One of the proudest buildings in Wrocław, a European Capital of Culture for 2016, is the White Stork Synagogue. Its white-brick neoclassical façade fairly shimmers since a restoration was completed in 2010, the bittersweet revival of a structure that outlived most of the community it today represents.
Here, in what was once a major center of Jewish life, the White Stork Synagogue was the only temple to survive the Holocaust. Like so many survivors, it endured by being in the right place at what was definitely the wrong time — tucked into a neighborhood with so many neighboring non-Jewish businesses that the Nazis felt it too risky to light afire on Kristallnacht, instead ransacking its interior while other temples burned.
The circa-1829 synagogue, first built in the Prussian Kingdom of 1829 by a renowned theater designer, is now the headquarters of Wrocław’s modern Jewish community — and one of the Jewish highlights in a city with a turbulent past. Wrocław, pronounced vrot-swahf (really), has been part of Poland since World War II; before the war it was the German city of Breslau, and before that it passed variously through Austrian, Bohemian and Hungarian hands as a strategic outpost of empire.
The imprint of this polyglot stew is evident in Wrocław’s colorful appearance, a jumble of cheery Baroque façades in pink, pistachio and daffodil-yellow; ornate Gothic spires; sunny plazas; and peaked tomato-red roofs over well-preserved cobblestone streets (much of Wrocław’s historic core survived the war, though Socialist-era blight was arguably as destructive from an aesthetic point of view). The River Oder cuts through the city, defining island neighborhoods with a series of footbridges. Aesthetically, Wrocław is like Bergen (Norway) meeting Bologna — a magnificent metropolis that is finally getting its well-deserved moment in the spotlight.
What does this mean for tourists? Most of the yearlong European Capital of Culture program will take place during the warmer months, so the schedule of events has not yet been finalized.
But in addition to a lineup of theater, art exhibitions and concerts both indoors and out, Wrocław promises “unconventional” artistic events and concerts throughout the year in “forgotten” spaces like stairwells, historic courtyards and underpasses — the better to reveal a city that itself has been largely overlooked. The largest city in Western Poland and the fourth largest nationally, Wroclaw is also the hub of a vast historical region known as Silesia, and a number of this year’s events showcase Silesian painting, folklore, music and traditional dance.
Few Americans have heard of Silesia, but Wrocław is surprisingly easy to access. LOT, the national carrier, operates a half-dozen daily flights from Warsaw; Lufthansa has international connections to the city’s Nicholas Copernicus Airport, and discount European airlines such as Ryanair and Wizzair connect from London and Paris.
Jewish visitors can make a beeline for the stylish CIZ Café — the Jewish Information Centre, a welcoming spot that serves kosher pastry and artisan-roasted coffee along with itineraries and English-language walking tours. It’s a modern introduction to a community that dates to the 12th century and was renowned for its tradition of scholarship — including the first modern rabbinical seminary in Central Europe, the Jewish Theological Seminary, which opened in 1854 and produced generations of renowned Breslau rabbis.
On the same street where Breslau’s JTS was once located (now Włodkowica Street), that tradition of intellectual ferment has been revived in the form of Chidusz (Hebrew for “innovation”), a monthly magazine published for Wrocław’s roughly 1,000 Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors. In its own words — from a just-released English edition — Chidusz aims to be “a Jewish answer to the challenges of today’s world, to co-create a modern Jewish identity in Europe.”
A previous Jewish identity is evident in Wrocław’s two Jewish cemeteries. The so-called “Old Jewish Cemetery,” located in the southeast and established in the 1850s, is a portrait of Jewish Breslau during the German reign. More than 1,200 tombstones are monuments not only to accomplished Jewish scholars, bankers, scientists and other residents, but also to architectural styles ranging from Gothic to Neoclassical to Baroque.
Badly damaged during the war and neglected afterward, the stately burial ground has been restored as a museum of cemetery art. Across town, the New Jewish Cemetery is a vast, jungly green space that’s nearly as intriguing from an architectural point of view, but has a long way to go toward restoration.
Wrocław is a sprawling city, but visitors will spend most of their time prowling the atmospheric streets of the Old Town. Start in the huge central square, explore the Teutonic-style Town Hall, ogle the impressive churches and stroll through open markets filled with fresh flowers and used books. Enlivened by a population of university students, Wrocław is both more beautiful and more diverse than you might expect — and between its revived Jewish heritage and a Continental spotlight, it’s newly worth a look.
Inset Images: Wikimedia Commons