Magnificent ritual bath in Wroclaw, Poland rededicated, half a century after closing its gates
In the presence of the Chief Rabbi of Poland, the hundred-year-old mikva (ritual bath) was rededicated at the end of the week, after having suffered great neglect during Communist regime in the country
By Itamar Eichner, Yediot Acharonot Judaism Reporter – 7 November, 2018
More than 50 years have elapsed since the old mikva in the city of Wroclaw in western Poland was in use. During the course of the past year the building underwent extensive renovations and preservation, and in a festive ceremony held last week, the magnificent mikva was rededicated and will serve the Jewish community in the city. The large mikva was built more than a century ago, and, having survived the Holocaust, was in use until the 1960s, and then abandoned under Communist rule. The mikva, which is on the premises of the well-known White Stork synagogue, will serve in a unique capacity: during the evening hours it will be a fully-functional mikva, but during the day hours it will serve as a tourist attraction for people who wish to learn about the Jewish tradition. As soon as the first rains fall, the mikva will become operational.
300 participants attended the very moving ceremony, including Rabbi Basok, a shaliach of Ohr Torah Stone’s Straus-Amiel program, along with his wife Danielle – both of whom have served as the rabbi and rebbetzin of the community for the past three years. The event was also attended by the following personas: the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the German consul in Poland, the mayor of Wroclaw, representatives of the German-Poland Foundation for Cultural Heritage, the president of the University of Wroclaw as well as many of the city’s residents who take an interest in Judaism.
Four years ago Rabbi David and Danielle came on a short-term shlichut to Poland in order to prepare the community for the first night of Passover, Leil HaSeder. Six months later the community invited them to serve as the local shlichim, and for a period of a year the Basok couple underwent training at Ohr Torah Stone’s Straus-Amiel Institute, which prepares shlichim to leadership positions in Jewish communities abroad. During the three years that have elapsed since that time, they have served as the rabbi and the rebbetzin of the community – providing support, attempting to find solutions for problems that arise and helping to run a Jewish community life.
“The community wanted to renovate the mikva for almost twenty years, but it seemed hopeless, mainly because budget constraints. All the rabbis who served here before us understood that it was just not going to happen, but we have been fortunate to see it materialize,” says Rabbi Basok. “The mikva will greatly enhance community life, and along with the synagogue and the kosher cafeteria, will help the community establish itself as a strong and well-coordinated Jewish center. But first and foremost, a functional mikva will spare the women of the community the three-hour-long ride to the nearest mikva, in either Warsaw, Cracow or Lodz. We are currently awaiting the first rains that will fill up the mikva and enable its opening.”
The renovations were made possible by the Bente Kahan Foundation, which also responsible for renovating the well-known synagogue about a decade ago. Other funding partners were the German-Poland Foundation for Cultural Heritage, the European Union’s foundation and the Wroclaw municipality – all of which support cultural projects that are not for religious purposes. However, the Bente Kahan Foundation which led the project did its best to connect both worlds. “Fortunately, those who were responsible for the renovations did not only insist on a museum, but on a kosher mikva as well,” Rabbi Basok adds. “We are thrilled, of course, and greatly appreciate the foundation’s decision that the mikva not only undergo preservation but also be turned into a fully operational, kosher facility that could cater to the needs of the women of the community.”
The White Stork synagogue in Wroclaw was built almost 200 years ago and became the central synagogue of the city of Breslau, one of the most important cities in Germany. In the beginning of the twentieth century the community grew significantly and comprised 25,000 Jews, which led to massive construction. Within a decade the community built a hospital, a school, an orphanage and a senior citizens’ home, and even renovated the synagogue and built an additional entrance to the women’s gallery. A magnificent mikva was built in close proximity to the synagogue, and boasts four separate preparation rooms with private baths, two spacious ritual baths for the traditional immersion as well as an attached sauna for the use of the women. On Kristallnacht the city’s new synagogue was burned down and dozens of the city’s Jews were taken to Theresienstadt. During the Holocaust about half of the Jews in the city were deported from the synagogue square to extermination camps in Poland and the community ceased to exist.
After the Holocaust the district became a part of Poland, where a pro-Communist regime had come to power in the meantime, and the city of Wroclaw turned into a prominent Jewish center. The mikva and the synagogue were active until 1968, in which year most of the Jewish residents left Poland, until the community finally disintegrated.
When Communist rule came to an end in the 1990s, the Jewish community started rebuilding itself. The Wroclaw synagogue was renovated in 2006 and in 2009 reopened as a center for Jewish culture and education. The synagogue also contains a smaller shul or shtiebel which is active all year round, while the larger praying hall is used for cultural events that are open to the general public. When the community convenes to celebrate the High Holy Days, the larger prayer hall is opened for prayer in order to cater to the hundreds of worshipers.
“I do not want to build a museum commemorating what was; rather, the objective is to show active Jewish life as it goes on today,” explains the chair of the foundation responsible for the renovations, Mrs. Bente Kahan. “This is the logic behind all of our projects: to support a developing community and display a live and kicking Judaism instead of a past that exists no more.”