Recently the world commemorated the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the event that most consider the start of the Shoah. On that date Germany went on a rampage, arresting, beating and killing many Jews, but is mostly known for the destruction of businesses, homes and synagogues. In some places there was so much broken glass on the ground that it glittered, as if from crystal, giving the night its infamous name.
While Kristallnacht took place in Germany, because of shifting borders at the end of World War II, it affected a large section of today’s Poland.
The largest city in the then-German area known as Lower Silesia was Wroclaw, which is now part of southwestern Poland. Of all the many synagogues and other Jewish institutions, which were in the city, only the White Storch Synagogue was spared that horrific “Night of Broken Glass.” Gone is the Sklowar Synagogue, built in 1790, as well as the Great Synagogue, built in 1872, located on Lakowa St.
White Storch Synagogue, the only remaining synagogue in Wroclaw
The community has a long history. It had been originally part of the Polish Empire but became part of Austria in 1526, then Germany in 1742. For centuries the city had been known by it’s German name of Breslau but over the years has also been known by many other names, Vrestlav, Presslau, Vrastislavi and Vraclav.
After WW II, the city was ceded to Poland and renamed Wroclaw. The German population was sent to Germany and many Poles that had been living in the area of Galicia, which was given to Ukraine, came to live in Wroclaw. Along with the Polish population came a large number of Jews. The community established schools and a Yiddish theater, but many left or were expelled during the 50s and especially in 1968. Today Wroclaw has the second largest Jewish community, after Warsaw, numbering some 1,000 families.
Like most of Poland there is not much evidence left to show the glory of this ancient Jewish community. The two most imposing reminders are the White Storch Synagogue and the Old and New Jewish Cemetery. The Synagogue was built in 1829 as a Reform synagogue and later became Orthodox. The imposing building remained in use until 1974, except during the war years, when it was used by the Germans to store the property stolen from the Jews. The courtyard in front of the White Storch Synagogue was the collection point for the Jews before their expulsion to the death camps.
In 1974 the Communist government took over the building and it was used as a library and storage house. The building withstood the abuse, even surviving two major fires. In 1996 the synagogue was returned to the Jewish community and restoration/renovation process began the same year.
Today the community is experiencing great rebirth due, in major part, to the efforts of Rabbi Rappaport whose arrival two years ago has brought new vigor to the religious life in Wroclaw. The old synagogue building is in constant use even though much more renovation work is still to be done. On the last Saturday night of each month the community holds a Havdalah concert with the average participation of 400 guests.
These concerts serve as an outreach program presenting a full gamut of Jewish culture from Klezmer, art, Jewish traditions, to chazzanut. Often they host special events such as the Wroclaw Jewish Festival, with many guest artists from around the world.
The synagogue is also the site of weddings and other Jewish celebrations. Holiday services bring a large number of Jews to the center, especially the High Holy Days and Passover.
Weekly Shabbat services, though, are not held in the synagogue itself but in a smaller Beis Medrash in a next-door building. The number of participants that attend services weekly is growing, as well as those that attend classes and the Shabbat meals.