Desecration of Synagogues and Other Religious Buildings

As well as Jewish cemeteries, synagogues were widely targeted by the Nazis as part of their efforts to attack Jewish culture.

Authored by Caroline Sturdy Colls

Attacks at the heart of a community

Synagogues were often burnt down and/or windows were smashed and religious symbols were erased. These acts attacked the very heart of the community and further attacked Jewish culture by removing the ability of Jews to worship. These attacks were carried out throughout World War II across Europe but a large number took place during Kristallnacht on the 9th and 10th November 1938 in Germany, Austria, Sudetenland and East Prussia.

In some cases, the members of the local community were trapped inside the synagogue whilst it was being attacked. For example, approximately 500 Jews from Rohatyn, and more from the surrounding towns and villages, were locked inside the town’s synagogue in June 1941. The Germans then threatened to burn it down with them inside unless they handed over valuables and goods.

As was the case in Białystok in north-east Poland, synagogues were set alight with around 2000 Jews inside. Therefore, the Nazis simultaneously attacked Jewish culture whilst murdering large numbers of people.

Memorial at the site of the Białystok synagogue where around 2000 Jews were burnt alive inside the building (© Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University)

If synagogues were not destroyed, then they were usually reused by the Nazis, thus further desecrating their sanctity.

Religious relics were often looted and damage inflicted upon Torah scrolls. In Jewish culture, when a Torah is damaged, it should be buried in a Jewish cemetery. However, during the Holocaust, this important act was often also prohibited because of the concurrent attacks on Jewish cemeteries that were taking place.

The Remnants of the Great Synagogue
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Case Study: Oświęcim

Immediately after Oświęcim was occupied by German forces, acts of cultural genocide and persecution were committed against the local population. Meetings and gatherings of groups were banned, making it extremely difficult to attend synagogue. Jewish officials were immediately prevented from attending council meetings and Jewish businesses were closed (Kuncewicz and Szyndler 2016). Whilst the former was a way of limiting religious freedoms and cultural expression, the latter resulted in poor economic and living conditions for the Jewish population. The closure of businesses that provided kosher food also prevented Jews from maintaining a kosher diet.

On the 29th and 30th November 1939, the Great Synagogue was burnt. Community leader Eliezer Schenker (1997: 173) stated that “with the burning of the synagogue, the Jewish ambiance of the Jews’ Street ceased to exist.

"When we reached Katowice we met a Jew from Oshpitzin who imparted the horrible news that the Great Synagogue had been burned down. A special Gestapo unit had come to town for that purpose, surrounded the area so that no one would be able to extinguish the fire, poured gasoline and set the synagogue on fire. With this act the feeling was that Oshpitzin Jewry was doomed. This Jew also told me that the Germans took advantage of my absence from Oshpitzin in order to burn down the synagogue"

Former Oświęcim community leader Eliezer Schenker described the scene after the burning of the Great Synagogue (Schenker 1977: 173)

By the end of the war only one of the eighteen synagogues in Oświęcim survived. This building only escaped demolition because the Nazis used in at a munitions warehouse.


The last surviving synagogue in Oświęcim
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Image above: KL Auschwitz prisoners removing the rubble of the Great Synagogue after it was burned by the Germans (© Emilia Weźranowska)

Churches were also targeted – in Poland in particular – and were used as places to round up Jews and non-Jews. For example, in Częstochowa, hundreds of men and women were locked in the cathedral.

"Towards the evening, they were all herded into the Cathedral, where they were locked in for two days and nights without food. Dozens of them fainted. The Cathedral was shockingly befouled."

Excerpt describing events in Częstochowa from "The German New Order in Poland", a manuscript published in 1942 by the Polish Ministry of Information in London

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Jewish Cemeteries: Desecration and Cultural Genocide

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