Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Poland: Krakow’s Wysoka (High) Synagogue Open to Public

Poland: Krakow’s Wysoka (High) Synagogue Open to Public
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Krakow’s Wysoka (High) Synagogue at 38 Jozefa Street in Kazimierz, one of Europe’s oldest surviving synagogue buildings, reopened to the public this past summer. The High Synagogue (so-called, because its worship space is located on the first main floor above ground level) was built in the second half of the 16th century, possibly as early as 1556-63, and certainly by 1597).

Although only part of the original Aron-ha-Kodesh and a small part of its original wall decoration survives, this has been restored and is worth viewing. The Aron is notable for its prominent paired Griffins. Painting mostly survives on the south wall which faces the street and has large window openings. Portions of prayers and high quality floral decorations in the intrados of the window arches have been revealed, cleaned and restored (see photos). I do not know if the full texts – complete and fragmentary – have been identified and studied (viewers of the photos can let me know their thoughts). Normally in synagogues of this period prayers were painted on the walls. Sometimes special variants of prayers were painted to help direct the worshippers on special occasions.

The Kazimierz District walls ran adjacent to the synagogue site, and adjacent properties were not owned by Jews. The upper floor placement of the sanctuary may have been for security reasons. The building was remodeled on many occasions, and the current form of the building is from the 19th century. This arrangement in turn was heavily damaged during the German occupation and then during the use of the building as conservation workshop space by the City of Krakow.

In Krakow, only the Staary (Old) and Remu Synagogues are older. The ground floor was originally used for rent-producing shops, and this situation has been re-created in the restituted property. A Jewish bookstore with an extensive collection occupies the space. A similar situation exists in Prague, where the 16th century High Synagogue served as the prayer space for the Jewish nearly-adjacent Jewish town hall.

The entire space, which was restituted to the Krakow Jewish community, is also used as an exhibition hall. An entrance fee of 9 zlotys (about $3.00) cover entrance to the synagogue and the current exhibit, photographs by Menachem Kipnis (1878-1942), who died of a stroke in the Warsaw Ghetto. Kipnis, who was among the foremost experts on Yiddish folklore – especially music – published these photos in the American Yiddish newspaper the Forvarts (Forward).

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