The Beauty of Jewish Life in Wroclaw, Poland
Wroclaw’s Old Town is not only its historical center, but also today’s social and cultural center. Here you will find not only the city’s most splendid architecture but also its best shops, restaurants, bars, galleries and museums. It’s also where many festivities, concerts and performance art take place. The epicenter and the Old Town’s center of life is, of course, the Main Market Square, or ‘Rynek’. This amazing space was painstakingly reconstructed after WWII, to recall the Baroque splendor of its heyday. Here the good citizens of Wroclaw, as well as tourists, gather to eat, shop, drink, dance, and generally hang out to enjoy life. Wroclaw Town Hall is a historical building in the center of Wroclaw and also one of the most beautiful buildings in the city, with a very interesting history behind it. The architecture is simply stunning, and contains mesmerizing Gothic gables! Adjoining the Rynek is the towering St. Elizabeth’s Church. Built in the 14th Century, that Gothic monster is one of the city’s most famous landmarks and offers splendid sights from its viewing tower. To the North of the Old Town lies the University Quarter, which is a small, but lively district. This area is – even though needless to say – dominated by the Wroclaw University building itself. A happening and exciting student city!
Playing soul to the Rynek’s heart is Ostrów Tumski, the gem at the center of Wrocław’s crown. This is, after all, where the city began; making it one of the most historically significant parts of town, in addition to the archaically surroundings. Although clearly a Catholic Church district, it will strike appealing to anyone who loves history and architecture. It’s truly a journey through history! I highly recommend spending some time on this island, which has the quaint feel of a fortified, small town. A stunning setting that is untouched by time.
For true history lovers, the Panorama of the Battle of Racławice is not just a painting, it’s a pilgrimage. The 140m-long canvas depicts the legendary General Tadeusz Kościuszko’s victory over the Russian forces at Racławice in 1794, and took just over nine months to complete. Around 1,600 people per day turn up to admire that amazing piece of history. Vivid and unforgettable emotions are guaranteed.
A must-see is The Four Denominations District, often called Four Temples District, Four Denominations or Mutual Respect District. As the name suggests, it’s a place of meetings, dialogue, and mutual respect. It’s also known for its numerous culinary experiences and many cultural, artistic, and educational events. Its unique character derives from wonderful and sacral architecture. In addition to that, various restaurants, cafés, pubs and music clubs situated in the Four Denominations District (for example, the beautiful patio of the Synagogue, surrounded by old walls) make it one of the most magical meeting places in Wrocław.
While you’re at it, keep your eyes peeled for Wrocław’s adorable and elusive attractions- One of Wrocław’s most popular, memorable and iconic attractions is not a cathedral, nor a castle or monument, but a legion of little people: Gnomes, or ‘krasnale’ (the local word for it). There are over 300 of these little rascals running about the city center, but you’ll only spot them if you’re paying attention. Kids love them, so if you want to keep them engaged as you explore the city, set your little ones off to some gnome-hunting. Keep your eyes peeled and you’re bound to notice the little fellas engaged in a variety of activities around town – from guarding public space to passed-out drunk. Beloved by locals and tourists alike, and the object of more photos than the towering Cathedral, these prolific pranksters have become the unlikely symbol of one of Poland’s most picturesque cities. It’s a great little distraction, with a whimsical touch, and an awesome attraction for little kids!
Ms. Beata Wers, a licensed guide and tour leader (English, French, Polish) was very informative, witty, and knowledgeable about the town. Her commentary was excellent, which made it just more interesting. She gave a wonderful insight into the culture of Wroclaw.
The Hydropolis is an ultra-modern exhibition dedicated to water. This is the only facility of its kind in Poland, and one of the very few in the world. A new museum, which provides a unique and informative experience on where water is located within the universe (not just on Earth), and the significant role it has on people, states, religions, etc. The front entrance has a water printer, which acts as a curtain and is the longest installation of its kind in Europe. I really liked the small rooms with big screens, where you can watch short movies about Wroclaw and its Water System history, and find out how it was built. The Relaxation Zone allows you to take a break during the exhibit, and the Children’s Zone has games, through which you can discover the depths of oceans, play with dolphins, or discover the formation of a water molecule. This is a must-see for all to-be environmental engineers. One of the best museums in Wroclaw for kids and adults!
