Krakow’s Oldest Synagogue: Museum and Monument

In the heart of Krakow’s Jewish district Kazimierz stands one of the venerable synagogues of Europe. It was built in the 15th century to serve the burgeoning community of Kazimierz, a settlement within Krakow’s walls founded in 1495. The synagogue’s early date is reflected in its Gothic interior, with a delicate vaulted ceiling and a wonderful sense of space. Due to a fire in the 1550s, however, the synagogue was given a brick Renaissance-style facade that can still be seen today.

Stara Synagoga Main Interior

The main hall of the 'Stara Synagoga' in Krakow, now a museum.

The currently pristine state of the synagogue, however, reflects a darker part of the history of Krakow’s Jewish community. Throughout the late mediaeval and early modern period, Kazimierz had grown as Jews living in other parts of Europe sought refuge from persecution in Poland. In the 20th century, this substantial population was targeted by the Holocaust, with many dying in nearby Auschwitz and Birkenau. The actions of the Nazis, which decimated the community the synagogue was built to serve, also damaged the building. The synagogue as it stands owes its appearance to restoration-work done in the 1950s.

Stara Synagoga Tapestry

Heavy embroidered tapestry, the Stara Synagoga Museum.

The exhibits focus in large part upon the religious festivals and rites of passage that marked Jewish communal life. Displays include artefacts, from this and other synagogues, as well as photographs from community life before WWII. This emphasis on the lived faith and its many daily expressions feels particularly appropriate, invoking the many generations who congregated here throughout the building’s history.

Ceremonial Silver Stara Synagoga

Elaborate ceremonial silver from the Stara Synagoga. If anyone knows the function of these objects (my memory is terrible and Google is unforthcoming,) please let me know in the comments!

Despite the synagogue’s battered history, however, there are a few enchanting reminders of its original interiors. These include a Tzedakah box, in which alms were collected from the congregation:

Stara Synagoga Alms Box

The Tzedakah Box, for collecting alms, incorporated into the reconstructed walls of the Stara Synagoga.

as well as a few hints of the murals which would have decorated the space:

Stara Synagoga Mural

Hebrew text in painting from the unreconstructed wall surface, Stara Synagoga.

Together, the museum displays and the fabric of the building tell a story of remarkable resilience and continuity in the Jewish community centred upon the Old Synagogue. At the same time, its retirement from use as a house of worship attests to greater persecutions responsible not only for encouraging a community here, alongside Krakow’s mediaeval walls, but also for eventually destroying it.

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