There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 10 February 2012

Three Favourite Synagogues: Krakow, Kochi (Cochin) and Sofia

Synagogues are different from the other places of worship in this series. Churches, mosques and temples maybe dedicated to to the glory of God, but they are most usually built by the powerful to demonstrate their wealth and power. Other than in present day Israel, Jews have always been a minority. Synagogues have not been built by the powerful, and there has always been a feeling, even in times of security, that an ostentatious synagogue would be a hostage to fortune.

We have come across surprisingly few synagogues in our travels, and even fewer that welcomed visitors. We have been inside only two (two of the three in this post) and neither were functioning synagogues. But this little thread on religious buildings would be incomplete without them, and they so often have interesting, or terrible, stories to tell.

1) The Old Synagogue, Kazimierz, Krakow, Poland

In medieval times Jewish and Polish citizens of Krakow lived together peaceably. Relations deteriorated in the 15th century and in 1495 the Jews were expelled from Krakow and sent to the nearby city of Kazimierz. The Old Synagogue, built soon after, is the oldest surviving synagogue in Poland. Damaged by fire in 1557, it was promptly reconstructed in Renaissance style.

Lynne outside the Old Synagogue

 Krakow expanded and absorbed Kazimierz, which became a Jewish suburb. Co-existence was sometimes more, sometimes less peaceful, at least until 1939.

The Old Synagogue is now the Museum of History and Culture of Krakow Jewry. It charts a steady progress from the middle ages to the early 20th century. The later pictures show prosperous and confident people, pillars of Krakow society. The people in the pictures had no idea how the story would end, those of us looking at them could think of little else.

Next day we went to Auschwitz; you can read about that here. We revisited Kazimierz that evening. The Jewish community numbered 70 000 in 1939, today there are 150. With Krakow’s tourist boom Kazimierz is enjoying a renaissance and restaurants serving Jewish food surround the old square. We sat outside the Café Ariel eating jellied carp and tcholent stew. It was Friday and men wearing yarmulkas strolled in the square greeting friends. As dusk fell they drifted towards one or other of the two remaining synagogues. I wondered why they had stayed in Krakow, but I had neither the language nor the impertinence to ask. Even in the worst days there were oases of sanity, the factory of Oscar Schindler lay just across the river from where we sat.

Outside the Café Ariel,

As night fell children danced outside the synagogue singing traditional songs in a joyous affirmation of their ancient culture; proof enough that the ‘final solution’ had failed.

2) The Pardesi Syngogue, Kochi, Kerala

Matancherry lies immediately south of the old colonial Fort Kochi. It contains the rather understated Raja’s Palace, the largely redundant Kochi International Pepper Exchange – spices are now traded on-line - and the Pardesi Synagogue.

Matancherry, Kochi

Built in 1568 and rebuilt in1664 the synagogue is famous for its richly decorated interior with its hand painted blue and white Cantonese tiles. Sadly photography is not appreciated inside.

The Pardesi Synagogue, Matancherry

This may be a synagogue unconnected to the Holocaust, but that does not mean that Kochi maintains a thriving Jewish community. It was never large and somehow, over the last century or so, Kochi’s Jews have either drifted away – often to Israel– or become assimilated by the local community. They have left their synagogue as a reminder of their presence.

3 The Central Synagogue, Sofia, Bulgaria

Having sidestepped the Holocaust for number 2, there is now little option but to return to it. I could have written about the slaughter in the Baltics and included the last surviving synagogue in Vilnius, or the chilling preserved remains of the Great Synagogue in Riga, burnt down in July 1941 with over a hundred worshippers inside. Instead, I have chosen a different Holocaust story.

Sofia’s central syngogue is a large, solid building; a construction of confidence and permanence. There was some justification for the confidence, but permanence was not to be.

The central synagogue, Sofia

The Bulgarians chose the wrong side in World War Two, though less out of conviction than political necessity. Jews had always lived peacefully in Bulgaria and even the fascist government saw no good reason to change that. When ordered to round up and deport Bulgaria’s Jews to the death camps they prevaricated, prevaricated again and kept on prevaricating until the war was over.

The communist regime that followed proved less than sympathetic so after watching the Holocaust sweep round them but not over them, Sofia’s Jewish community upped sticks and set off for Israel. There is enough of a community left to maintain and look after the building, but not so many that it can remain a functioning synagogue.

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