Synagoging Poland

Inside old synagogue in Krakow; photo by Bart Van den Bosch via Wikipedia.
Inside old synagogue in Krakow; photo by Bart Van den Bosch via Wikipedia.

by Liam Hoare

What is to be done with the buildings of Jewish life when there is no Jewish life left to speak of?

This was one of the questions suggested by this year’s 7@Nite Festival in Krakow. For one evening a year, the doors of the city’s synagogues are thrown open to the general public and exhibitions, lectures, and live music aim to remove the barriers and dissolve the mystique that surround these places of worship. This year’s theme, Synagoging Poland, sought to take visitors on a journey around the existent, non-existent, or forgotten synagogues that still dot the Polish landscape.

“We have around three-hundred synagogues still standing in Poland in different forms with different things happening in them,” Monika Elliott, Program Director of the JDC Poland Foundation, told me when we had a chance to sit down in a café in Kazimierz, the historic Jewish quarter, a few hours before 7@Nite began. “But in general, people have no idea that, when they pass by their hairdresser every day, the building it’s in used to be a synagogue seventy years ago. We have no idea about our own recent history.”

Indeed, as Weronika Litwin outlined in a 2010 symposium exploring contemporary Jewish life in Poland, of the synagogues that managed to survive the Holocaust and the destruction of Nazi occupation, very few regained their old function as houses of worship. In large part, this is because in the smaller towns and villages, no Jews remained to pray in them. Litwin writes in “Synagogues and Cemeteries: What Is Being Done and What Needs To Be Done”:

“Taken over by the State Treasury, the synagogue buildings were often used as warehouses, which led to their further deterioration. Synagogues which were significant for their historical and architectural value were often turned into museums or libraries. This prevented them from falling into complete ruin, but has not helped their slow decline, as neither the museums nor libraries in Poland have the money for the costly preservation works which are usually required for historical buildings.”

The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, responsible for the protection and commemoration of surviving monuments of Jewish cultural heritage in Poland, has worked on restoring some of these synagogues, particularly in southeastern Poland as part of a project called the Hasidic Route, which follows the remaining traces of Jewish life in the region. The first stage of the restoration of two historic synagogues in Krasnik – one of which dated back to the middle of the seventeenth century – was completed in 2010, for example.

In Krakow, four out of the seven synagogues are still used as places of worship, either by the community, or by the numerous groups from Israel or the Diaspora who visit in the city, principally in order to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Otherwise, the Old Synagogue has been converted into a Jewish ethnographic museum, the Popper Synagogue is used by the city as a cultural centre for children (although the programming is Jewish in character), and the High Synagogue is also a museum and cultural centre, but one that is sometimes used by Krakow’s Reform congregation.

Krakow, however, is unique in Poland. As the capital of the Generalgouvernement during the Second World War, it was able to survive Nazi occupation with its artefacts intact. Today, Krakow still has “seven historic synagogues from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that are very well-preserved, located within one little piece of the city in walking distance from one another,” as Elliott explained, hence why it became in 2011 the chosen site for what was in the beginning an experiment to see if the success of Noc Muzeów – the Night of Museums – could be replicated in a Jewish space.

“I had this dream that every citizen of the city, tourists, and visitors – Jewish and non-Jewish – would be able to visit the synagogue,” Elliott told me. “Normally, most people are afraid to go into the synagogue because they didn’t know what was inside, they didn’t know how to behave. They don’t know that there is all this Jewish heritage outside their front door – normally they just walk by the buildings.”

I asked her what perceptions she was therefore seeking to change, if ordinary Poles are afraid to enter a synagogue. “First of all, we want to show that the Jewish community is alive and is still in Poland. It doesn’t look how it used to look but it’s still here, it’s growing, and it’s doing great things.”

“The other important thing is to educate people about the synagogue, to go inside and find out what it really is and that’s not like a church. The synagogue is the meeting place of the community that brings it together. It’s important to invite non-Jewish people to our sites and into our lives to show them who we are. It’s the simplest way to show up all the stereotypical thinking about Judaism. It gets rid of the fear.”

7@Nite is an answer to that initial question: what is to be done with these buildings of Jewish life. But in the Old Synagogue, a photographic exhibition showing how some of the existing synagogues buildings are used today demonstrated that, while the Jewish Community of Poland still owns these sites and some have become noble things like libraries and archives, others have not fared so well. What was a synagogue in Luban is today a grocery store, in Kargowa an apartment block, in Chelm an American-style watering hole called the McKenzee Saloon.

“It might be quite controversial to have a funeral room for example inside what used to be a synagogue, and in the exhibition merely presents this, we don’t make a judgement,” Elliott said. “But there are always these questions: How could we left these buildings fall into ruin and be forgotten? How could we allow a grocery store inside a synagogue? And, is it better to let these building fall into ruin or to have the grocery store, the building, and the memory of what it once was?”