The Jews of Kraków and its Surrounding Towns

A World Passed By

Scenes and Memories of Jewish Civilization in Europe and North Africa
by Marvin Lowenthal

(Published New York, Behrman's Jewish Book House, 1938)

(Extract; Document procured by Ben Weinstock)

The railroad station of Cracow is a typical vestibule to Poland. It swarms with all the breeds of eastern Europe. Polish students with white caps and thin noses; tall brown-bearded peasants from the High Carpathians wearing sugar-loaf fleeced hats, sheep hides trimmed with fleece, thonged belts hung with pistols and short knives - untamed, good-natured, lousy creatures; Russian gentry in sort of Prince Albert overcoats, surmounted by black beards which are in turn surmounted by black Astrakhan wool caps; officers in French uniforms; Polish peasants booted slickly up the thighs; Cracow merchants in misfit hand-me-downs; young beggars clad in flour-bags; officers' wives painting their lips and peasant wives nursing their children; and Jews - what Jews!

Red Jews, black Jews, yellow Jews (Chagall with his "Green Jew" is no doubt an unimaginative copyist); Jews of every dimension vertical and horizontal; Jews in every and no degree of health and prosperity; they seem to sit on all the chairs, buy all the tickets, drink all the tea, and sleep on all the benches. Unlike the Gentiles about them, their diversity and interest lie not in their costume, but their character, in the planes and shadows of their faces, in their speaking eyes, in their cunning, sorrow, wisdom, patience, fire, and impenitent despair. Their gesticulations are the Book of Job, and their immobility the rock which brought Moses to his sinful grave.

Rembrandt would have done better in Cracow than bland Amsterdam.

It is this exuberance of personality, to be met wherever you enter Poland, and in no way diminished by contact with the mad Poles and the Carpathian winds, which marks the art of the Jews; subdued in the medieval monuments, but blazing in his later works.

The Jewry of Cracow, built up in the fourteenth century, occupies the suburb of Kazimierz, south of the vanished city walls. Its synagogues, at least, are worthy of the ancient capital, the seat of Poland's earliest culture - largely of German and Italian importation - and the fairest of her cities.

In architecture the Polish Jews began where the German Jews left off. Significant of their plight, the latter practically ceased to build synagogues between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries. The fourteenth-century Alte synagogue of Cracow (foot of Ulice Josefska), like the old synagogue of far-off Chelm, carries on the tradition of central columns as we have seen it developed in Worms, Regensburg, and Prague, but with a sweep which makes it the largest medieval synagogue in central Europe. It is built partly beneath the ground, as the Altneu in Prague. The original Gothic vaulting has been modified by sixteenth century restorations, which likewise account for the round-arched windows, the fortress-like exterior and its cornice-arcade. The bima introduces us to a superb example of Jewish craftsmanship; a vast wrought-iron sixteenth-century canopy which rises in an octagonal dome over the reader's platform. The worn almsbox, with some pretense at beauty, is dated 1407, probably the earliest art object we shall find in the East. Only the ark, a late baroque creation, while not out of keeping with Polish-Jewish temperament, grates upon the mellow dignity of the whole.

The second-oldest synagogue, called the Neue or Remuh, was built in 1553, either by Moses Isserles (known as Rema) or by his father. A transition structure, it is more interesting for its name than its character. Moses ben Israel Isserles (1520-72) is one of the men who cannot be slighted in the merest sketch of Polish Jewry. He and his contemporary, Solomon Luria (Maharshal) of Lublin, moulded the thought and soul of Jewry in the sixteenth century, as the Gaon of Vilna and the Baal Shemtob were to mould it anew two hundred years later. Unlike Luria the strict Talmudist, Isserles carried on the tradition of Maimonides - in Polish fashion, that is to say, he tried to reconcile Maimonides with Cabbala. Still, he cultivated philosophy, reading "the wisdom of the uncircumcised Aristotle" even on the Sabbath, though, to be sure, only in Hebrew, occupied himself with astronomy and history, set himself against the growing extravagances of Talmudic dialectics, established with a masterful hand the religious customs of the people, and earned the title of a father of learning in Poland; a glance at his date will tell how late this learning developed. He was no less prominent in the early deliberations of the Council of the Four Lands, which became the governing body of Jewry in Great Poland (Posen), Little Poland, where we now find ourselves, Polish or Red Russia (Galicia and Podolia), and Volhynia, where we will shortly be.

