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Cracow, A Picture on the Wall
A Picture on the Wall


As a continuation of his series on Jewish communities around the world, Stanley Mann introduces us to Cracow, Poland, which has a long and vibrant Jewish history.
Just stand back and put in your imagination a picture on the wall. Stand a moment, now look closely as it comes into focus. There, in the corner, you may see a tree start to move, a synagogue in pink shadows painted in seasons, and somewhere in the center, marble tombs of the Rabbis. If you look closer you may see the flicker of Friday evening candles. Now you may hear sounds; footsteps - clicks on the cobblestones of late passers-by hurrying to evening prayers. Now the voice of the vendors, “Buy, Buy! Today pay, tomorrow you are free!� You may even get the smells of boiled round peas “Arbes� well salted, and the tastes of sauerkraut, made in apples. There’s the Cantor in the Kupa Synagogue pinching, pushing, prodding the singers to begin in choir. There’s the empty chair of “The Light of the West,� the greatest Gaon of his generation, the Remuh. Look closer before the lights go out and the wall is blank again, look at Cracow, “a wealth of Jewish history,� stand back now and see a picture on the wall.

Cracow, the beautiful, ancient city, “there is only one,� is one of the most magnificent cities in all of Poland. Here the Vistula river flows majestically, and is the heart’s artery of the land. Until 1609, it was the capital of the country. The city was the residence of the Polish nobility. Unlike Warsaw, Cracow was scarcely damaged during the war. The old Jewish district, Kazimierz, and many former Jewish buildings have remained intact. The city itself dates back to 465 when the traveler Ibrahim ibn Yaqub was sent by the Caliph of Cordova and in his journals mentions it as a major trade center. By the early 12th century Jews were already living there. Kazimierz was founded by King Kazimierz (Casimir) the Great in 1335.

In 1407, a preacher in St. Anne’s Church accused the Jews of ritual murder and riots soon took place from early morning until dusk. Many Jews were killed, and those who survived were converted to Christianity. In 1494, a huge fire in Cracow stimulated another wave of anti-Jewish riots in the city. By the end of the 15th century, the Jews were made to leave and settled in Kazimierz, a suburb of the city.

The Jews were not permitted to live anywhere but in the old Jewish district of Kazimierz. They owned stores in many other places, especially on the Main Square in Cracow, yet they had to return overnight to this area. Although the Jews lived in Kazimierz for almost 500 years, they always referred to themselves as Cracow Jews. The name Kazimierz is never mentioned on the grave stones inscriptions while the name Cracow is. The Jewish community, bolstered by immigrants from Germany, Bohemia, Spain, and Portugal, became a semi-autonomous Jewish town, protected by the king. It flourished as a trading center. Jewish culture and scholarship reached its height in the mid-sixteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries, when great sages like Rabbi Moses Isserles Remuh (c. 1525-1572) drew students and scholars from cities all over Poland and abroad.

Historical synagogues were built which exist today in this old Jewish district, forming the country’s richest and most important complex of Jewish relics. Here is the world’s biggest surviving complex, dating from the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries.

Here is the cemetery, the Old Jewish Cemetery, where Jews come from all over the world to pray at the graves of the famous Cracow rabbis and scholars, particularly at the tombstone of the most eminent Polish Rabbi, Moses Isserles. It is said that during the war, the Nazis tried to destroy the tombstone, but that the first worker who touched the tombstone fell to the ground, as if thunder struck, and the Germans gave up on the idea.

The Old Jewish Cemetery is directly behind the Remuh Synagogue. During the Nazi occupation, tombstones were shattered, and after the war no more than a dozen tombstones remained at the cemetery. On the remaining tombstones one can still see different decorated elements. A “crown� signifies the tomb of a rabbi, a “crown of learning�, a symbol of knowledge. An “image of birds,� signified that the human soul was on its way to G-d. A “candlestick,� was the grave of a woman, indicating lighting the Sabbath candle. A “broken tree,� or “broken candle� on the tombstone, generally symbolized a sudden death or a premature one.

