Erik Ross
Erik Ross
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The Polish Akiva

A walk through Poznan uncovers the Jews deep beneath the surface -- in culture, architecture, and personal history

It’s spring again and time to get out of the house.

But when you get out of my house you feel less like a fresh shoot spouting from the fragrant loam and more like a dry twig pinched into a finch’s nest.

In the middle of the city, you’re bound in with sticks, crabgrass, and mud — layers of collected detritus. The integrity of the whole depends on the tension between the parts.

That’s Poznań, Poland — especially in my neighborhood.

Some twigs in this nest are Jewish, but they’re way down inside.

First we have to get out of the monastery. We exit the front door and we see this:

All photos in this post are mine unless otherwise noted.

It’s the unprepossessing facade of our place. The vines don’t do a lot to jazz it up.

There’s a cross above the door that’s as plain as can be, and a straight little sign saying Dominican Fathers. That’s it.

“You don’t like?” the building says.



This monastery replaced a medieval one and was designed in 1937 and 1938, during the brief window between the Wars when Poland was — for the first time since the 1780s and the last time until 1989 — independent.

Polish Dominicans completing the building of our Poznań priory after the Second World War. (
Polish Dominicans completing the building of our Poznań priory after the Second World War. (

But only one wing of the place was finished by the time the Germans invaded in September of 1939. Construction was continued from 1941 by the Reichsbauamt or “Reich Construction Service” and the building then used by the occupiers for their own administration.

So I live in a monastery Nazis built —

albeit only partially —

and ruled from — albeit against the will of the displaced Dominicans.

I’ll think about that the next time I’m fumbling rosary beads in the chapel or dining on cold herring and latkes in the refectory, which is what they gave us for lunch today.

Moving on.

Two hundred yards down Kościuszko Street and we come to this:

The Church of the Holy Savior (Polish: Kościół Najświętszego Zbawiciela) in Poznań was built in a neo-gothic style between 1866 and 1886 according to the designs of Friedrich August Stüler. It was a Lutheran church, originally called Saint Paul's. After the end of the Second World War, it was taken over by the Archbishop of Poznań and thus became Roman Catholic. The building has been a protected monument since 1984.
The Church of the Holy Savior (Polish: Kościół Najświętszego Zbawiciela) in Poznań was built in a neo-Gothic style between 1866 and 1869 according to the designs of Friedrich August Stüler.

The steeple sticking up like a bayonet from the pavement belongs to the Church of the Holy Savior. It’s a conventional Catholic parish now. But when it was built, in the 1860s, this was the Sankt-Pauli-Kirche, a German Lutheran establishment and a statement of German cultural domination.

In fact, this whole part of town was once explicitly dedicated to Prussian preeminence. The Lutheran church was swept up in an ensemble of pompous facades constructed between 1904 and 1910 and known as the Kaiserstadtbezirk, the Imperial Quarter.

This street with its tram tracks runs past the front of the church…


… and down toward an overweight becupolaed confection, once the headquarters of the Königlich Preußische Ansiedlungskommission — the Royal Prussian Colonization Commission founded by the charming Otto von Bismarck. The dome, until 1945, was surrounded with statues of “Apostles carrying German civilization to the East” including a Cistercian monk and a Teutonic knight.


The Poles have gotten their revenge on this place by making it the Department of Polish of the local university.

Further down the street, you see the opera house with its pegasus on top. That too is from the time of Wilhelm the Second. What’s playing there now? Fiddler on the Roof.

A little further down the street, and we’re here:


It’s the royal residence built for Wilhelm II by the same architect who did the Gedächtniskirche in Berlin.

Designed to intimidate on behalf of a militaristic autocrat in the years before the First World War, it was adapted after 1939 by Albert Speer for the little man with the mustache — with an office that was an exact copy of the one in the Reich Chancellery in Berlin.

The man never came. The office stands still.

We pass by the front stoop of His Imperial and Royal Majesty, pointedly omitting to sing Heil dir im Siegerkranz


and down the length of the palace…


… until we come to a huge square.

Here, there is a monument built in the 80s to those who died in a failed uprising in 1956. It consists of two steel crosses about 20 yards high.


The area around this monument has become a favorite place for patriotic rallies.


In a country where a crucifix hangs in the main chamber of Parliament, people aren’t shy of the cross in public spaces.

Moving on, we see this:


A Sixties statue of Mickiewicz, the great Polish bard of the 19th century — looking like a somewhat mopier Lenin — gawps at a facade of the Adam Mickiewicz University.


I’d rather have this melting Fudgsicle than what stood here before: the Bismarck-Denkmal.

Postcard from 1908. (Wikimedia)
Postcard from 1908. (Wikimedia)

Now known as “Collegium Minus” this joint looks older but comes from 1909. It housed the Prussian Königliche Akademie — Royal Academy — naturally.