Isserles' synagogue contains a Torah written by his own hand; but more to our delight a hammered copper vessel, on which are the beaten figures of Moses and Isaac. Hammered copper and brass, which we first met in the Palestinian collection of the Louvre, and which can be bought in all the Jewish bazaars of the Near East and North Africa, is, like glass-making, an ancient craft of the race. In Poland it escapes the monotony of pure design and goes far on the way toward sculptured bas-reliefs; seventeenth- and eighteenth-century copper plaques used as mural ornaments may be found in the synagogues of Sandomir and Stepan.

The Isaac (Isaac Jacobowicz or plain Eizig Jekel) synagogue, built 1640, probably by the Italian architect Oliviero, brings us to the late Renaissance; four lofty barrel-vaults, a women's gallery screened by a stone arcade and balustrade, the whole as if poured in molten rock at one splash. The central columns, which are still to play a unique role in the synagogue, have vanished; but the bima - as in the Alte - remains domed by a magnificent wrought-iron canopy. And nothing in Jewish ironwork surpasses the grill and triumphal arch which guards the approach to the ark, itself set above a flight of steps. The Eternal Lamp (Nir Tamid) which in most synagogues burns suspended before the ark, is here found in a niche in the east wall, a peculiarity frequently encountered in Poland. Finally, we meet in the Isaac synagogue the beginnings of mural painting - landscapes depicting Jerusalem, Hebron, and Machpelah.

Landscapes have yielded to Biblical episodes in the murals of the Wysoka (High) synagogue, built 1663, where Noah floats on his ark, Moses received the tablets of the Law, and the exiles hang their harps by the waters of Babylon - unashamed human figures in a Jewish house of worship! Painting, judged by its many fragmentary survivals, was widespread in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Poland; and if in need of explanation, must be laid to the irrepressible spirit of its people - they sit on all the chairs, they talk with God and the angels as no Jews have dared since Biblical days, and why should they not paint pictures? As in Cracow, murals appear in sophisticated form, not to be distinguished from contemporary Christian work, on the walls of the stone synagogues in Lemberg, Orla, Wyszogrod, and Husiatyn. But in the little wooden synagogues of the same period, lost in obscure villages, this decorative art takes, as we shall find, a decidedly original turn.

The doors of the ark in the Wysoka synagogue are carved with the familiar lulab, etrog, shofar, and by way of a new symbol, the eagle. Wood-carving, like painting and metalwork, grew to be a popular Jewish craft, reaching florid heights in the arks at Zabludow and Selwa, where scrollwork, foilage, birds, and beasts rise in a tangle from floor to ceiling. More restrained but no less original are the so-called "music" panels, late eighteenth-century carvings to be found in Kempen, Kurnik, and other west-Polish towns, where drums, trumpets, fifes, violins, and every conceivable instrument sound a noiseless note on the doors of the ark. Three of these wood-carvers have left their names - Ber ben Israel, who executed the work at Jewart; Samuel Goldbaum at Kempen; and Samuel Goldmanaz at Zabludow.

Like the Alte synagogue, the exterior of the Wysoka is flanked by heavy buttresses, again hinting at a fortress; as we move eastward we shall trace these hints to their source.

The remaining synagogues of Cracow, the Kuppah, built 1647, and the Popper, built 1798, need not detain us. Of the numerous Chassidic study-halls and prayer-rooms lost in a maze of courts and alleys, where Jewish mysticism still beats its wings, the stublach of Rabbi Nathan Shapiro, a seventeenth-century "saint" (chassid), is most worthy of note. His grave in the sixteenth-century Remuh cemetery, east of the Jewish quarter, shares the honours, when it comes to pebbles, candles, and written pleas, with Moses Isserles himself. An older cemetery, with partly excavated stones, lies off the Ulice Szeroka.

In the suburb of Lobzow we catch echo of a legend dear to the Four Lands. Here stand vague ruins of the castle of Casimir the Great (d. 1370) who, as every Polish Jew knows, fell captive to the charms of the fair Jewess Esterka, and sported with her in his Lubzow palace. Like the great Esther, she saved her people from untold perils and, outdoing Shushan's queen, founded three synagogues - one of which you may visit in Sandomir and another in Szydlow, both, it must be confessed, old enough to merit the distinction.

It is no legend that before Freedom shrieked and Kosciusko fell he visited the Alte synagogue (1794) and exhorted the Jews to join the battle for Polish liberty. You will note a street in Cracow and in Lemberg, both named Berka in memory of Baruch ben Joseph (Berek Joselowicz) who in answer to the appeal raised a Jewish regiment of light cavalry, killed almost to a man before the gates of Warsaw.


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