Archaeological excavations were conducted on the cemetery in 1959. At that time hundreds of stone tombstones were found, and as a result of this undertaking over 700 tombstones were erected anew. However, the overwhelming majority of the tombstones are not standing on their former place. The oldest 16th century tombstones are tall, massive slabs, almost without any ornamentation. Here too is buried Rabbi Joel Sirkis (1561-1640), chief rabbi of Cracow (1618-1640) and author of the known work Beth Chadash (The New House) which brought him the title of Bach.

The cemetery in Ulica Miodowa is still functioning. During the war, some of the monuments from the cemetery were taken to the concentration camp building in Plaszow where they were arranged as a pavement in front of the entrance of the camp. The other tombstones were toppled over, the graves opened, and the remains scattered. After the war in 1957, the cemetery was renovated and many new tombstones and inscriptions to the Jews who were killed during Nazi occupation were placed. The oldest graves go back to 1840. There are about 50 eminent people buried there including Rabbis, dayyans, Hasidic scholars and physicians. Also buried here is the famous painter Maurycy Gottlieb (1856-1879). He died at age 23 but produced a remarkable quantity of paintings. His painting, “Jews Praying on the Day of Atonement� is considered an indisputable masterpiece.

The synagogue still in use today is the Remuh Synagogue, built in 1553, and is the center of Jewish life in Cracow. It was founded by Israel Isserles, father of Rabbi Moses Isserles, the Remuh.

Reb Israel Isserles was one of the most prominent Jewish merchants in Cracow. The story is told that every Friday, promptly at noon, he would close up his store and go home to prepare for the Sabbath.

One Friday morning, a distinguished merchant came to his store to buy a large quantity of goods. As the morning went by, the clock suddenly struck noon and Reb Israel Isserles turned to the merchant and told him that he now had to lock up the store. The merchant said that he wanted to continue buying, even half the store, and he stated that there was still a lot of time until the Sabbath. The Rabbi answered that it was his rule, which he would not break for all the treasures. The merchant left angrily, leaving behind all that he had purchased that morning and Israel Isserles went home to prepare for the Sabbath. That he had not stayed longer, he knew, was a real loss for him. However, the Heavens would reward him instead. His wife conceived a child and nine months later she gave birth to a boy named Moshe and that famous son is known as Moshe Isserles.

There is another slightly different version, which is according to the Hassidic tradition. They say that it was really Satan himself who appeared that particular Friday morning and came to put Reb Israel Isserles to the test. And for not yielding, he was rewarded with one of the greatest scholars of his generation.

The structure of the Remuh Synagogue is rather small, taking into account that it was probably built to serve family and friends. During the Nazi occupation, the Synagogue was completely looted and the entire furnishings of its interior were confiscated. After 1957, it was reconstructed so that today one can see in the center of the synagogue the bimah, which is placed on a low dais, and is surrounded by wrought-iron-grating, which is the exact copy of the original. The floor is paved with 19th century tiles. At the eastern wall is the Aron-ha-kodesh. At the right side of the Aron ha-kodesh there is a plaque atop a row of chairs. One of the chairs beneath the wall remains empty all the time during religious services, and this was the place where the Remuh poured out his heart to G-d. Rabbi Moses Isserles' most important role was codifier of Jewish law. He adapted Joseph Caro’s work, Shulhan Arukh (Covered Table), which was intended for Sephardic Jews, for Ashkenazi Jews called it Ha-Mappah (Tablecloth). He did this in such a way that the works of Joseph Caro and Moses Isserles became the definite “oracle of Jewish life.� Orthodox Jews still use the codex of Joseph Caro and Moses Isserles and it is used to define the principle of their behavior. He was regarded as the Maimonides of Polish Jewry.

