Between the 16th and the first half of the 17th centuries, when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was one of the largest and most tolerant countries in Europe, a lot of Jews settled in Poland.
Therefore the country was known as paradisus Iudaeorum (Latin for “Paradise for the Jews”). Just before World War II, more than 3.3 million Jews still lived here, at that time the largest Jewish population of Europe and second largest in the world.
With the fall of communism, Jewish cultural, social, and religious life has been undergoing a revival. Many synagogues, Jewish cemeteries and other buildings have been renovated. There are a lot of interesting festivals, bookshops and also restaurants where you can feel the Jewish spirit. Today, only about 3,200 Jews live in Poland, mainly in Warsaw, Cracow, Łódź and Wrocław.
Cracow: where Oskar Schindler saved the live of many Jews
See the city where Oskar Schindler saved the life of more than 1000 Jews during the Holocaust. Become acquainted with the tradition and culture of Cracow Jews visiting the Kazimierz District, the Jewish section of Cracow. Today’s Kazimierz is bursting with cultural life, where in numerous cafes and bars, live music is played. Several Jewish bookshops on Szeroka Street, the old town square, which was the centre of Jewish life in Kazimierz, offer books in different languages. There are several good restaurants serving Jewish-style food.
Kazimierz also stands for the annual Jewish Culture Festival which takes place late June or early July lasting nine days, from Saturday to Sunday. It is one of the biggest and most radical, avant-garde festivals of Jewish culture in the world, attracting performers and participants from different countries. Enjoy concerts, exhibitions, plays, lectures, workshops, tours, book launches and Jewish cuisine. The festival promotes a whole variety of different styles of Jewish music: synagogue song, Hasidic, classical, Jewish folk, Jewish dances and klezmer. The opening concert usually takes place In one of the seven synagogues of Kazimierz. The closing concert of the festival “Shalom on Szeroka Street” is always held outdoors, at Szeroka Street.
Seven synagogues can be found in Kazimierz, representing several architectural styles: Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassicism and Modernism. Stara Synagoga, the oldest synagogue in Poland, built in the early 15th century, hosts the Museum of Jewish History and Traditions. You can visit this exhibition with audio guide in English, Hebrew, German or Polish languages. The most valuable Jewish graveyard in Poland is the Old Jewish Cemetery, located next to the 16th century Remuh Synagogue at Szeroka Street.
In the Galicia Jewish Museum the victims of the Holocaust are commemorated and the Jewish culture of Polish Galicia is celebrated.
Close to the former ghetto is the site of the Płaszów concentration camp. At this camp, Oskar Schindler saved about 1,100 Jews by putting them to work in his factory. Nearby on Lipowa Street is Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory where you can visit the exhibition “Cracow under Nazi Occupation 1939–1945”. In the early 1990s, Steven Spielberg made “Schindler’s List” , using Kazimierz as a crucial location.
Not far from Cracow near the city of Oświęcim is the Nazi concentration and labour camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. This complex was the largest of all the Nazi death camps across Europe. A museum helps future generations to understand the cruelty committed within its fences.
Warsaw: where the biggest Jewish community lived
The largest Jewish community in 1939 in Poland lived in Warsaw (375.000 or one third of its population), the second largest community in the world after New York. The famous Jewish author Isaac Bashevis Singer, awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978, was born in 1902 in Leoncin a village near Warsaw. Built on the ground of the former Warsaw Ghetto, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, features a multimedia narrative exhibition about the vibrant Jewish community that flourished in Poland for a thousand years. The Museum is also an important centre of research and education. Because the Ghetto was totally destroyed only small pieces of the walls remained. You can still see some pieces in the courtyards at 55 Sienna Street, 62 Złota Street and 11 Waliców Street.
At the Jewish Cemetery at Okopowa Street (Gensha Cemetery), Warsaw’s largest Jewish graveyard with 250,000 people buried in 200,000 graves, also some pieces of the Ghetto wall are found. Founded in 1806, this graveyard is one of the few Jewish cemeteries still functioning in Poland. It is the resting place of many well-known people in the history of the Jews, from Warsaw and Poland (e.g. Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, Marek Edelmann, Esther Rachel Kamińska). Numerous tombstones are of historical and artistic importance. The Brodno Jewish Cemetery, founded in 1799, is the oldest Jewish necropolis in Warsaw.
The Nożyk synagogue at Twarda Street, the only remained pre-war temple in Warsaw, may be visited daily, except Saturdays. Services are held daily and on major Jewish holidays. Several festivals connected with Jewish culture are organized in Warsaw each year. Teatr Żydowski im. Estery Rachel i Idy Kamińskich is the only Jewish theatre in Poland, where Yiddish and Polish are spoken.
Lublin the centre of Yiddish culture in south-eastern Poland
For many centuries Lublin was a vibrant centre of Hebrew and Yiddish culture and home to what was then the world’s largest Talmudic school. Lublin was called the Jerusalem of the Polish Kingdom. You can find all Jewish objects here when you follow the Heritage Trail Of The Lublin Jews. ”. The old cemetery (station 4) is worth a visit, it contains tombstones dating back to the early 1500’s. It is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Poland, which still exists. About two miles from Lublin is the Majdanek concentration camp.
