Old Synagogue in Kazimierz

October 2005 Photo of Old Synagogue in Kazimierz

October 1998 photo of front wall of Old Synagogue in Kazimierz

The Old Synagogue (Synagoga Stara) in the Kazimierz district of Krakow is the oldest surviving Jewish place of worship in Poland. It is located at the southern end of the main street in Kazimierez, at ul. Szeroka 24; the building adjoins a reconstructed section of the old city walls of Kazimierz.

October 2005 photo of old city wall with Synagogue behind it.

Most guidebooks say this synagogue was established in the 15th century, but the author of Schindler's List wrote that it dates back to the 14th century, during the time that the Jews were first invited to settle in Poland.

The Old Synagogue was destroyed by fire in 1557 but was rebuilt by Italian architect Mateo Gucci in the 1570ies.

There are seven historic Synagogues in Kazimierz, including the Old Synagogue, but only one was still being used for worship when I visited in 1998. The photo below shows the entrance to the Old Synagogue on the left and a portion of the reconstructed city wall on the right.

Entrance to museum in Old Synagogue in Kazimierz

Students of American history are familiar with Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the Polish General who fought in the American Revolution and later became a great friend of Thomas Jefferson. During the war which resulted in the Partition of Poland between the Russians, Prussians and Austrians, Koscuiszko was the leader of the Poles. In 1794 he appeared at the Old Synagogue to rally the Jews to fight for Polish independence. This established the Old Synagogue as the place where political leaders in Poland would meet with the Jews. Polish President Ignacy Moscicki made an official visit to the Old Synagogue in 1931 in a symbolic gesture of friendship with the Jewish population.

In the novel, Schindler's List, there is a description of how the Nazis came to the Old Synagogue on Dec. 4, 1939 and promised to spare the lives of the Jews in the congregation if they would spit on the sacred Torah. All but one spat on the Torah, but the Nazis shot them all anyway. This scene was not in Spielberg's film, although the movie was based on the novel.

It is currently being used as the Museum of Jewish History and Culture which houses a collection of photographs of life in Kazimierz before the Nazi occupation, as well as paintings by Jewish artists and religious objects. Of all the cities in Poland, Krakow has the most evidence of Jewish culture.

The Old Synagogue was almost completely destroyed by the Nazis; it was restored after the war, but the 16th century wrought-iron bimah in the center of the main prayer hall is original.

The old photo below, which was taken before the German occupation of Poland began in 1939, shows the bimah in the center.

Interior of the Old Synagogue in Kazimierz

Kazimierz City Wall

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