It is not, I’m sorry to say, a very Polish building — no matter what romantic nationalist poet you name it after.


We pass the University, feeling rather small.

And, as befits our lowly status, we scuttle through a tunnel — really, a gleaming new underpass…


… and emerge from under the tram tracks…


… up the new escalator…


… to Roosevelt Street.

It was named after FDR about 6 months after VE day by a town council controlled by the Polish Workers’ Party.


Construction is in full swing here: a good sign.

And now, at last, we’re getting into Jewish territory.

As we walk down this street and get closer to the train station; as Roosevelt turns into Głogowska…


… the buildings get shabbier and less chic.

It’s to bland fringey places like this that certain parts of the city’s history were pushed.


We come to a dull grate.


It’s Glogowska 26-a.


And on the grate is a Magen David.


Next to the grate is Grażyna Estera Kafka, putting out her cigarette as she rummages in her orange pocketbook for the keys.


This is a hidden Jewish sanctuary.

To show it to us, we need a hidden Jewess.

Behind these gates we are safe from the glare of this man…

Wilhelm II, 1898. Photo pasted on cardboard. The Emperor wears the chain and the Cross of the Royal House Order of Hohenzollern and the Johanniter cross. (Wikimedia)
Wilhelm II, 1898. The Emperor wears the chain and the Cross of the Royal House Order of Hohenzollern and the Johanniter cross. (Wikimedia)

… as we warm in the gaze of this one:


This furry grandfather is the Polish Akiva. If you believe the Hebrew scrawl on this card, he’s a gaon.

If anyone in the Jewish world knows the city I now call home, it’s usually because of Rabbi Akiva Eger.

Akiva Eger (also spelled as Akiva or Akiba Eiger), or Akiva Güns, Yiddish: עקיבא אייגער‎, was born in 1761 in Eisenstadt (in Hungarian: Kismarton) — the most important town of the Seven Jewish Communities (Sheva Kehillot or Sieben Gemeinden) of Burgenland, Hungary (now Austria).

The synagogue in Eisenstadt. This one was built in 1832 or 33 and so is younger than Akiva. It was destroyed by the Nazis in November 1938. In the background, you can see the towers of Esterhazy Palace. The picture was taken around 1910 by Bruno Reiffenstein. (Wikimedia)
The synagogue in Eisenstadt. This one was built in 1832 or 33 and so is younger than Akiva. It was destroyed by the Nazis in November 1938. In the background, you can see the towers of Esterhazy Palace. The picture was taken around 1910 by Bruno Reiffenstein. (Wikimedia)

Akiva was a child prodigy from the Mattersdorf yeshiva. (Today, Kiryat Mattersdorf — קרית מטרסדורף  — is a Haredi neighborbood in Jerusalem, while Mattersdorf itself is called Mattersburg and is not in Hungary but in Austria.)

He then went to his uncle, Rabbi Wolf Eger, at the yeshiva in Breslau (now a city in Poland called Wrocław).

Out of respect for his uncle, he changed his surname to Eger. He therefore shared the full name Akiva Eger with his mother’s father, the first Rabbi Akiva Eger, who was rabbi of Zülz in Silesia (i.e., Biała Prudnicka) from 1749 and Pressburg (that is, Bratislava, now the capital of Slovakia) from 1756.

Our Akiva, the younger, was the rabbi of Märkisch Friedland (now Mirosławiec), from 1791 until 1815 — and then, for the last 22 years of his life —  the rabbi of Posen (that is, Poznań).

He died in 1837.

(Notice all the parentheticals in the preceding paragraphs. What did I tell you about nests? That goes not just for this town but for all of Mitteleuropa.)

Of Akiva, the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia says, “His noble and self-sacrificing character and his great Talmudic learning made him universally beloved, and won for him an international reputation among learned Jews.”

But it also says: “Eger was naturally a strict opponent of Reform, and declared the slightest change in the order of service inadmissible: ‘If one disturbed only the one-thousandth part of the words of our Rabbis in the Talmud the whole Torah would collapse.'”

It notes that he wrote a fervently earnest circular in Hebrew and German opposing the drinking of “alcohol made from potatoes” at Pesach.

An anti-vodka rabbi — in Poland. No doubt he had critics.

Akiva’s main works are legal notes and responsa on the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch. But he lives in memory more as a symbol: Akiva was of the old school. He was a tough old nut.

And so it makes sense that — in Poznań, in 2017 — Akiva Eger is still here.

Let’s go in…


… past the station for netilat yadaim


… and into a narrow sliver of green…


… into which neighbors may peer from the windows of Socialist apartments:


From 1803, there was a Jewish graveyard here. The Nazis wrecked it. They used the gravestones for paving roads and sidewalks or construction work in the Sołacz district on German officers’ barracks.

