05 February 2017

New life comes to the streets
and synagogues of the Old
Jewish Quarter in Kraków

A stained-glass window in the Tempel Synagogue on Miodowa Street, the most recent synagogue in Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

My city break in Kraków before Christmas was a busy week, with visits to the concentration camps in Auschwitz and Birkenau, the Salt Mines in Wieliczka, the Jewish Quarter in Kazimierz, and the former ghetto whose story is retold in Schindler’s List.

Kraków is a beautiful mediaeval city in southern Poland, and a former capital of Poland. It was the European Capital of Culture in 2000, and the historic centre of the city is a Unesco World Heritage Site. It is a typical European mediaeval city, with streets running perpendicularly and parallel to one of the biggest and most beautiful market squares in Europe.

Kraków was left virtually untouched during World War II, and so many of its great monuments, including 120 or more churches, stand as monuments to European culture. I spent some time visiting the cathedral on the hill at Wawel and a number of churches throughout the city. Kraków’s skyline is dominated by churches spires and towers, and there are so many churches, chapels, convents and monasteries throughout the city that in the past Kraków was sometimes called the ‘Northern Rome’.

These churches, with their rich interiors and furnishings, their art and their treasures, bear witness to the splendour of Kraków. In Kraków alone, there are over 120 Roman Catholic places of worship, and over 40 churches in the historic area of the city centre. There might have been even more, but many churches were destroyed or dismantled in the 19th century. Over 60 of the surviving churches were built in the last century, and churches continue to be built in the city.

Old Jewish quarter

Souvenirs on sale in Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter in Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I was staying in the Old Jewish Quarter in Kazimierz, and just a short stroll from Oscar Schindler’s factory and the former Jewish ghetto away. The Kazimierz district is particularly noted for its many renaissance buildings and picturesque streets, but also has an outstanding collection of monuments of Jewish sacred architecture that is unmatched anywhere else in Poland.

A Jewish merchant and slave trader from Spain, Ibrahim Ibn Jaqub, travelled to Poland in 960 and wrote the first description of the country and of Kraków.

From the early 12th century, Kraków was an influential centre of Jewish spiritual life, including Orthodox, Chasidic and Reform communities that all flourished side-by-side.

Kazimierz was founded in the 14th century to the south-east of the city centre, on the banks of the River Vistula, and it soon became a wealthy, well-populated area.

The Old Synagogue now houses the Galicia Jewish Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Jewish community in Kraków had lived undisturbed alongside their ethnic Polish neighbours under the protective King Kazimierz III, the last king of the Piast dynasty. However, in the early 15th century, following the Synod of Constance, some dogmatic clergy challenged the official tolerance of Jews. Accusations of blood libel by a fanatic priest in Kraków led to riots against the Jews in 1407, even though the royal guard hastened to the rescue.

By 1750, Poland had a Jewish population of 750,000 which constituted around 70% of the Jewish population in the world, which was estimated at 1.2 million at the time.

Before the Nazi German invasion of Poland, Kraków had a Jewish community of 60,000-80,000 people in a city with a population of 237,000, and at the time there were at least 90 Jewish prayer houses.

Architectural legacy

The Old Synagogue built in 1407 is the oldest Jewish house of prayer in Poland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

During that week, I visited seven of the most prominent synagogues in Kazimierz: the Old Synagogue, the High Synagogue, Remu'h Synagogue, Wolf Popper Synagogue, the Tempel Synagogue, Kupa Synagogue and the Izaak Jakubowicz Synagogue.

The synagogues of Kraków represent virtually all the European architectural styles, including the Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical, and the Modernist. Three of these synagogues are still active, some also serve as houses of prayer, and the district also has two Jewish cemeteries.

A monument on the plaza in front of the Old Synagogue commemorates local resistance to the Nazis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Old Synagogue (Synagoga Stara), at the south end of Szeroka Street, was built in 1407, making it the oldest Jewish house of prayer in Poland. The present appearance of the building dates from remodelling between 1557 and 1570. The parapet and Gothic interior, with ribbed vaulting supported by slender columns, date from this period.

In accordance with Jewish traditional practices, the interior of the hall is almost bare. The east wall retains its ornamental aron hakodesh or sanctuary for the scrolls of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. The only item of furniture is the bimah or reading desk used for reading the Torah, with its surrounding decorative ironwork.

Today, the Old Synagogue houses the Galicia Jewish Museum. The museum exhibits include synagogue furnishings and objects, items used in Jewish rituals and festivals, display boards on the history of the Kazimierz District, and the story of the Holocaust. The numerous items related to religious ceremonies include candle holders, both Chanukah and menorot lamps, covers for the Torah, parochot Holy Ark covers, tallit prayer shawls, and kippahs or yarmulkes.

The collection of books and prints includes 2,500 volumes of Hebrew manuscripts. The paintings on the walls include oil paintings by Maurycy Gottlieb, Józef Mehoffer, Tadeusz Popiel, Jerzy Potrzebowski and Jonasz Stern.

A monument on the plaza in front of the Old Synagogue commemorates a group of local people who were murdered for their resistance to the Nazis.

The Remu'h Synagogue is one of the few functioning synagogues in Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On the west side of Szeroka Street, the Remu'h Synagogue is one of the few functioning synagogues in Kraków. This synagogue was built in the middle of an old row houses (kamienice). It was founded in 1553-1556 by a royal banker, Israel Isserls Auerbach, for his own son, the great philosopher and writer, Rabbi Moses Isserles. Rabbi Moses was also known as Remu'h, and before he had even reached adulthood he was known for his erudition and as a miracle worker. The Remu'h Cemetery behind the synagogue was also named after him.

