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Friday, 16 November 2012

Włodawa, once Poland's Tel Aviv


"The Great Synagogue" of Wlodawa completed in 1774. Just 5 miles from Death Camp Sobibor.
Although there are supposedly no Jews now living in the town, shopkeepers all observe Shabbat.

"Włodawa ... is a town in eastern Poland on the Bug River, close to the borders with Belarus and Ukraine. ... As of 2011 it has a population of 14,800. The existence of a Jewish community in Włodawa is first recorded in connection with the Lublin fair of 1531. ... For much of the early modern period, a time when the Polish-speaking community of the region was predominately engaged in agriculture (meaning they were serfs), Jews appear to have composed much of the population of the city, engaged in all forms of craft production and trade. ... There were 2,236 Jews in 1827 and 6,706 in 1907. ... In the late 19th century ... Of the 184 stores in the town, 177 were owned by Jews. ... Włodawa was over 70% Jewish before WWII and the Holocaust." wikipedia


I thought I'd share my photos of the Polish town of Włodawa, where I stayed for two nights in late October 2012, whilst I was visiting the Sobibor camp, which is around 5 miles south of the town. I was fortunate enough to meet a young woman there who had worked in the U.K. for numerous years, so spoke fluent English, and she was able to tell me a few interesting things about the town.

I arrived in Włodawa around noon on a Saturday, and soon noticed that all the shops were closed, which I thought rather strange. They remained closed on Sunday as well, but as I was in the back-of-beyond in an overwhelming Catholic country, I could understand that.

I was told by the young woman, that as far as she knew, everything had always closed in Włodawa on a Saturday, but she genuinely seemed not to know why. Later she told me that prior to the war, the entire town had been owned by Jews (once by one family, the Czartoryskis, see below). She explained that all the old buildings (pre-war) around the town (photos below), had been owned by Jews (even wikipedia almost agrees). I put it to her that that was the likely reason for everything closing on a Saturday, she said "Shabbat!", and laughed, but I could tell she knew it made sense.

Wikipedia states: "Traditionally the Bug (river, on which Włodawa is situated) was also often considered the ethnographical border between Orthodox and Catholic peoples." and the young women told me that Włodawa was known as the 'town of three cultures', meaning Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish. I'd later see a large graffiti mural (clearly an approved and likely commissioned one) which confirmed this (photo below).


The river Bug, as viewed from Poland. On the far bank is Belarus.
The Great Synagogue
From another angel. Notice the menorah style fence, I saw the very same, surrounding a synagogue in the stunningly beautiful town of Zamość
Another angel still
And from the fourth side
Wielka Synagoga = Great Synagogue, the English text reads:
The Great Synagogue is one of the three buildings maintained after existence of the synagogue complex in the Jewish community times in Wlodawa. It was built between 1764 and 1774 in the place of the preexisting wooden one thanks to the sources of Czartoryski family — owners of Wlodawa.
The Great synagogue was erected in the style of late baroque. Architectural arrangement is closer to palace's fronts, especially because of the interesting front fasade. On the both sides of front fasade there are located ground floor women's galleries decorated with comb-shaped attic. Under vestibule there is located third women's gallery. Adjacent to it there are corner alcoves supporting by arcades.
The interior of the men's hall is finished by nine-field vaulting. This is decorated by relieves of symbolical animals and supported by stylised columns. In former times there was bimah licated between them. Nowadays one can see only its reconstruction. On the Eastern wall once can admire Aron ha-Kodesh from 1936. It is made of artificial marble and plated with chromium. It is one of the most beautiful in Poland. 

Next to the Great Synagogue (left) is the Small Synagogue
The Small Synagogue
From the other direction
Mała Synagoga - Small Synagogue, the English text reads:
The Small Synagogue was built in the second half of the 18th century. From the beginning this building fulfilled two functions. It was the house of prayers and the house of learning Torah and Talmud. That is why it is called Beth Midrash. Its functions are testified by modest appearance and simple interior arrangement, It corresponds to typical style of little-town synagogues commonly applied at that time.
Since its origin, the Small Synagogue did not change drastically. Only windows, changed during reconstruction in 1915 and 1916, looked different. The modernisation took place thanks to the effort of Mr Lajbl Lichtenberg, who was mayor of Wlodawa at that time. In the men's hall one can admire the residues of the painting outfit originated in the thirties of 20th century. they consist of illustrates of musical instruments and animals and friezes with the signs of the zodiac. Once can find there also texts of prayers and psalms written as a tables and renovated foundation inscription. The wooden walls of the cabinets are the only things preserved. Aron ha-Kodesh and bimah were destroyed.
After 1939 the building was adapted to be a military store of the german army. After II World War it was used as a cinema-hall or the store of the Rustie Self-help Association and the ,,Farmer'' Cooperative.

To the left of the sign is the Great Synagogue, and to the right is the Wlodawa museum, that I didn't take a photo of, for some reason. But I took a photo of its sign (below)
New Beth Midrash, now the local museum, the English text reads:
Post - kahal House (new Beth Midrash) was built in Wlodawa in 1928 by Mr Mordechaj - Motl Bigman, thus fulfilling the testament of his father Dawid Bigman. From the beginning thos was the administrative building of the Jewish community. Here was located the board of directors of the community and the library. Probably in this building were also located some wlodawian associations like ,,Association of the Jacob's source'' or ,,Psalms Association''. After II world War building was renovated and since April 1945 was occupied by District Commitee of the PWP and then by the District Association of the Community Cooperatives. Among other things the shop with multiple goods was located here. Between 1979 and 1990 there was a modernization to adapt the building for the needs of the museum.
A typically ugly Soviet memorial
Translations welcomed





The mural, it reads: Festiwal Trzech Kultur (Festival of Three Cultures), depicting (L-R) the Orthodox church, Great Synagogue and Catholic church


Church of St. Louis (Catholic)
Orthodox church
Orthodox church on the left, and Church of St. Louis on the right. I took this picture on the bank of the river Bug
This might be the "Jewish-owned steam-powered flour mill" wiki

View from the front





Wikipedia and this other site, claim the 18th century Jewish cemetery in Wlodawa was destroyed by the Nazis, who used the tombstones for "laying the pavements and for regulating the Włodawka River"! 

The Jewish Cemetery Project states that Wlodawa had three Jewish cemeteries:
  1. Established 16th century, last burial 17th century. This one was next to the Great Synagogue picture above, in fact, it's probably in the foreground of this photo.
  2. Established in the 18th century, last burial early 19th century. This one was here. Wikimedia has two photos.
  3. Established in the 19th century, last burial 1943. I'm not sure where this one was. This site claims one was here, but date it to the 18th century.
Supposedly all three of these cemeteries were vandalised during WWII, and presently there are no tombstones at any of them.


1 comment:

  1. The Polish sense of aesthetics leaves a lot to be desired. The plaster always unpainted and breaking off the walls, satellite dishes hanging everywhere , adverts for cigarette brands . The Poles lost their middle and upper classes in the 20th century ; a lot of them ended up in Katyn.
    Anyone who has been to the towns on the Oder Neisse border knows the different aesthetics although it must be said that a lot of the towns like Stettin, Breslau, etc were populated by a mixture of Roma gypsies, ukranians and red refugees from Greece and Spain....not a good mix.

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