Sunday, August 4, 2013

Catholic and Jewish Traditions in Poland. Posted by Caitlyn J. Ebert.

Religion played an integral part in keeping Polish culture alive, even while three different empires colonized the country during the period of partitions (1795-1918). During our stay in Poland, we have seen many sites connected to Catholicism and Judaism. Both of these religions have deep roots in Poland.  

While many European countries were expelling Jews in the medieval and early modern periods, Polish communities welcomed Jewish merchants.The link to Judaism was severely damaged by the Nazi occupation, beginning in 1939. Many of the synagogues throughout Poland were destroyed as the ghettos were established. While many of the sites related to Judaism reflect the horrors of the Nazi regime, the Old Synagogue in Krakow's Kazimierz district has been converted to a  museum that is dedicated to depicting Jewish life in Poland.

Old Synagogue in Kazimierz district of Krakow
This museum still has the storage place for the Torah intact (see photo below). This small closet-like area’s doors are kept open to indicate that the Torah is no longer housed in the synagogue. There are also several Torah covers like the lion cover (see below), which incorporated symbols of power and prominence to depict the importance of religion in the daily lives of the community.

Jewish cemeteries also show the important aspects of Jewish life. We were able to learn about the burial and grieving tradition in Judaism. For example, placing stones on the tops of tombstones symbolizes wishes and prayers the living have for the dead.

Many of the headstones in the Jewish cemeteries have images of animals or objects that were used to depict aspects of the deceased’s life. A menorah, or candelabrum, on the tombstone often indicates that the deceased is a woman.

Tombstone in Jewish cemetery in Przemysl

Animals like lions indicate that the deceased was a man and head of the household, therefore the most powerful/prominent person in his household.

Tombstone in Jewish cemetery in Warsaw

The Catholic faith has played a crucial role in Polish history. Catholicism has helped preserve “Polishness” when there was no sovereign state, during wars, and during the period of Communism. Catholic symbols were built into the palaces and castles of Poland, such as the Wawel Castle (the home of medieval Polish kings in Krakow) and Wilanow Palace (the Baroque-style home of Polish kings in Warsaw).


Wawel Castle, Krakow

Wilanow Palace, Warsaw

Modern Poland is still closely tied to Catholicism. For example, there are many sites with relics and memorials to Pope John Paul II, whose canonization was announced in July while we were in Poland.

Exhibit dedicated to Pope John Paul II inside St. Florian's Church in Krakow

On Pilsudski Square in Warsaw, there is a marker (see below) at the location where John Paul II celebrated Mass during his first visit to Warsaw as Pope in June 1979.

And in Przemysl, a large memorial dedicated to the Polish Pope is located in the heart of the Old Town.

Caitlyn J. Ebert at the John Paul II memorial in Przemysl

Caitlyn J. Ebert


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