Then the Communists built commercial pavilions over it. They turned the rest into a parking lot.

Then the neighbors filled the lot with garden sheds.

Yet here lies Reb Akiva.


His grave was restored in 2008 with help from descendants of Akiva: the grandchildren of Rabbi Avraham Schreiber-Sofer of London (so a sign says) and by the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe.


Rabbi Akiva lies by his wife, and his sons and their wives.


It all seems very neat.

But this place is not neat; it’s messy.

After all, this plot is just the edge of the original cemetery: the rest is still under odd buildings. And the graves we see are symbolic. God knows exactly where Akiva’s bones lie.

An honest hint of disorder is whispered by the oddly-shaped tombstones of many sizes that are clumped around the slick granite matzevot.

Here, swathed in ivy, we see the memorial of a certain Rosa Rackwitz, beloved mother and grandmother:


There’s a tombstone belonging to a Mr. Yakov Mest that was later repurposed (not to say desecrated) as a grinding stone for sharpening tools:


And here are matzevot that look like they were barely hewn at all.

This one lies on its side, but I’ve rotated my picture so you can read it. It belongs to “A modest woman, Mrs. Machla, daughter of [A]kiva [abbreviation: of blessed memory]. [She died on] the first of Adar 5480 [The tenth of February, 1720].”


These stones stand for people whose remains may be nowhere near here. This little restored strip has become a collection place for fractured fragments with Hebrew markings found all over town.


A line of slouchers is propped against the garden wall:


Here is the stone for “Shlomo […] of Ravitch (Rawicz), son of Yehoshua Feivelman, Rabbi of Samter” (that is, Szamotuły):


Here is Moshe Leib, son of Yaakov:


Moshe and Moshe’s marker have been blasted by the world, but the Lion of Judah gently licks him still — as if to soothe his wounds.


I thank Steven D. Reece of the Matzevah Foundation for his expert consultation and Witold Wrzosinski of the Foundation for the Documentation of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland, who translated these stones from my photographs.

But the quiet hero responsible for the upkeep of these tombs — the one who cleans the stones on her knees with a brush and a special moss-retarding liquid — is the hidden Jewess we saw earlier with the fizzled cigarette.

It’s Grażyna Estera Kafka.


Kafka is her married name; she does not report any particular susceptibility to paranoid fever-visions.

But her two first names — Grażyna and Estera — tell her story.

Grażyna is just about the most Polish name you could have. The name was created by the Polish poet Mickiewicz (remember him?) for the main character of his 1823 poem Grażyna. Ladies called Grażyna tend to be over 50.

And Estera is practically unheard of in Poland. It’s just way too Jewish.

On the way out of the cemetery, Grażyna Estera told me that as a child no one told her she was Jewish. In fact, she showed up occasionally in the Catholic church. (I had already told her that I am a priest.) That’s normal in Poland. But she added, “Mama would tell us sometimes about the customs for Shabbat and the holidays. And I remember her showing us how to make matzah for Pesach.”

The grown-up Grażyna (now more often called Estera — the part-time webmaster of the tiny local Jewish community) discovered that both her parents were Holocaust survivors.

Her dad was interned as a Jew in a death camp from which he escaped. Her mother tricked the authorities into thinking she was a gentile and so was “merely” forced to labor in Germany. They had married just before the War and were reunited afterward. A miracle.

And Grażyna Estera Kafka is something of a miracle, too. Her identity is layered, like her names. Her Jewish community, like the fragment of cemetery she faithfully grooms, is assembled from bits and bobs and held together in constant tension. Like a nest.

But that community has cheyn. And it has creative power, even in provincial little Poznań — even now.

On the last day of March, on erev shabbat, the Jewish Community organized the “Fourth Greater-Poland Tournament of Jewish Song” in one of the auditoriums at the University. The theme of the evening was “A song can conquer time.”

A high school student — Anna Maria Suchy from the Karol Marcinkowski General Secondary School in Poznań — won the whole shebang.

Her winning entry was Złota Jerozolima. You don’t know the song by that name, but you do know it.

I’ll let Anna Maria sing it out: an anthem sent out from still-here Jewish Poland — to you.

The last words in this version are:

Jerozolimo zawsze wielka, twój obraz w sercu muszę nieść i choć teraz tak daleka to głoszę twą pieśń.

“Eternally great Jerusalem, I must carry your image in my heart, and though you’re now so far away I sing your song.”

Akiva would’ve approved.

But no vodka.

About the Author
Born in Wisconsin, Erik Ross is a priest of the Dominican Order who lives in Switzerland and comes often to Israel. For many years, he was stationed in Poland. He has long been active in Jewish-Christian conversations. He writes here with the permission of his major superior.
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