written by Ruth Ellen Gruber, read by Edward Serotta
We’re on Szeroka, the long, rectangular plaza that’s the heart of Jewish Kazimierz. In front of us, an imposing stone gateway beckons us into the city’s most revered Jewish sites – the Renaissance Remuh, or Remah, synagogue and the Old Jewish Cemetery.
Both date from the 16th century. And both are associated with the great sage, Rabbi Moses Isserles, who died in 1572, and who is known by the acronym Remuh, or Rema.
Let’s go through the gate and enter the little courtyard. We can see the synagogue in front of us, with its thick walls, while the cemetery is behind the wall to our right. As we enter, take note of the new monument to Jan Karski, the Polish officer in World War II who brought news of the Holocaust to the Allies.
Let’s visit the synagogue first.
It was built in the 1550s by the wealthy banker Israel Isserles, the Remuh’s father, in memory of his beloved wife, who along with other family members had died in an outbreak of the plague.
Though its outer appearance is modest, the sanctuary is a tiny jewel – the smallest synagogue in Kazimierz. It’s still a key center of religious life in Krakow, both for the local Jewish community and for visitors, who include many orthodox religious pilgrims.
The synagogue was rebuilt and renovated several times over the centuries. The most recent restoration, carried out in the past few years, revealed the colorful paintings we now can see on the walls and ceiling. Dating from the 19thcentury, they feature vivid geometric designs and the signs of the Zodiac.
Light streams in through a big half-moon window above painted curtains that frame the late-Renaissance Ark with its delicate carved decoration.
Notice the ornate grill surrounding the bimah in the center of the sanctuary. The Nazis destroyed the original when they turned the building into a warehouse, and this is a post-war reconstruction.
Let’s go on now to the Old Jewish Cemetery, one of the oldest surviving Jewish cemeteries in Poland.
It’s just behind the synagogue, and we enter through the courtyard.
This cemetery was founded in the 1530s and in use until 1800. But it doesn’t look like it did back then. The Nazis utterly demolished the cemetery and used the land as a garbage dump.
After World War II excavations uncovered hundreds of intact tombstones and broken stone fragments that lay buried under soil and debris.
If you look to your right as we enter, you can see the so-called “wailing wall” memorial that was constructed from the broken fragments.
Experts re-erected the gravestones in neat rows, but no-one knows if they stand above the graves of the people they honor. So in some ways the cemetery is a museum of funeral art. As you can see as you walk through the area, many of the stones bear exquisitely ornate carved decoration.
Many prominent people are buried here, including community leaders such as Izaak Jakubowicz, who founded the Izaak Synagogue.
The graves of the Remuh and his family, surrounded today by iron railings, are among the only ones that survived the centuries intact and in place. Each year, thousands of devout Jews come here from far and wide to pray, leave written messages, and pay homage to their memory.