Today I went to Krakow’s Old Synagogue, which is the oldest synagogue that still exists in Poland.  It sits in the Kazimierz district where I have been staying for a couple weeks.  The building is no longer in use as a religious site but it has been converted into one of the Historical Museums of Krakow.  There is currently a special exhibition called “This Was the Hebrew School of Krakow” running in this landmark and I had a chance to see it.  Here are a few of the things I learned…

The building first opened around 1407 as a men’s only synagogue.  About one hundred years later the synagogue was rebuilt with a Renaissance style exterior after being burned down.  To withstand future attacks it incorporated aspects of military architecture and is one of the few remaining “fortress synagogues” in the world.  In the 1770s this was the location where a Jewish community leader urged his fellows to join the fight for Polish independence, as well as support the American independence.  Then, upon Hitler’s invasion of Poland the synagogue was stripped of its many priceless artifacts and used as an ammunition warehouse.  It was not until the late 1950s that the building was rebuilt and, a few years later, opened as a museum.

Today, the museum features another story of triumph and tragedy:  The story of the Hebrew School of Krakow.  But before I get into their story I would like to share a few things about the Jewish religion that I found interesting.  I had a basic understanding of what The Torah was but I had not known the intricate way in which it is handled in a synagogue.  A synagogue has one copy of The Torah Scrolls.  The Torah consists of the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy from the Bible.  It is believed that these five books were revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai.  The Torah Scrolls are a hand-written copy of each of these books scribed on the skin of a ritually cleaned animal.  The tendons from the animal are used to stitch together the skin into one long scroll.  The five books of the Bible are then written in special ink using a sharpened quill or reed.  The letters must be exactly the width of a hair apart.  Words and verses must be the width of one letter apart.  The final line of the scroll, which reads “in sight of all Israel” must be centered at the end.  The scroll is then placed in what is called an “ark.”  An ark is a large recess in the wall of the synagogue that faces Jerusalem.  And that is how it’s done in the Jewish tradition.

Another vague notion I had was of what “kosher” foods are.  Well, now I have a much more precise idea of what foods are and are not edible under traditional Jewish custom.  First, any four-legged animal that is ruminant and clove-hoofed can be eaten.  Certain fowl that are traditionally acceptable are considered kosher.  The only sea creatures that can be eaten are those with fins and scales.  So, pretty much just fish.  No dolphins, manatees, or Nessie.  The four legged animals and fowl must be butchered by a Jewish butcher that uses the “shehita” method.  Shehita means that the animal is killed by a sharp knife using one transverse cut through the trachea and larynx.  All the blood must be removed from the animal and it must be soaked in salt.  For some animal certain fatty parts must also be taken out.  Products of kosher animals, like milk and eggs, can be eaten.  The only exception is that honey from bees, which are not kosher animals, may be eaten.  There are also particular ways to eat these foods.  Most importantly, milk and meat can never be eaten together.  They must also not be served from the same dishes.  Milk may be drank one hour after meat and the time can be shortened if you want to consume them in the reverse order.  Then there are foods that can be eaten with anything.  Those foods are called “parve” and they are not made with any meat or dairy products.  One last thing is that in a Jewish household there is a set of dishes that are only to be used during Passover.  So that is how you can get on the kosher diet in case you were wondering.

One other thing about Jewish religious custom that I learned was the purpose of circumcision.  It seems that on the eighth day it is necessary to circumcise a baby boy to release them from the grip of the demon Lilith.  It is also at this ceremony, in which the godparent and many others from the community participate, that the boy is given his name.

Ok.  Now back to the story of The Hebrew School of krakow.  In 1908 a man named Salamon Leser funded the construction of an elementary school that would offer Jewish students the opportunity to be educated in Hebrew culture and Judaism, which is something previously unavailable in Krakow.  This first year the school was populated by a meager thirty students.  However, with the addition of a secondary school and certifications that allowed graduates to attend national universities the school had grown to almost fifteen hundred pupils by the 1938-1939 school year.  In addition to the teaching of Hebrew culture the school focused on promoting knowledge of the rights and duties of a Polish citizen.  The school had a physics and a nature lab that utilized some of the most modern equipment of the time.  In the history and geography departments they had numerous maps and even state of the art video projections.  There was a library available to students and a separate one for teachers.  Not only was the Hebrew School a center of education but it also became the center of community activities.  Special lectures were given.  Student and professional musicians gave recitals here.  There were meet and greets with famous authors.  They even had nights devoted to singing and dancing at the school.  That is, until December 11, 1939.  On this day the German Army closed the school and sent the Jewish population of Kazimierz to the Krakow ghetto to await extermination.  There is a simple stone memorial in a square near The Old Synagogue that gives us a chilling idea of just how decimated this community was.  It reveals that in all Hitler massacred sixty five thousand people from the city of Krakow.

As I left the synagogue I wandered around the Kazimierz district for a while thinking about what those numbers mean and, more importantly, what those lives that were lost meant.  It’s hard to imagine what life might be like here in Kazimierz had those tens of thousands of individuals not been reduced to a number and murdered by the orders of a single man.  As I walked I began to feel the darkness that comes from knowing that you are standing on an atrocity that time will never forget.  This was once a busy, lively part of town where a thriving Jewish community enjoyed their perch above the Vistula River.  Now, it has been shattered.  The buildings are crumbling.  The streets are cracked and full of holes.  And worst of all the generations that were lost here can never be regained.  The buildings can be rebuilt.  The streets can be repaved.  But those poor souls will never be restored.

I feel lucky that I have never had to go through any major hardships in my life.  The more I learn about the human experience it seems unlikely that I will ever go through anything like the torments that have been forced on some innocent people.  When I think I am having a rough go of it all I really need is a little broader perspective.  My life is good and it always has been.  Some parts were better than others but even spending one minute on self pity seems kind of contemptible after the stories I heard today.  Well, I hope you learned a little something from today’s adventure and I hope it serves you at some point in the future.  Until next time…