Old Synagogue, Kraków
Old Synagogue is an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in the Kazimierz district of Kraków, Poland, in Yiddish it was referred to as the Alta Shul. It is the oldest synagogue building still standing in Poland, and one of the most precious landmarks of Jewish architecture in Europe. Until the German invasion of Poland in 1939, it was one of the most important synagogues in the city as well as the main religious, social, and organizational centre of the Kraków Jewish community. In 1794 General Tadeusz Kościuszko spoke from the synagogue to gain the Jewish support in the struggle for Polish independence. A plaque in the entrance hall commemorates this event:
"The Jews proved to the world that whenever humanity can gain, they would not spare themselves." – General Tadeusz Kosciuszko
The Synagogue was built in 1407 or 1492; the date of building varies with several sources. The original building was rebuilt in 1570 under the watchful eye of an Italian architect Mateo Gucci. The rebuilding included the attic wall with loopholes, windows placed far above ground level, and thick, masonry walls with heavy buttressing to withstand siege, all features borrowed from military architecture. The Old synagogue is a rare, surviving example of a Polish Fortress synagogue.
The synagogue was completely devastated and ransacked by the Germans during World War II. Its artwork and Jewish relics, looted. During the occupation, the synagogue was used as a magazine. In 1943, 30 Polish hostages were executed at its wall. The Old Synagogue was renovated from 1956 to 1959 and currently operates as a museum. It is a Division of the Historical Museum of Kraków, with particular focus on Kraków's Jews. The exhibits are divided into themes dealing with birth, prayer rituals, diet, divorce and death. "The beautiful women's prayer room, which dates from the 17th century, is often used to hold temporary exhibitions."