Inside, there is a beautiful aron hakodesh and a bimah with surrounding decorative ironwork and decorated wooden doors.

Remembering the Righteous

A Chagall-style mural in the courtyard of the Wolf Popper Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The monuments and plaques in the courtyard include one to the ‘Righteous of the Nations’ or gentiles who are honoured for risking their lives to help and to save Jews during the Holocaust. Behind the Remu'h Synagogue, the Remu'h Cemetery has both gravestones and sarcophogi with rich floral and animal decorations. Most of the graves and tombs were destroyed by the Nazis during World War II, but many have been restored in recent decades, and the fragments of others have been reassembled in a jigsaw style on the east wall as a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

Across the street from the Remu'h Synagogue, on the east side of Szeroka Street, the Synagogue of Wolf Popper is now an exhibition centre, hosting exhibitions and often hosting artists in residence.

The High Synagogue is one of the most picturesque synagogues in Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The High Synagogue or Synagoga Wysoka on Jozefa Street is the third oldest synagogue in Kraków. With its Gothic architecture and Renaissance decoration, it is one of the most picturesque synagogues in the city.

It was built in 1556-1563 in a Romanesque style, with a Renaissance portal. The ground floor was rented out to shopkeepers and now houses an important Jewish bookshop. The main synagogue was upstairs on the first floor, where part of the aron hakodesh survives in the east wall. Today, this floor is used to host exhibitions, and there I toured an exhibition documenting Jewish families in the area in the inter-war years, many of whom were transported forcibly to Auschwitz, Birkenau and other death camps and died in the Holocaust.

The Isaak Jakubowicz Synagogue houses the Chabad Lubavitch community (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Isaak’s Synagogue or the Isaak Jakubowicz Synagogue on Kupa Street was founded by Isaak Jakubowicz, a leading member of the Jewish community in the 17th century and was built in 1644. Inside, the synagogue has a barrel vaulted ceiling, a large nave and plaster work by Giovanni Batista Falconi. Today, this synagogue houses Kraków’s Chabad Lubavitch community and the Jewish Education Centre.

The Kupa Synagogue was used as a factory before it was restored (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At the top of Kupa Street, the Kupa Synagogue, also known as the Hospital Synagogue, dates from 1643. It was founded by the Jewish district’s kehilla or local government as foundation for the local kahal. It was rebuilt in the 1830s.

The elaborately-decorated ceiling in the Kupa Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

After World War II, the Kupa Synagogue provided refuge for Jewish people who were being repatriated from the Soviet Union, and it was later used as a factory. But in recent years this synagogue has been renovated, and the aron hakodesh, the walls and the ceilings have been restored.

The Tempel Synagogue on Miodowa Street, the most recent synagogue in Kraków, was built in 1860-1862 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Tempel Synagogue on Miodowa Street is the most recently-built synagogue in Kraków. It was built in 1860-1862, when Kraków was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and its Neo-Renaissance design, with Moorish influences, was inspired by the Leopoldstädter Tempel in Vienna. This synagogue is used by non-Orthodox Jews, and it has impressive stained-glass windows.

Destruction in the Holocaust

Empty chairs in the Ghetto … a memorial to the Holocaust (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Most of the synagogues in Kraków were ruined during World War II. The Nazis robbed them of all their ceremonial objects and decorations and used the buildings to store ammunition and military equipment.

Before 1939, Kraków had a Jewish population of up to 80,000. Of the more than 68,000 Jews in Kraków when the Germans invaded, only 15,000 workers and their families were allowed to remain; all other Jews were ordered out of the city.

The Kraków Ghetto was one of Jewish ghettoes created by the Nazis. The Ghetto, formally established on 3 March 1941, was liquidated between June 1942 and March 1943, with most of its inhabitants sent to their deaths at Bełżec, Płaszów and Auschwitz, 60 km away.

German-occupied Poland suffered the last and the most lethal phase of the Holocaust, with the murder of at least three million Polish Jews or 90 per cent of Poland’s Jewish population, more than in any other country.

By the end of the 1940s, the post-Holocaust Jewish population of Kraków had dwindled to about 5,900. A generation later, this number had fallen even more dramatically to about 600.

The annual Jewish Cultural Festival is growing in popularity (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Jewish population in Poland is about 50,000 today and is growing, with many Jews returning to Poland. In recent years, many of the synagogues and prayer-houses in Kraków have been restored, and these seven synagogues are all within walking distance.

Today, the seven main synagogues in Kazimierz form an outstanding collection of monuments of Jewish sacred architecture unmatched anywhere in Poland. They make up one of the largest complexes of this kind in Europe, second only to Prague, and the district has been on the list of Unesco world heritage sites since 1978.

Kazimierz is experiencing a boom in Jewish-themed restaurants (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Kazimierz is a well-visited area that is popular with tourists and it is experiencing a boom in Jewish-themed restaurants, bars, bookstores and souvenir shops.

The annual Jewish Cultural Festival is growing in popularity, and the area has attracted international attention ever since Steven Spielberg filmed Schindler’s List in Kazimierz in 1993 – although very little of the action historically took place there.

Patrick Comerford is priest-in-charge of Rathkeale (Limerick) and lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This feature was published in February 2017 in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

Kazimierz is a well-visited area that is popular with tourists (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


N.Aunyn said...

Here is a Jewish perspective on your post which micht be of interest:

Patrick Comerford said...

This is an excellent opinion piece -- thank you for the link, Patrick

Patricia Brewster-Willeke said...

Just read it in the Church Review. Very interesting.

Patrick Comerford said...

Thank you Patricia