Saturday, January 3, 2009

Poland: New Look and Life for Former Synagogue of Kazimierz Dolny

Poland: New Look and Life for Former Synagogue of Kazimierz Dolny
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) The Synagogue of Kazimierz Dolny was built in the second half of the 18th century. The stone building is 14.8 m x 16.9 m and occupies a central position in the town, between the Rynek and the Maly Rynek. The main prayer hall on the south side of the building is about square in plan and is surmounted by an eight-segment wooden vaulted ceiling. A separate women's section occupies the northern third of the site, but because of the sloping terrain, it is reached from a higher spot on the outside, and is only half as high as main hall.

Kazimierz Dolny had a substantial Jewish population from the the Middle Ages on. Before the Second World War about 50% of the town's populations was Jewish. Most were killed by the Germans in March 1942. Before the war the town had been a popular resort for Jews, including Jewish artists who loved to paint there (the local museum recently has an exhibition devoted to these painters and their work). Yiddish Filmmakers worked in Kazimierz Dolny, too. It was the setting for the well known Jidl mitn fidl (Yidl with a fiddle) with Molly Picon. to the writer Sholom Ashe is attributed the saying, "In Kazimierz, the Vistula [River] speaks to me in Yiddish."

The synagogue building was partly destroyed in 1944, and then rebuilt in 1953 and subsequently used as a cinema. That was the situation when I first visited the town in 1990. Now, the building has been restituted to the Jewish community of Warsaw, which has restored the building (as much as possible) and created an exhibition space and meeting hall. These pictures were taken in Oct 2008 during the First Congress of Jewish Art in Poland which used the synagogue as one of two main conference venues.

The synagogue as "restored," looks little like it did in the pre-War years. Surviving descriptions and photos show an interior filled with art - painted ceiling and walls, hanging lamps and, of course, a bimah and Ark. At the time of the recent Congress a photo exhibition of Jewish Kazimeirz Dolny was mounted in the space and one see well the difference between past and present.

Adam Dylewski, in his
Where the Tailor was a Poet: Polish Jews and Their Culture (an Illustrated Guide), quotes impressions of the synagogue by Aleksander Janowski from around 1910:
"Horses, deer, castles, flowers, geese, scales, doves and symbolism in all its richness hovers over the crowd deep in prayer...the elevation with a wooden balustrade, brass candelabra with numerous arms, an embroidered silk curtain, enormous books on pulpits and several splendid silver-bearded types. This is the east - hot and fanatical. The east, in their long flowing garments and silver adornments on their foreheads. These nostalgic passionate songs full of simplicity and woe, these signs for the land once lost, for Mount Zion and the Tomb of David, for the waters of Jordan and the cedars of Lebanon..."

There were many local legends associated with this synagogue. According to Dylewski; " It was said to have been founded by King Casimir the Great as a gift for Esther [his Jewish lover]. The stones in the wall were alleged to have come from the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem."

The transformation of the Kazimierz synagogue is an interesting case of new life for old Jewish buildings. Some former synagogue are being restored under the auspices of the Foundation for the Protection of Jewish Heritage in Poland. Other properties, however, are under the direct control of any of the nine distinct Jewish communities in modern Poland. How these communities use their historic properties varies greatly. In Kazimierz Dolny, because of the continued popularity of the town as a major Polish vacation spot, it is likely that the synagogue will be able to successfully perform a cultural role in the town while maintaining some aspect of Jewish identity. For now, there is a Jewish book and gift shop at the synagogue, but no permanent exhibition or other purpose.

No comments: