Built in 1862 in an exuberant blend of Moorish and neo-Romanesque styles, Tempel Synagogue was home to a modern Reform Jewish congregation in one of Europe’s oldest Jewish communities. The synagogue’s location near the principal entrance to Krakow’s former Jewish district made it prominent—use of the land and permission to build were granted to the Jewish community in the sixteenth century. The synagogue accommodated a women’s gallery on the second story level on both sides of its central nave, and a bema in its sanctuary, with the Torah Ark at its west end. The synagogue and its attendant buildings formed a small campus that included a mikva, or ritual bath. Of the several Jewish synagogues that existed in the Kazimierz Jewish district in historic Krakow, Tempel Synagogue survived World War II because the Germans used the building as a stable during the occupation.
In Poland’s Soviet period there was almost no local, national, or international capacity for restoring Jewish heritage sites such as the abandoned Tempel Synagogue. Following a 1992 survey of Jewish heritage sites in Poland that we sponsored, Tempel Synagogue was identified as a site of high architectural, cultural, and symbolic value. It served as a demonstration project for both its conservation and as advocacy for the protection of Jewish heritage in the post-holocaust and post-Soviet emerging central and eastern European countries. The restored synagogue is presently used for religious ceremonies, and music performances, and also serves as a destination for travelers to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Krakow.
Returning the synagogue to religious use becomes a beacon to help efforts to preserve Jewish heritage
Most of the Jewish populations of Eastern Europe and traces of their built heritage such as synagogues were decimated during World War II. Reconciliation, healing, and even access to Jewish heritage sites could not begin until after Poland’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The importance of remembering the artistic and cultural legacies of the Jewish communities that were once vibrant elements of the life of Poland and other countries was an important component of post-Soviet era rebuilding. With our help, projects such as the return of Tempel Synagogue to religious use have become beacons for renewed interest and for efforts to preserve Jewish heritage in the former East Bloc.