Jewish culture in the pearl of Renaissace
In the beautiful city of Zamość in eastern Poland, the modern ‘Synagogue’ Center is located in the old Renaissance Jewish temple. Here you can trace the history of the Jews of Zamość and the surrounding area. You can attend lectures, seminars, concerts and exhibitions. The synagogue is also a place of worship for Jewish inhabitants of the city as well as for visitors. If you want to explore Jewish traces in the Lubelskie and Podkarpackie Voivodships than you should visit the Chassidic Route Information Centre in the synagogue.
The Baroque synagogue in Łańcut
Following the Chassidic Route in south-eastern Poland you will arrive in the historic town of Łańcut (south-eastern Poland). The beautiful synagogue near the magnificent castle of the Lubomirski and Potocki families was built in 1761. It is one of the most valuable monuments of sacral art in Poland. The synagogue was financed by Stanisław Lubomirski, the leading protector of Jews in Łańcut.
Uncover the beautiful interior of the synagogue, decorated with 18th century ornaments, wall paintings and stucco, depicting biblical scenes, floral motifs, animal, and Hebrew inscriptions. There is also an authentic bimah.
Pay attention to numerous gravestones, collected from the two Jewish cemeteries in Łańcut which were damaged by the Nazis. The oldest cemetery (17th century) is located on a hill on Moniuszko Street. The new Kirkut was founded in the year 1860 on Traugutta Street.
In the village of Markowa, south-east of Łańcut, the first museum in Poland, dedicated to the rescue of Jewish population in occupied Poland during World War II, is located. The Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II was designed by Mirosław Nizio, known for his modern design of architectural objects and interiors.
Łódź: city of Jewish industrialists
The textile centre of Poland was over centuries a multicultural city with a big Jewish community. One can visit mansions, banks, and textile factories of Jewish industrialists from the late 19th century, including a textile factory belonging to Markus Silberstein, a former mansion and a bank belonging to Makysymilian Goldeder and an ornate bank formerly owned by Wilhem Landau, all located on Piotrokowska Street. The Poznański palace is open to the public, it houses the city’s historical museum. The largest Jewish burial ground in Europe is located in Łódź.
The Great Synagogue of Tykocin
Situated on the Narew river, the little town of Tiktin (Yiddish for Tykocin) is the oldest and most beautiful urban complex in the Podlasie Voivodeship (north-eastern Poland), a pearl of Baroque architecture. The first Jews settled here in 1522. Tykocin’s Jewish community was one of the most important in Poland: in 1857 Jews made up to almost 70% of the total population. The Jewish quarter hides a lot of historic buildings, like the Great Synagogue (1642) which is an excellent example of the mannerist-early Baroque style. It is one of the best preserved synagogue buildings in Poland. You can visit the permanent Judaica exhibition inside. The former Talmudic House (study and prayer hall) has been restored and houses the city museum. with a permanent exhibition about the martyrdom of Tykocin’s inhabitants during World War II and a small old pharmacy. There is also a Kirkut – a Jewish cemetery – from the 16th century.
Włodawa on the Bug river
In Eastern Poland, close to the borders with Belarus and Ukraine, the late 18th century Włodawa Synagogue is located. This architectural complex consists of the Włodawa Great Synagogue, the Small Synagogue, and a community building. It is, together with the Tykocin Synagogue, one of the best-preserved synagogues in Poland, because it escaped destruction by the Nazi occupiers of Poland. You can visit all three buildings hosting exhibitions about Włodawa Jews as well as local folklore. The three stories high Torah Ark (contains the Torah scrolls) in the Great Synagogue has beautiful carvings of, among others, musical instruments and stars of David.
Renovated synagogues: Centres for Jewish – Polish Culture and Education
The White Stork Synagogue in the vibrant city of Wrocław (before 1945: Breslau), Southwestern Poland, re-opened its doors, after years of renovation, in 2010. The Synagogue is opened to visitors daily except Saturday and Jewish holidays. It houses the Centre for Jewish Culture and Education which organises various interesting events.
The Synagoge in Ostrów Wielkopolski (Western Poland) reopened its doors after two years of renovation in 2011. A lot of cultural events are organised here.
Dąbrowa Tarnowska (south-eastern Poland) has a centre for intercultural dialogue in the renovated New Synagogue in the Berka Joselewicza Street. You can visit the synagogue on Tuesday until Saturday. There are several expositions, a concert hall, a conference centre and educational facilities. Some gravestones at the Jewish Cemetery (at Warszawska Street – Berka Joselewicza Street), founded at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, survived. Another synagogue is located in a private apartment at Daszyńskiego Street, once owned by the Jewish family Roth. It functioned as a synagogue until 1995. Since 1996 it houses the Judaica Museum which you can visit after calling: +48 512178822.