not clearly named; artists had to act intuitively, by way of association. Yet, the phenomenon of Jewish art is based on a certain imprecision, polymorphism, elusiveness. Perhaps time was too short for articulating more specific precepts, because due to the vagaries of fate the Jewish “awakening” from the early twentieth century was relatively short-lived.

Józef Awin, the greatest Lviv representative of the “Jewish style,” from an early stage of his career used ornaments based on universal patterns – abstracted, geometrical – which he subordinated to the architecture and the precise orthogonal divisions stemming from it. But both Awin and other Jewish architects abandon all decorativeness and national references, turning to more general, international patterns. So how could we characterise the “Jewish style?”

Let us take a look at other works completed in that short period. Henryk Orlean (1874–1942 or 1943), an architect and artist of Jewish origin, who fought for Polish independence in the Piłsudski Legions, experimented with the Jewish themes in an original way. Born in Krakow, after graduating from the Industrial School he went to Vienna to continue his education and there he worked in the studio of Fellner and Helmer, and later of Oskar Marmorek. In 1908 he moved to Lviv, where he created a few bold, imaginative designs of townhouses. He decorated them with Medieval motifs, exhibiting a certain fairy-tale character and a peculiar irony; he innovatively transformed patterns from synagogue interiors into decorations of burgher houses. The idea for the façade of the house at 29th November Street (today 11a Konowalec Street) is very intriguing; could it be that the artist wanted to evoke the tablets of Moses in such an unconventional way? The main entrance with a donkey’s back shape leads to a long Cubist hall, with zigzags and conical zigatti recalling the atmosphere of Egyptian or Assyrian temples without the Romantic affectation.

Vague and unclear allusions give way to open declarations in the most lucid example of the new Jewish architecture – the Beth Tahara pre-internment hall built in 1911-1913 within the Janowski Cemetery. Obviously, in such structures, that is synagogues, prayer houses and sepulchres, such style was by all means desired (we must remember that in this case “religious” also means “national”). The pre-internment hall at the New Jewish Cemetery became a symbol and expression of the Jewish identity. At the same time it was the proof of the modern spirit and openness of the Jewish Lvivians. The building was the work of a multiethnic group of excellent architects: Roman Feliński, Jerzy Grodyński, Adolf Piller and the team from Michał Ulam’s studio. Built on a hill slope isolated from the city noise, the house was visible from afar – a massive domed cube, as if a vague allusion to the form of a Medieval Islamic mausoleum. But such a concept was also in tune with the modern Western synagogue architecture, with the domination of the central-plan model. The Lviv Beth Tahara, despite the much smaller scale, was stylistically akin to the German synagogues raised at that time. Just as in the composition of the huge synagogue in Essen, with rough masonry covering the exterior, the semi-spherical dome spanning the main hall at the Janowski Cemetery hovered above the pyramidal volumes of vestibules with triangular gables. The bulkiness and the role of stone elements, the tectonics of the composition underlining the pillar-and-beam structure – all this brings to mind the general effect of ancient stone buildings. It should be added that the tendency to archaise was an important feature of the “national” architectonic languages, especially in the North of Europe and Germany. The archaic became a common denominator of the historical revival in many cultures, because a certain simplicity it could be reduced to, went hand in hand with innovative tendencies, although in essence it led to non-historical solutions and disparate frames of reference[6]. From the Jewish perspective this contains a certain ambivalence. For Jewish mysticism abandoning tradition was in accordance with the principles of the Kabbalah. But, turning to the architecture of Egypt or Babylon could be interpreted as evoking the national tradition. The stocky, rustic pillars with simplified heads, the only decorative elements of the pre-internment hall, did not contain features of any specific historical era. If they referred to anything, it was stone as building material and a certain archaic building tradition. The “megaliths” of Beth Tahara were created with eternity in mind. This eternity lasted only twenty years – the pre-internment hall was blown up in 1943. It probably belonged to the most interesting examples of Modernist Lviv architecture before World War I; a work fusing such seemingly contradictory components as the Eastern legacy and the Western Middle Ages – the early Romanesque style and neo-Bysantine forms coloured with Jugendstil, and also of local and universal, national and international elements.

Jewish – meaning universal?

However, the architecture created by Lviv Jewish artists in the first decade of the twentieth century overwhelmingly remained within the framework of historicism, being situated between Romanticism and New Classicism with a touch of Art Nouveau. New Classicism, which not only survived, but also overcame Art Nouveau, invading it in the form of geometrical decoration and rationalising the composition, around 1910 was a current leading directly to twentieth-century Modernism.