The Old Synagogue which had been the center of Jewish life was built in the second half of the 15th century and was remodeled many times. It is a massive, fortressed building in the late Gothic-Renaissance style. When one enters, one is struck by the beauty of the architecture. After a fire in 1557, it was rebuilt by the architect Mateo Gucci. At the beginning of the 17th century, the women’s section was added. The shapes of the roofs were changed in 1888. There is an elaborate iron Bimah, and also the original masonry Ark. In 1939, the Germans turned the Old Synagogue into a storehouse and later it was savagely looted and ravaged. Its Gothic vaulting as well as both columns were removed and all the metal and wooden details were taken away. In 1956 - 1959, the Synagogue was rebuilt according to the Gothic Renaissance style of the 16th century design of Mateo Gucci. Its former brilliance was restored. On January 13, 1958, it became the Museum of the History and Culture of Jews and today there is a permanent collection of Judaica. There is a wide range of different paintings, depicting the early life of the Jewish community of Cracow, a life that is no more. The scenes depicted are the world of the Cracow Jews, in prayer, in joy, sadness, in their everyday life, with shadows of its synagogues and cemeteries. In the museum there is an exhibition of documentary photographs of the Holocaust years.

The Ajzyk’s Synagogue was built in 1638, from funds by one of the richest Cracow Jews of that time, Izaak Jakubowicz, known as Reb Ajzyk Jekels, after whom the synagogue was named. It is quite large with huge walls and 18th century buttresses. During the Nazi occupation it too was thoroughly looted of its rich interior, of its suspended magnificent chandeliers and stucco works. After the war there remained only the naked walls.

The Kupa Synagogue was built in 1608. During the Nazi occupation it was closed like all the other Synagogues in Cracow. At the end of World War II it was reopened as one of the first prayer houses in use. In1947 it became a matzah factory. The interior has lost it formers character. There are no traces of the bimah which had been in the center of the prayer house with its open-work canopy. There is no trace of the Aron ha-Kodesh whose niche today is covered with a wooden board. Of the famous interior decoration, there still exists colorful, 20th century wall paintings. They cover the flat ceiling and beams of the gallery.

In 1938, the Jewish population of Cracow was 64,348, twenty-five percent of the population. On September 6, 1939 the German forces under the 14th army of the Wehrmacht entered the city. The world of the Jews collapsed overnight. All Jews were forced to wear armbands with the Star of David. Shops had to be clearly marked. Jews were not allowed to use the railways. Bank accounts were sealed. There were raids, manhunts, searches and beatings. The Jews were then locked in a ghetto as the Germans set about removing the Jews from Cracow. On March 20, 1941, 15,000 Jews were crammed in 320 buildings. Special work camps were set up like the one on the periphery of Krakow, in Plaszow, which was really an instrument of the community’s slow destruction. The physical extermination of the Jews started in June 1942 as they were deported to the death camps. On October 28, 1942, 6,000 Jews were deported to Belzec. Patients in the Jewish hospital were killed on the spot.

Those who were not killed were sent to Auschwitz. By the end of World War II only a few Jews who had been in hiding were saved. There was an exodus of Jews during the years of 1967-1969. Today there are only a few Jews living in the city, and attendance in the Synagogue is bolstered by its visitors. Plaszow was destroyed and on a hill on its site stands a gargantuan stone sculpture of sharply etched human figures in mourning. We also can see the house of the Nazi commander and chief hangman Amnon Goeth. It still contains the balcony from which he shot innocent people during his so-called target practice. He was sentenced to death and hung in 1946. Approximately 2,000 people survived the camp, and about 700 were saved by Oskar Schindler, a German who employed Jews in his factory. In Cracow there is the Headquarters of the Jewish Combat Organization, whose leaders Heish Bauminger, Bernard Halberich, Hashomer Hatzarand Judah Leibe, committed sabotage acts outside the ghetto in the cafes and movie houses visited by the Germans on December 22, 1942.

On January 17, 1945, the day before liberation of Cracow, the Germans in their continued acts of brutality and defiance, took 178 Jewish women and two boys to Auschwitz which at that very time was already being liquidated.

Today, in the Remuh Synagogue, where there still is a certain feeling of warmth. If you walk near the Remuh’s chair, you will be able to see, on the plaque above, the words, “We assume that the late Rabbi Remuh has been standing here, saying his prayers and telling G-d about his sorrows,� and maybe you’ll walk outside, away, and a picture may come off the wall now and dangle in the air, and follow you, and you will see in the picture, if you look closely enough, a little early morning dew, on the scenes of the synagogues; the people, the Sabbath candles, maybe even on the two little boys who were sent away to the camps, and if you go just a little closer, you will see, that it is not really dew, but tears.