Old Synagogue

written and read by Piotr Figela

We are standing in the courtyard before the majestic Old Synagogue. Built in the fifteenth century, you are looking at the oldest existing synagogue in Poland.

 

Great history happened where you are standing—both great things and terrible things. Secular events happened here and religious events, too—and I will tell you about them.

 

Just before Poland was torn apart by Prussia, Russia, and Austria in the 1790s, Tadeusz Kościuszko, one of Poland’s great political and military leaders, gave a speech to the Jews of Kazimierz from the bimah, or pulpit, and called for their active support for the insurrection of 1794. He, liked them, wanted a free Poland, but it was not to be. Then in 1848, during the year of revolutions all over Europe, Orthodox Jews stood here—inside and outside—to rally to Poland’s cause. And they were led by Krakow’s most famous orthodox rabbi then, Ber Meisels. But it would take until 1918 before Poland became its own country again.

 

And right here, in this place in October 1927, the President of Poland, Ignacy Mościcki, was welcomed by Rabbi Józef Kornitzer and the Chairman of the Jewish Community Rafał Landau—and that tells us something about the central place this grand and imposing building held for Krakow’s Jews—and for Poland.

But it was not to last.

Having served for centuries as the central prayer hall for the Jews of Kraków and the main seat of our city’s rabbis and administrators of the Jewish town – this great synagogue was ruined and robbed of its sumptuous furnishings during the German occupation during the 2nd World War. They devastated it. And as you surely know, tens of thousands of Jews who lived here in Kazimierz were taken away to the ghetto across the river, and after that, to their deaths.

 

After the war, the building before you lay in ruins for over a decade and very few Jews lived here in those years. But in 1959 the government restored the Old Synagogue as a museum. 

Let’s go inside and see how beautiful it is now.

 

* * *

We first enter into an elegant vestibule enclosed by a vaulted ceiling. People waiting for court hearings with the rabbis sat here. And starting in the 19th century, poor men who did not have their own seats in the synagogue itself used to sit on oak benches along the walls. Look at the corner of the vestibule - there is a stone casing of the well from which water for ablutions was drawn. It dates back well more than 400 years.

 

Between the vestibule and the main hall is an entranceway framed with a beautiful mannerist stone portal dating from the first half of the 17th century, with a semi-circular finial. It is one of the most beautiful stone archways in any Jewish building in Central Europe so stop for just a moment to admire it. Above the arch is an inscription that reads: “This gate of the Lord, into which the righteous shall enter”. And that sets us up for our visit to the sanctuary, so let’s go inside.

 

A few steps down lead to the main sanctuary, and its floor is some two meters below the present street level, and again, let me remind you that after its destruction by Germans, this sanctuary was rebuilt and adapted to be a museum—not as a functioning synagogue. 

 

I don’t have to tell you to look up—because your eyes are already drawn up to this light filled, exquisite sanctuary. Above you soars the reconstructed cross-ribbed vaulted ceiling that seem to sprout out of two slender columns. Between them is the bimah – an elevated place where the Torah was read, where sermons were given, and all housed in this elegant metal tent, so to speak.

 

So who designed this—and when? 

Even though the synagogue had been here for over a century, in 1570, and Italian architect came to Krakow by the name of Matteo Gucci. Gucci was hired for the reconstruction, and he preserved the original two-aisled design of the sanctuary—they looked like this in Bohemia, Germany and other places at the time-- and Gucci had the sanctuary re-roofed with this Gothic cross-ribbed vaulting that soars above now.

However, Gucci did replace the original Gothic pillars with the slender Tuscan columns we have today, making the ribs of the vault rest on Renaissance consoles, and crowning the raised walls with a parapet that concealed the butterfly roof—this had never been done in a Polish synagogue before.   

 

The second half of the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth centuries saw the expansion of the synagogue by adding, subsequently, that vestibule where we entered, two prayer rooms for women, and a house for the board of the Jewish community, which no longer exists.

 

Let’s walk over to the eastern wall. Facing Jerusalem stands the holy Ark in which the Torah scrolls are kept. It is framed with a late-Renaissance portal surmounted with a table with an image of the crown. 

 

The final thing to show you is, as we leave, to our right against the wall by the entrance, is a baroque-era treasure, a piece of art engraved in stone. This is the collection box installed into the wall, dating from the year 1638. As you can see, it has two inscriptions. They are about tzeddeka, which some people think means charity. But it doesn’t. Tzeddekameans “justice”, and in Judaism we are compelled to provide justice—not give charity. Which gives us something to think about.

 

Today, the Old Synagogue of Kazimierz is the most precious monument of Jewish culture and history in Poland. Over 100 thousand visitors every year come here to visit. We are glad you have been one of them—if not in person, then virtually.

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