Located in Eastern Poland, Poznan is one of the oldest and leading Jewish communities in Poland-Lithuania. Poznan was probably settled for those, whom the Charter of Rights granted by Prince Boleslav the Pious (1264), was intended. Historical data about the Jewish community starts with the recording of a blood libel, mentioned in 1399.
Like all the Jewish communities in Poland Poznan suffered, when fire destroyed most of the town on various occasions, and it was a struggle to rebuild what was lost. The local authorities often put limits on the number of Jews allowed to live in the city and what professions they were allowed to practice.
For more than 100 years Poznan was part of Prussia, Germany, (1783-1807, 1815-1919) and the community developed slowly.
The defeat of Germany in World War I and the annexation of Poznan by Poland came as a severe blow to the Jews, who had supported Germany in the struggle (1918-19). The renewal of Polish rule was marked by riots and clashes and the community rapidly declined. By the late 1930s, about 2,000 Jews remained in the city.
At the outbreak of World War II there were only about 1,500 Jews in Poznan. Many of them escaped before the entry of the Germans or in the first weeks of the Occupation. Poznan became the capital of the Reichsgau Wartheland under the Nazi regime. The Jewish community in Occupied-Poznan existed for only three months.
In that time the synagogue was transformed into a stable, Jewish property was systematically plundered, and the Jews were driven out of their residences. On Nov. 12, 1939, the S.S. ordered that Poznan be made “Judenrein” within three months.
On Dec. 11-12, 1939, the Jews were deported to Ostrow Lubelski. On April 15, 1940, the Nazi paper Ostdeutscher Beobachter reported the removal of the Star of David from the last synagogue in Poznan. From November 1939 until August 1943 Jewish forced labor camps existed in the town and vicinity.
Today the Jewish community consists of 60 people, led by Alicia Kobus, the only woman to be president of a Jewish community in Poland. When I visited Poznan last summer she proudly showed me around the community building, where they offer services to the community, including Jewish studies, health services, meals and other social activities. Ms. Kobus also took me to the synagogue building that they had recovered from the municipality.
On the outside the building is very impressive. The shape is still basically the same as it was before the Shoah though it is missing the dome. But the exterior is only a shell of what once was. Today, the magnificent building is not a synagogue, but a swimming pool.
Alicia Kobus standing at the swimming pool in the Sanctuary of the Old Synagogue in Poznan, (dubbed the largest mikveh in the world or, sardonically, the “Swimagogue”).
I was told that during the Communist Era the building was turned into a sports center and the main hall into an Olympic sized swimming pool. Alicia told me that the community’s dream is to remove the pool and build a true Jewish center in its place. To this end they have cooperation from several groups in the city. The local college, with an architectural program, held a project in which the students drew up plans to rebuild the building and donated the final specs to be used in the future.
The plans are to include a synagogue, library, school, theater and social activities facility. Now money is the biggest obstacle. The projected cost of the rebuilding project is $50 million.
The present community does not have enough members to hold regular services. They get together twice a month for Shabbat, but sadly, do not have people that can lead the services or read from the Torah. I asked “What about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?”
Alicia said “We don’t have anybody then either. We try, we do our best, but we need help.”
I looked around at the facilities and felt the need to try to help them. Here was a community that wants a more fulfilling spiritual Jewish life but has nobody to lead it. The community in Warsaw can only do so much to help them, and all the other communities, spread throughout Poland.
I told Alicia I would see what I could do to help them gather a minyan for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur next year, possibly from the U.S. and Israel, including people that will be able to conduct services properly. I have since spoken to a few people that have promised to help, as well.
Shmuel Ben Eliezer