You know you’re in Poland — and having a very Polish day, too — when history smacks you in the face. It hurts, but you want to laugh.
The last time this happened to me, I was on a tram.
I have just moved to a new place in Poland. Away from the medieval monastery in Krakow that was my home and into a 1930s monastery in Poznań that looks vaguely like a cinema: boxy, with art deco flourishes. (If Garbo had been a monk…)
Poznań: in German, it’s called Posen. This city was part of Prussia and then the German Empire from 1793 until the end of the First World War.
In Yiddish, it’s called Pozna. And along the tram line going from our monastery to the big Catholic cathedral stands, in very plain sight, a Polish Jewish scandal: the Poznań Swimagogue.
I am talking about the New Synagogue, which was dedicated in 1907. Even at that time, there weren’t too many Jews in this city. Probably about 4,000. Nothing compared to the 40,000 in Lublin or the hundreds of thousands in Warsaw. But they had a rich past and a line of celebrated rabbis, Akiva Eger among them. And they supported six shuls, plus this noble building.
The place was designed by a fancy Berlin firm, Cremer & Wolffenstein. It cost 850 thousand marks.
When it opened, the Shema was said. Then the head of the local Reform community, Rabbi Phillips Bloch, led everyone in prayers for the Kaiser.
Fat lot of good it did them.
Poznań was not a particularly prosperous city in the early 20th century, and poverty and the political turmoil surrounding the First World War reduced the Jewish population by about a fourth, even before 1939.
Then came the day of the German invasion of Poland — September 1, 1939. Rabbi Jacob Sender led prayers in the New Synagogue on behalf of the Polish army, also to no palpable effect.
On the 9th of September at 9 o’clock, the last prayers were said in the place. By the spring of 1940, the Germans had stripped the synagogue of its insignia. Later that year, the dome was destroyed, the exterior ground down and denuded.
That wasn’t enough. Now it was time for some real perversion:
In 1940, the Wehrmacht installed a full-length swimming pool in the middle of the sanctuary. Soldiers paddled where Jews had prayed. It’s a particularly inventive act of wickedness — and a stumbling block to anyone who thinks evil is banal.
But that’s only half the scandal.
Germans desecrated synagogues all over Europe, albeit not usually by swimming in them. But the real shame here, and the sin that still touches the Polish city of Poznań today, is that after the war people kept right on swimming in the synagogue. For decades.
When I first lived in this city as a Dominican novice in 2006, you could still buy a ticket, change in the locker room, and plunge right in where once the bima stood.
The synagogue was marked “Pływalnia Miejska” (“Municipal Pool”) in big letters right over the main door, with (in latter years) a small plaque to the side to note what had been.
The big sign stayed until the end of 2007. You can still read it in the form of a stain on the facade. It’s a stain on the city, too.
After 2007, things got weirder. Funkier. And therefore, I submit, even more Polish.
Artists and activists, along with the few active members of the Jewish community, began to reclaim the synagogue. They did so with poetry and concerts.
Here is the “Tzadik Poznań” festival of 2007. We see a piano in the sanctuary, right next to the chlorinated majesty of the pool. The next day, the kids came back in their trunks.
And here is the French band Zakarya playing at that same festival. Note the little rope fence set up to keep the audience from landing in the drink.
Then, in May 2008, if my research is correct, young Krzysztof Kwiatkowski from the Laboratory of Packaging Design at the Poznan Academy of Fine Arts published a virtual reconstruction of the synagogue. He had worked from a few black-and-white photographs and from color photos he found in Berlin, as well as from the architects’ original plans. From these digital reconstructions he produced full-scale electronic projections.
The result was astonishing.
And astonishingly beautiful.
But as soon as the house lights came up, it all vanished. The desecration stung again, afresh, like a scab that had been picked.
There is one more artistic episode at the Swimagogue I’d like to recount, and it involves Hitler — not to put too fine a point on it.
The evil little man himself never stayed in Poznań. An office in the Kaiser’s castle stood ready for him, though, with an electrically-heated balcony ready to present the Führer to his fans. It was a copy of Hitler’s office in the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, and was installed by Albert Speer in what had been the castle’s chapel, another desecration.
The chapel has now, in some way, been reconsecrated — thanks to the Swimagogue. German artists turned parts of the pool to a Purim-like purpose. They moved the Swimagogue’s starting blocks, ladders, tiles and handrails into Hitler’s office and set them up as an exhibit there. Perhaps they hoped in that way to chase out old ghosts, and, with them, old sins. This is what the artists, Horst Hoheisel and Andreas Knitz, call a “counter-monument.” They have made others.
At least the pool is out of the shul. But will the building ever return to its original vocation?
Maybe if there were more Jews in Poznań.
The building has returned, legally, to the local Jewish community. But this community is so small, and its means so meager, that it can’t imagine restoring the synagogue on its own.
(To add insult to injury, in April, the local Jewish community made news around the world when it was discovered that they had for years worked with a “rabbi” who wasn’t Jewish at all, but a Polish Catholic cook in dark-dyed sidelocks who had learned Hebrew from listening to Israeli radio. Who needs jokes about Chelm when there’s Poznań?)
This June, the local paper “Głos Wielkopolski” ran the latest in a series of articles on the fate of the synagogue. The title: “Za mało Żydów w synagodze. Będzie hotel?” — “Too few Jews in the synagogue. Will there be a hotel?”
Notice the question mark.
The plan to make the synagogue into a hotel is a way of making the building pay for itself. A small memorial and prayer room would be included, and that is hopeful.
At this hotel, there would also be a rooftop pool.
And that is hateful and hilarious in equal measure.
This is how one lives in Poland.