When World War II ended in 1945, Europe had lost not only the majority of its Jews, but also thousands of synagogues. It is these houses of worship that Andrea Strongwater set out to capture in her book Where We Once Gathered. Her paintings represent not only the synagogues but the communities they once represented, as well. “…what I am doing is telling a part of Jewish history that I have missed hearing,” she says in her introduction. “The synagogues served as centers of Jewish life, not just to pray but also to hear the latest gossip or a lecture, see art, hear concert music and of course hold…ritual events of Jewish life… I present, through my paintings, the glory of what existed before the Holocaust.”
Strongwater depicts twenty synagogues from all over Europe, giving readers a glimpse of the architecture and interiors of shuls both grand and simple. She describes when and why each synagogue came into existence and how it met its demise. We learn about the elegant, turreted Quai Kleber synagogue, which dated back to 1898 in Strasbourg, France. A page later we’re in Przedborz, Poland, gazing at a more demure, wooden synagogue built in 1760. “The walls were covered in multi-colored depictions of Jerusalem, animals, floral motifs and vines,” she writes.
It is clear that a huge amount of research has gone into the writing of Where We Once Gathered, and Strongwater’s beautiful illustrations and the background information enrich our understanding of just how much was swallowed into oblivion in the wake of the Holocaust. This makes her book a valuable resource for education and offers a deeper understanding of the Jewish life that thrived in Europe a century ago. Recommended for ages 12-adult.