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Jewish Journal

Two big events in Poland this weekend

by Ruth Ellen Gruber

June 13, 2013 | 11:46 am

(This post also appears on my blog at  jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com)

Two long-awaiting events are happening in Poland next weekend -- the opening of the Jewish museum installed in the restored synagogue in the little town of Chmielnik, and the opening of the restored synagogue in the town of Wielkie Oczy, which will now be used as the public library.

I've actually never seen the elegant synagogue in Wielkie Oczy, located in the southeastern corner of Poland on the Ukrainian border -- but I have long loved it from its photographs: its state of disrepair made it a particularly poignant image. Distinguished by its arched windows and doors, it was built in 1910 but rebuilt in 1927 after suffering serious damage in World War I. It was long used as a warehouse and office after World War II but had languished derelict for years in a steadily deteriorating condition.

A series of events  on June 16 will celebrate its reopening after a restoration funded by the town, with support from the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland. These will include the unveiling of a memorial plaque to the destroyed Jewish community, speeches, and a concert.

The development of the Jewish museum in Chmielnik, north of Krakow, is something that I have followed for years -- and it all comes to fruition June 15-16, with two days of events including a conference, concerts, talks and more.

Partially renovated Chmielnik synagogue, July 2012. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

I first saw the ruined synagogue, one of the largest buildings in the little town, back in 1990, when I made my first forays into documenting Jewish heritage sites. Originally built in the 1630s, it was, though derelict, still a splendid building, a massive masonry structure with barrel vaulting. The Nazis turned it into a warehouse, but the interior still retained stucco work dating from the 18th century, and the walls still bore traces of delicate polychrome decoration, including frescoes of lions, neoclassical geometric forms, and signs of the zodiac.

About a dozen years ago, young local activists, in particular Piotr Krawczyk, became interested in the Jewish history of the town -- which Krawczyk noted to me actually meant the history of the town: before the Holocaust, Jews made up about 80 percent of the population, but their memory and the memory of their contribution was long suppressed or forgotten.   

Me & Piotr Krawczyk

Me & Piotr Krawczyk, July 2012.

Inspired by the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Krawczyk and other activists, cooperating with the municipality, launched an annual Jewish culture festival in Chmielnik, held each June. They also started other initiatives, including clean-up of the ravaged Jewish cemeteries and erection of the memorial, as well as a web site about Jewish heritage, history and culture of the region.

The museum project has been the most ambitious project, entailing the renovation and transformation of the synagogue -- the design has been somewhat controversial because of a glass bimah installation.

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