How, realistically, can Jewish heritage be preserved in Poland? Some projects are easy to get behind, like the lapidarium in Wronki. Others fall into more problematic ethical territory. The fact remains that there are many more sites in need of preservation than there are funds for such projects. And yet, I would argue that because of the magnitude of the destruction of Jewish life in Poland, every fragment has enhanced value.
The survival of a building as grand as the New Synagogue in Poznań is thus of particular worth. As with most remaining synagogues in Poland, the New Synagogue was not destroyed because it was repurposed. The Nazis converted the building into a swimming pool; after World War II, it remained a municipal pool until 2011. Although there has been ongoing public debate about more appropriate uses of the space, which at some point was passed back into the hands of the Jewish Community, the main reason the pool was finally closed was because of its deteriorating condition.
The New Synagogue was built in 1907 on Stawna Street between Wroniecka and Żydowska (Jewish) Street, just a few blocks from the central market square of the old city. Intended for Poznań’s wealthier Jewish citizens, the imposing structure had a seating capacity of 1200 and a large copper-covered cupola. Its size and grandeur is all the more striking, considering the Jewish population of the city was under 6000 when the synagogue was built, and further dwindled to perhaps 3000 right before World War II (statistics from Virtual Sztetl).
As these photos show, the German occupiers also removed the cupola and other ornate features, leaving a far less elaborate structure. For several years, starting in 2004, artists like Janusz Marciniak were involved in installations and commemorative events that used the pool as a focal point. Some of these include Marciniak’s Atlantis (2004), Alphabet (2005), and 9/09/1939 (2006).
The Jewish Community, together with others interested in preserving the New Synagogue, proposed restoring the building to its prewar shape and condition, and housing a Center for Dialog and Tolerance. Unfortunately, the plan failed to gain the institutional support and financial backing necessary for it to be realized.
But now there is a new plan in the works, to turn the synagogue into a hotel. In and of itself, that is not the worst outcome; investors will preserve and upgrade the structure, which will include a mini-museum with information about the building’s origins and the history of Poznań’s Jews. So while a museum, or memorial, or center for dialog and tolerance would be preferable, at least the synagogue won’t be torn down, as some city leaders suggested as recently as 2006.
But putting another pool in the synagogue is, as my husband put it, kind of tone deaf. It’s insensitive to the cruel history of the place.
A recent article in Gazeta Wyborcza about the planned hotel begins with the following fable:
(my translation) “Summer 2020. Early morning at the hotel on Wroniecki Street at the corner of Stawna Street. In a luxury room in the former Jewish synagogue Alessandro Gianini, a tourist from Rome, wakes up. He flew into Poznan the night before and stayed in the modern hotel with intriguing architecture. In the guidebook, he read that the glass copula of the building recreates the old outline of an imposing synagogue. Now he wants to look around the city.
“But before Alessandro sets out for the Old Market Square, he goes down to the second floor for a swim in the hotel pool. The swim helps to relax and awaken him. He changes, and full of life goes down to the ground floor to the restaurant. After a light breakfast and a cappuccino, he heads to the exit. In the hall, however, he sees an open door to a small space. A sign in English hangs on it: “Museum of the Jews of Wielkopolski.”
“Intrigued, Gianini looks inside. He sees large boards–reproductions of sepia-colored photographs. On the first of these–a long swimming pool under a high vaulted ceiling. On the wall of the pool–a fascist eagle.
“Surprised, the Italian looks at the caption below the photo: “In 1940 Nazi occupiers profaned the synagogue, removing the Star of David from it and building a pool inside of it.
“Alessandro suddenly feels ashamed. Because of his morning swim in the place where 80 years earlier Nazis showed complete contempt for the feelings and religion of Jews, and then sentenced them to a horrible death. He is ashamed and embarrassed. And more than anything surprised that history could be repeated in this cruelly perverse way…”
I don’t know anything more about these plans, except for rumors I heard while I was in Poznań last year, and the contents of this article. Perhaps if they do include a pool, it will be located in some new addition to the structure, in a less offensive place than the main sanctuary. I certainly hope so.