Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2012/14 posted by hidden europe on

It is tempting to scatter superlatives when it comes to Poznan. Three years ago we featured this striking Polish city in hidden europe magazine, and since then we've written frequently on Poznan for other media (most recently in the august pages of the current issue of CGA magazine). Put simply, Poznan has a superb showpiece square. In its town hall, which dominates that central square, the city has one of the most magnificent Renaissance buildings in Europe. Poznan is a place we like a lot and one we know well - indeed we spent a long weekend there just last month. Yet, like many central European cities, Poznan struggles with its Jewish past.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

It is tempting to scatter superlatives when it comes to Poznan. Three years ago we featured this striking Polish city in hidden europe magazine, and since then we've written frequently on Poznan for other media (most recently in the august pages of the current issue of CGA magazine). Put simply, Poznan has a superb showpiece square. In its town hall, which dominates that central square, the city has one of the most magnificent Renaissance buildings in Europe. Poznan is a place we like a lot and one we know well - indeed we spent a long weekend there just last month.

Like many central European cities, Poznan struggles with its Jewish past. A few years ago, we noted on one visit to the Polish city that the former synagogue was being used as a municipal swimming pool. There's an odd tale here that took us a while to unravel.

Cast back to the end of the eighteenth century and Jews numbered about a quarter of the population in Poznan. Life wasn't always easy, with restrictions then still in place as to where Jewish residents could buy property. A catastrophic fire in 1803 led to three of the city's six synagogues being razed to the ground in a single night. The blaze left several thousand people homeless.

In the decades that followed, Poznan's Jewish community had some enlightened rabbis: men like Akiba Eger and his son Salomon. Both were cultivated and well-educated and they helped make Poznan into a bright light in the Jewish landscape of central Europe.

The tragedy of Holocaust Europe is captured in Poznan. In spring 1940, the Nazis removed the Star of David that topped the largest of the city's synagogues. They remodelled the interior of the building and within a few weeks the erstwhile synagogue was being used as a swimming pool for German soldiers.

The post-war municipal authorities in Poznan found the city centre swimming pool mightily convenient and showed no inclination to reverse the change of use introduced by the Nazis in the 1940s. The building still looks in many respects like a synagogue. The Polish artist Rafal Jakubowicz made a little enhancement to the Poznan streetscape in 2003 when he used high-powered projectors to display an image on the striking facade of the synagogue. The image was very clear and it was in Hebrew. The words read 'swimming-pool'. Plain and simple. How many of Poznan's residents could even read the words? Surely very few. We doubt that many even recognised that the script was in Hebrew.

Yet here was a building, not any building but a synagogue, proclaiming its history and its identity in a very public way. Poznan could do better, in the manner in which it has handled and still handles such matters. Elaborating memory is never easy, but it needs to be done. There have been a few successes. The burial site in Poznan of Rabbi Akiba Eger has been recovered from oblivion. But there is still no functioning synagogue to serve the city's Jewish community.

Poznan mainstreams on history. And it boasts a very illustrious history. That's why it is worth visiting. Yet the city's Jewish history hardly features in the standard script. It was this lacuna, this silence about Jewish matters, that has made us seek out little reminders of Jewish life in Poznan. Places like Cymes restaurant, an unpretentious eatery just off the main square that serves traditional Jewish food. But evidently there is no great demand. On our last visit, the waitress told us that Cymes is reinventing itself as a Polish restaurant. It will be one of two dozen such restaurants in and around the square, all offering the obvious staples. Good food, to be sure. It's evidently what the locals want. It's evidently what the tourists want. There is no place, it would seem, in modern Poznan for memories that recall the sons and daughters of Israel.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

 

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.