Once we finished ogling the Old Town and Ostrów Tumski, we wandered off to just east of the city center, where a clutch of attractions surrounding the historic Centennial Exhibition Complex, lies. This includes Wrocław’s only UNESCO site, the country’s oldest zoo, the tranquil Japanese Garden, the tourist-luring Pergola Fountain and the newly renovated Four Dome Pavilion. UNESCO approved the addition of the magnificent multimedia fountain (operating May-October), which made it a favorite place to locals and lead to it being a must-see place in Wrocław. You must come here, if you want to see one of the most impressive examples of engineering architecture in the 20th century. Don’t miss the Discovery Centre, found inside the hall. The permanent exhibit examines the history of the hall’s construction by using touch-screen displays. Check out the other exhibits as well, which explore topics ranging from other Polish UNESCO sites to the architecture of famous skyscrapers. Outside the hall, follow the semicircular colonnade leading to Wroclaw Fountain. The fountain projects water up to 131 feet high (40 meters) by using 300 sets of nozzles. The water theatrics are combined with music, fireworks, lasers and lights, to create a spectacular show; all held throughout the spring and summer. Check out the fountain in the winter when it’s transformed into an ice rink.
Having been to Zoos all over Europe, this is one of the best ones I have ever been to – Wroclaw Zoo has an impressive variety and quantity of animals. It’s a very big zoo, filled with animals and attractions for kids – there is a chance to feed monkeys from a bowl, filled with their favorite food, for 1 zloty. Brand-new to the zoo is the impressive African aquarium complex – or ‘Afrykarium’: Three levels of exhibits focused on the diverse water fauna of Africa, including hippos, sharks, manatees, crocodiles, penguins and many more. With over 14,000 critters of some 1,100 different species, the zoo is one of Wrocław’s most visited attractions. Ms. Marta Zajac-Ossowska, Head of Marketing and Education, was extremely helpful and very willing to share her knowledge. She generously answered all of my questions, and quite simply, was excellent in every way, and made my visit to this fascinating place a vastly richer experience.
The Afrykarium was amazing. The aquariums are huge and walking between them feels like diving into the ocean. “Afrykarium is a must-see attraction, and one of the best zoological gardens in Europe.
The next day I had the privilege to join Arleta Bzdun, Senior Tourism Specialist from the Lower Silesian Tourist organization www.dolnyslask.com, to explore The Peace Church in Swidnica, Walim- Gluszyca, The Underground City of Osowka, and The Ksiaz Castle. To top it off, we had encountered a surprise on our way by discovering a Jewish Cemetery called Cemetery Victims of Nazi Terror, in Kloce, a village in southern-western Poland (located in the Głuszyca Municipality). It was located in a remote area, right outside of Wroclaw. It’s a small cemetery and there was a mass grave of forced Jewish laborers among other graves (mainly those who died during the Construction of the Riese). Mr. Zdzislaw Lazanowski, Head Director of the Osowka, volunteered to take us there, as he was very familiar with the area, the cemetery, its history, and anything else you would need to know about the surrounding villages. We considered ourselselves very lucky to have Mr. Lazanowski guide us to this remote cemetery; with no sign posts for directions and only unpaved roads to drive on. We finally reached our destination and walked uphill through the woods to reach this cemetery. Here I found a mass grave, among a few other graves from various countries. I will publish a separate article, containing the complete story of this cemetery, which will include many photographs. For the tourists interested in visiting this peaceful and deserted cemetery, as well as The Underground City of Osowka, I would strongly recommend contacting Mr. Lazanowski (His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org).
Continuing our visit to the Underground City of Osowka, at the Complex ‘Riese‘, which was eighty kilometers southwest of Wrocław, we saw the ‘Sowie’, or Owl Mountain, which classifies as one of Poland’s oldest mountains. The Riese is one of the biggest constructions conducted by Nazi Germany during WWII, as a part of a secret project code name Riese. It’s a very mysterious place with different theories surrounding it. They used slave laborers to built these tunnels and thousands of people died while building them, primarily Polish, Hungarian and Italian Jews. Some of the slave laborers came from the nearby Gross-Rosen Concentration Camp. No one really knows about the purpose of this tunnel system. There are remains of tanks and machine guns. Nazis used these huge tunnels to build airplane parts. This is definitely a must-see, as it gives you a very unique experience and is essential for those interested in WW II. It’s a remarkable site!