The timelessness of this style is contained in the fact that the classicist features carry the message of professionalism and sturdiness of architecture – elements particularly desired by members of the prosperous Jewish middle class attempting to solidify their new social position. For their massive residences bankers and industrialists commissioned classicist “costumes” – neo-Renaissance or neo-Baroque ones. There is no better symbol of the good old (inviolable) order than a classical column supporting a huge entablature according to the canon. One man dreaming about such a thing was Jonasz (Jojne) Sprecher, a financial tycoon commonly referred to as a “small man for big business.” He fulfilled his desire, completing with the architect Ferdynand Kassler (1883–1942‹?›) the Lviv skyscrapers, the first before and the second after the war. The first one, called “Old Sprecher,” at 8 Mickiewicz Square, was built with the use of the newest technological achievements, but in the late Renaissance style evoking the noble palaces from the Ammanati times. Permanence and efficiency of the Sprecher–Kassler duo illustrates an important aspect of the matter, namely the mutual support of the members of the Jewish community. This seeming stereotype was reflected in the aesthetics and quality of Lviv architecture. I mean here promoting certain methods, styles and progressive building technologies by investors and architects; Jewish or non-Jewish inventions which were quickly adapted for their own purposes. However, these informal alliances were not fixed, but on the contrary, their flexibility was the source of success and prosperity. A good example is Michał Ulam’s form – a leading construction company, a design studio, but also an excellent school, for the young generation of architects and builders. Of major importance were international contacts, both with Vienna and with the Munich and Berlin school, serving as a genuine communication channel linking Lviv with the West.

Creators and makers, builders and Modernists… What they left to posterity is almost unrecognisable, to some extent due to their peculiar status. For they were Jews, but in a large part assimilated. Despite their successes, they remained alien, for Germans and Austrians, for Slavs as Jews, for other Jews as assimilated people. Identity and belonging placed them on the sidelines. But they were able to make use of that – they had greater freedom, they did not bow to convention, they could afford to be bold. Time and place made it possible, but for the price of falling into oblivion. The “national” culture created by them turned out to be a phantom, a spectre we know little about. Is this what its “non-representational” aspect comes down to? And yet, it existed and had a significant impact on how the city looked. Cooperation and modernisation, inventiveness and professionalism, but also remaining both inside and outside – these are the features of Jewish architecture in Lviv and the basis for its renown established in the 1930s. Also then, but on the other side of the Atlantic, two Jewish émigrés, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, created Superman. This new figure made a breathtaking career, for it symbolised certain destiny – that of being useful, not to say indispensable, but remaining somewhere out of sight, anonymous. Just as the Jewish architects and builders from Lviv.


[1] Ivan Davidson Kalmar, “Moorish Style: Orientalism, the Jews, and Synagogue Architecture”, Jewish Social Studies. History, Culture and Society 2001, No. 7 (3), pp. 68–100.

[2] Sergey R. Kravtsov, „Jewish Identities in Synagogue Architecture of Galicia and Bukovina”, Ars Judaica 2010, No. 6, pp. 81–100.

[3] Michael Stanislawski, From Jugendstil to ‘Judenstil’, in Zionism and the fin de siècle. Cosmopolitanism and nationalism from Nordau to Jabotinsky, Berkeley–Los Angeles–London 2001, pp. 98–115.

[4] Jurij Biriulow, Secesja we Lwowie, translated by Janusz Orwojew, Warszawa 1996.

[5] Józef Awin, O dawnej sztuce żydowskiej, in Almanach żydowski, Lwów–Warszawa–Poznań 1937, pp. 33–37.

[6] Barbara Miller-Lane, National Romanticism and Modern Architecture in Germany and Scandinavian Countries, Cambridge 2000.

About authors

Żanna Komar

Historian of art and architecture. Author of the book Trzecie miasto Galicji. Stanisławów i jego architektura w okresie autonomii galicyjskiej (The third city of Galicia: Stanisławów and its architecture in the period of Galician autonomy, ICC, 2008). In 2010, as a lecturer at the Ivano-Frankivsk National Technical University (Ukraine), she qualified for a research stay at the Technical University of Berlin within the DAAD\OSI exchange programme. Now she works at the International Cultural Centre.


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