Kraków: Jewish Ghosts

What do you do with a synagogue building that can no longer function as a synagogue? Perhaps the neighborhood changed, or the building costs too much to maintain. Perhaps the congregation moved to the suburbs. Perhaps its members were murdered. What do you do? What should you do?¹


Friday, October 19, 2018 – continued: There is a light rain falling in Kraków, intermittently devolving into a mist. Beth and I walk to the Old Synagogue. The synagogue was built in the 15th century. It is the oldest synagogue in Kraków; it is the oldest synagogue in Poland. However, it is no longer the home of a Jewish congregation. Today, the building houses a museum. But before this, for hundreds of years, it was the main house of prayer for Jews in Kraków. During World War II, the building was wrecked by the Germans and all of its valuable furnishings were stolen. It sat, uncared for, for over ten years after the war. 

The building was refurbished from 1956 to 1959 and repurposed; it became part of the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków, its specific purpose–to preserve artifacts and information concerning the culture and history of Kraków’s Jews. Here Beth and I saw, for example, a Torah crown from 1819, and an 18th-century curtain that covered the Aron Hakodesh. Not every item in the museum is from Kraków, though. We saw a spice box from Austria, for example, and a seder plate from Lwów. The Ministry of Religious Affairs of the State of Israel donated some items in the museum’s collection.

I am glad that the museum exists and preserves many remnants of Kraków’s Jewish heritage. Nonetheless, it feels strange to me to view ritual items that I see or use every day displayed in a museum. When I lived in Philadelphia, I would sometimes visit Lancaster County, most often during the harvest season, when the landscape is so beautiful. It is home to many Amish. I would carry my camera and take photographs, trying to be as discrete as possible when photographing people. For I had read that the Amish do not want to have their picture taken or to be seen as curiosities. They are not museum pieces, and their horse-drawn buggies are a functional means of transportation for them. Perhaps the strange feeling I experienced while viewing the museum’s exhibits is akin to that of the Amish when they notice tourists looking at them with curiosity, taking a picture of them.

Wall detail, The High Synagogue, Kraków

Next stop is the High Synagogue, completed in 1563. It is the third oldest synagogue in Kraków; only the Old and the Remuh synagogues are older. The synagogue is located on the second floor of the building and today is used to house temporary exhibits. Few details of the synagogue remain, but of those that do, they act as a reminder of what the building must have been like in its days of glory. Downstairs is a well-stocked bookstore containing books of Jewish interest in many languages. It came highly recommended by Rabbi Shnayer Leiman, Beth’s cousin. 

Interior of The Popper Synagogue, 

The Popper Synagogue dates from 1620 and is named after Wolf Popper, the man who financed its building. 

In the 1960s, under communism, the Jewish Council turned the building over to the communist authorities who renovated it, removing almost all traces of its Jewish past. The building became the Old Town Youth Cultural Center.  Today, the building houses a bookstore on the ground floor. Changing exhibits are displayed upstairs in what would formerly have been the women’s gallery of the synagogue.

In a speech before the Reichstag, January 30, 1939, Hitler, יִמַּח שְׁמוֹ, prophesied that if there were a second world war, the result would be the annihilation of all European Jews. Traveling in Poland in 2018, a county that lost 90% of its Jews during WWII, Beth and I see much of the devastation that he wrought. He did not succeed. He did come close, however, terribly, sorrowfully, close.

Next time I will close our visits to the synagogues of Kraków with notes on the magnificent Tempel Synagogue.


¹In response to an email in which I asked if a synagogue could be repurposed as a school, the Israeli scholar and teacher Avi Gold replied, in part, as follows. I find his explanation of the line of reasoning in this case fascinating.

In the Gemara of Megillah there is a debate between Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Yehoshua son of Levi over the nature of a synagogue. One said it is a place where Torah is raised up, and the other said it’s a place where prayer is raised up.

ר’ יוחנן ור’ יהושע בן לוי חד אמר מקום שמגדלין בו תורה וחד אמר מקום שמגדלין בו תפלה

It becomes apparent in the course of the Talmudic examination of these opinions that Rabbi Yehoshua held the nature of a synagogue is to be a place where prayer is raised up. As a result, it is he who concludes:

בית הכנסת מותר לעשותו בית המדרש

It is permissible to turn a synagogue into a Beys Medrash, i.e. a House of Study, because study of Torah is held to be superior to prayer. Thus, in following the principle of “ascending in matters of the holy rather than descending”, a House of Study is higher up than a synagogue. From this it follows that it only works in one direction. Turning a House of Study into a synagogue is a step down, spiritually speaking, so it is not permitted (at least according to this line of reasoning).

All photos © 2018 Beth Ben-Avraham.

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