The Underground City of Osowka – New York Jewish Travel Guide
We continued on to the Świdnica Peace Church. The Church of Peace in Świdnica or Jawor – the largest timber-framed religious buildings in Europe, were built in the mid-17th century. From the outside – very interesting, huge, wooden constructions, with dominating white color and timber framing, but inside – you don’t only feel enchanted, but even more so, mesmerized by the enormous, 3-4 floor high galleries with paintings depicting scenes from the Bible, especially suitable for illiterate people in that time period. These churches will transport you to another time– a time of small kingdoms in the 17th century, during which beautiful and intricate artistry was never in short supply. Restored by a Polish –German cooperation, and recognized by UNESCO in 2001, it’s a peaceful, unique, and surprising historical marvel – definitely a hidden gem!
This last place to visit was another hidden gem; the beautiful Ksiaz castle full of mysteries and history. The castle is a blend of many architectural styles, and is the third-largest castle in Poland. The castle looks really impressive from afar. It’s on top of a hill; in a fantastic forest spot, from where it’s dominating the valley. The views are truly breathtaking. There is a lot to see from the castle gardens and the underground tunnel tour. The Nazi tunnel should be on anybody’s list of must-sees. An absolute must in Lower Silesia, this is a wonderful castle with a great history!
The White Stork Synagogue is the only synagogue in Wrocław to escape the torches of Kristallnacht. The White Stork was built in 1829, taking its name from the inn that once stood in its place, and is discreetly hidden from view in a courtyard. It is one of the biggest Synagogues in Europe, and it is the only synagogue in Wrocław to have survived the Holocaust. It was restored and opened for the public in 2010.
The synagogue now serves as a worship space, cultural center, and branch of the Jewish Information Centre, administered by the Bente Kahan Foundation. It has a new multi-functional hall in the synagogue’s basement and two exhibition spaces on the balconies. One houses a permanent exhibition about the history of Jews in Wrocław and Lower Silesia, while the second balcony is for temporary exhibitions. It displays the interesting history of Wroclaw Jews. The Foundation, together with the Jewish Community, organizes the Days of Mutual Respect every year to mark the anniversary of the tragic events of Kristallnacht.
I had the pleasure to be invited for dinner at the residence of Rabbi Bosek and Danielle Chaimovitz Basok. They are from Jerusalem, Israel. Dinner was absolutely superb, and the setting was elegant. I had the pleasure to taste both the authentic food from Israel, as well as various salads, hummus, and other delicacies. The delicious Pierogi, boiled mince with potatoes, was one of the best things I have ever tasted! I express my gratitude to them and the lovely dinner they provided. A complete interview with Rabbi Basok and Danielle Chaimovitz Basok will be published soon in the New York Jewish Travel Guide.
A must-visit when in Wroclaw is CIŻ Café. CIŻ Cafe is a kosher coffeehouse, bookshop, and tourist information center. This is where visitors can get information on events in the synagogue, on the history of Jews in the city, and modern Jewish life in Poland. It’s located just across from the White Stork Synagogue. CIŻ Café is also a Jewish Community Center, with meetings, lectures and workshops organized for Community members and friends. It also arranges Jewish walking tours of Wrocław. Delicious fresh cakes are baked daily in the Community’s kosher kitchen, which provides an extraordinary Jewish atmosphere and the best coffee in town! Everything is as it should be: Coffee, hummus, the people. It’s a delightful café, and my favorite hideout in Wroclaw.
The visit of the Old Jewish Cemetery was made possible through the willingness and the great efforts of Arlena Bzdum. I never thought the visit would be possible, as the cemetery was already closed for visitors, but Arlena made it happen! I really appreciated the extra effort she put into it and want to express my sincere gratitude. The cemetery is huge, with 4.6 hectare, and over 1200 gravestones. The effects of war and nature have slowly taken control over time. You can stroll through hundreds of tombstones of varying conditions. Some graves are almost invisible – overtaken entirely by nature while others are in complete ruin – evidence of the battles from WWII. It has an interesting history, and you will see the headstone writings in either German or Hebrew, with bullet marks in some of them to show the results of the fights that took place here. A lot of the headstones are surprisingly well preserved, with their inscriptions easily read. Many noteworthy figures are buried here, including the renowned biologist Ferdinand Cohn, the historian Heinrich Graetz (author of the first complete history of the Jews), Clara Immerwahl (first female PhD student at the University of Breslau, and wife of Fritz Haber- she committed suicide in objection to her husband’s work developing chemical warfare), Ferdinand Lassalle (founder and leader of the first labor party in Germany; killed in a duel), and the parents of Edith Stein. It’s well worth a visit, and an important reminder of the golden age of European Jewry.
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Story & photography by Meyer Harroch – New York Jewish Travel Guide & New York Jewish Guide