H-Judaic joins with many across the world in mourning the passing, at age 100, of Maria Piechotka (1920-2020). An architect and political figure in Poland, Piechotka played a key role in recognizing the significance of Poland's 17th-18th Wooden Synagogues and also other Jewish sites throughout the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Shulamith Z. Berger kindly sent along the following obituary that appeared in Jewish- Heritage-Europe.
"The Jewish heritage world has lost a giant — Maria Piechotka, a pioneer in the study of synagogue architecture in Poland and mentor to generations, has died in Warsaw, just months after her 100th birthday.
“She was an indefatigable researcher of Polish Jewish heritage, a mentor to several generations of scholars and activists, and a great friend of ISJM and to me,” Samuel D. Gruber, the president of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments, wrote in a Facebook post.
The work she did with her late husband Kazimierz (Maciej) in the 1950s brought knowledge of the great tradition of wooden synagogue design and decoration back to the world. The Piechotkas always believed that their work was a continuation – and an homage – of the field work of the great researchers of the interwar years, almost all of whom were killed in the Holocaust. They brought that research to new generations, even when the political climate was not favorable. Between 1959 when the English edition of “Wooden Synagogues” was published and 1990 when Communist regime fell, the Piechotka could not publish their research. But they never stopped working…
JHE Director Ruth Ellen Gruber recalls Maria and Maciej — who died in 2010 at the age of 90 — as among her earliest mentors in the field.
Along with Samuel D. Gruber (then director of the Jewish Heritage Council of the World Monuments Fund), she traveled with the Piechotkas for 10 days throughout eastern and southeastern Poland in May/June 1990, visiting more than 30 synagogues — some abandoned shells, some utter ruins, some transformed for other use. They also visited other sites, including Jewish cemeteries, memorials, wooden churches — and even a tiny wooden mosque.
The Piechotkas were active in the WW2 Polish resistance movement and took part in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. At the war’s end they began their efforts to record the architectural detail of destroyed buildings, with a special focus on wooden synagogues.
The couple co-authored several books on the subject, including Wooden Synagogues, published in 1957 (with an English edition two years later), which has become the seminal work in the field.
One of the most important research resources on the history and heritage of Polish Jews, the book was updated and reprinted in the 1990s, and a new, expanded edition — in English and Polish — was published in 2016 as Heaven’s Gates: Wooden Synagogues in the Territories of the Former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
This was followed by the books Heaven’s Gates. Brick and Stone Synagogues in the Territories of the Former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1999) and Oppidum Judaeorum: Jews in the Urban Environment of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
In 2000, Maria and Maciej were awarded the Jan Karski and Pola Nireńska award from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
Maria was active well into her 90s.
Among other things, she worked closely with the Handshouse Studio on the creation of the replica of the elaborately painted ceiling of the cupola of the destroyed wooden synagogue in what was Gwozdziec, Poland. The replica is now the centerpiece installation of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Replica of the painted ceiling of the Gwozdziec synagogue, at the POLIN museum in Warsaw
“We will be forever grateful for having the opportunity to meet Maria and Kazimierz and to have them challenge us, set the bar so high, take us under their wings and share their precious life’s work together with us,”Laura Brown, who with her husband Rick directs the Handshouse Studio, wrote on Facebook.
At the opening of the Museum Maria told me, she and Kazimierz never believed their work would be so well received and she thanked us for the work we had done to celebrate this nearly lost history. I have never been so humbled in my life.
In a Facebook post, Barbara Kirshenblatt Gimblett, the Chief Curator of the museum’s core exhibit, called Maria “our hero” and added: “What a privilege and blessing to know her, to learn from her, and to benefit from her indefatigable efforts to document Polish wooden synagogues.
In 2016 Maria received the Taube Philanthropies’ Irena Sendler award. The ceremony took place under the replica of the painted ceiling of the 18th-century Gwoździec wooden synagogue — inspired by her work and now a central installation of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
Presenting the award, Shana Penn, Executive Director of Taube Philanthropies, said:
We come together under this magnificent synagogue replica and intricate painted ceiling to honor Maria Huber Piechotkowa because this replica – and the phenomenon of today’s Jewish cultural revival in Poland that it exemplifies – would not have been possible without the pioneering vision, passionate interest, and dedicated research that Maria and her husband, the late Kazimierz Piechotka, pursued over many decad
Together, the Piechotkas rescued from virtual oblivion the wooden synagogue’s architectural significance and beauty and established its place in the histories and heritages of Poland and of Jews for generations to come.
Poles and Jews inside and outside of Poland are deeply indebted to the Piechotkas for their historic contributions to the recovery, preservation and memory of Jewish heritage in Poland, which the wooden synagogue represents. They have transmitted their devotion and knowledge to generations of students of architecture, art, history, religion, and culture. They have brought Jews and Poles together to share cultural pride.
Besides their work on synagogues, the Piechotkas had “everyday jobs” as city architects. They designed urban plans for small towns, housing and residential districts in Warsaw, and public utilities facilities. "
H-Judaic extends deepest condolences to the family and to all who benefited from Maria Piechotka's pioneering labors.
Jonathan D. Sarna