Reviving Jewish culture in Poland like a phoenix: Wroclaw’s White Stork Synagogue

Over the past thousand years, Wroclaw has passed from Bohemian/Czech rulers to Polish, to the Austrian-Hapsburg Empire, to the Prussians, to Germany, to the Nazis and finally, after the Potsdam Conference in 1945, back to Poland. It’s well-documented what happened to the vast majority of Jews in Germany and Poland during the Holocaust. I’m only alive today because my Polish grandfather left his country during WWI.

I was in Wroclaw just shortly after the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, “Night of Glass”. November 9, 1938 was considered the beginning of the Holocaust — when Germany ordered the destruction of Jewish synagogues, shops and homes, with 100 people killed that night. A historic synagogue, White Stork, dates from 1829. It was the only synagogue in town spared that night due to its location between two important German administration buildings. Engineers determined that a fire would burn all. Now, the Torah scrolls, books and precious stained glass windows were destroyed. The Jews of the city, then known as Breslau, Germany, didn’t fare any better.

Jews had been in the area for 1,000 years.

The borders of Poland were changed by the Allieds after WWII. Eastern Polish people were moved west and the German population was expelled from Wroclaw.

On a walking tour I went on in the morning, I realized that the synagogue is really just a few blocks away, absolutely a short walk, from a hotel where Adolf Hitler had spoken on an improvised balcony to a cheering crowd of 16,000 people in 1932. My feet didn’t even want to be there. I shifted uncomfortably from side to side. I didn’t want my feet to be where Hitler walked! It was very upsetting. It’s one thing to read books about the Holocaust or even see contemporary newsreels. It’s quite another to be there in person.

The Jewish community in town received the White Stork from the Polish government in 1996. It was a rotting building and took a tremendous effort in fundraising to restore it. In just 2010, the White Stork re-opened as a synagogue. The original worship area had been refitted in the 1870s to accommodate a more Orthodox congregation — with balcony for the women. It was decided for financial reasons to not have that area be the holy part for services: rather, it serves as a cultural center for the whole town, complete with concerts on a stage. The stage is mobile, though and the area, I suppose, could be reconsecrated for worship, but my knowledge of halachic law (the Jewish laws derived from the written and oral Torah) is lacking.

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Here are some pictures of some of the local Jewish history, including the close-to-Middle Eastern head wear for men several hundred years ago, as well as some breathtaking cruelty imposed upon the community during the Middle Ages. The national museum has the intact Jewish headstone from 1203.

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I was very touched to be hosted for Shabbat services by Rabbi and Rebbetzin Chaimowitz. That afternoon, I was kind of a wreck. I had my phone set to work only in WiFi areas. I was supposed to come by around 3:15, way before sundown, for a tour. I was fortunate that I had seen the synagogue earlier. Wroclaw apparently has an incredible rush hour then! Plus, I had a great difficulty getting a taxi to go to White Stork. The taxi driver, older in years, didn’t understand the English name, “White Stork Synagogue”. I had the name of the street printed out in Polish, but it came out in a faint font and he couldn’t quite read it. As the sun was beginning to go down, I started to get panicky. I excitedly said to the driver, “Zydowski! Zydowski!” which is Polish for “Jewish”. That didn’t make any sense to the taxi driver. At a loss, I pulled out of my blouse my Star of David pendant. He exclaimed, “I understand!” We headed to White Stork. The irony of me pulling out a Star of David and identifying myself as a Jew in what had been Nazi Germany was not lost on me.

Services are now held in a consecrated basement room. I don’t understand Polish — or Hebrew, for that matter — but I did hear that the Biblical portion (or “parsha”) had the name Yaakov mentioned, so I understood that. I knew most of the songs, too, even if I don’t know 100% of the words. By the way, though I would have liked to have taken photos of the services, etc., it would have been totally inappropriate: Orthodox Jews frown on such a thing during the Sabbath. As an aside, I knew to pack a long, modest black dress and hat. I strongly advise you traveling women to pack that, because you never know where you may be invited where modest, feminine dress is required and you don’t want to be disrespectful or even to miss out!

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I was surprised to learn from the Rebbitzen that there was not a minyan (the requisite 10 men needed for certain prayers, gatherings, etc.). My eyeballs quickly counted at least 16. Ah! But they were not halachically Jewish: some from Jewish fathers or grandfathers. I don’t know if they do it that way in the US or not.

A super lovely tradition they have afterwards is a potluck Kosher dinner in the basement, rather like Southern church suppers. They served water, wine, salad, 2 soups — including a very local favorite, pickle soup. I liked it! Tangy and different. Then came pierogies and cake.

I had wondered if the congregation would wish one another “Shabbat Shalom” (Hebrew) or “Gut Shabbos” (Yiddish). After all, this part of the world was pretty much the cradle of Yiddish 1,000 years ago. I know a little tiny bit of Yiddish, maybe about 100 words or so.  They said Shabbat Shalom. The Rabbi is working very hard to teach Hebrew and the Torah to the little community.

At the end of the dinner, the Rabbi held up a plastic bag of little plastic dreidels: it was 2 nights before the beginning of Hanukkah. The congregants looked perplexed. He asked them what he had. They shouted out various things in Polish. The Rabbi said, “no”. I blurted out, taken aback, “It’s a dreidel!” More lost looks from the group. Then, an elderly woman murmured, in an accent that could have been from my Bubbie Sonia born in the Old Country in 1896, “Oh . . . dreidel.” Like from a long, lost memory. I realized with horror how close, how very, very close, that Hitler had come to wiping out the whole thing forever. The Torah says that whoever saves one, saves the whole world. The Rabbi and Rebbetzin have surely saved the world.

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