What future for Konin’s historic synagogue?

In 1939, when the Germans invaded, there were some 3,000 Jews in Konin, still almost a quarter of the population. Today there are none.

By MONTE JACOBSON
September 26, 2018 10:57
A view of the synagogue in Konin, Poland

A view of the synagogue in Konin, Poland. (photo credit: MONTE JACOBSON)


It is fortunate that the synagogue still stands in Konin, Poland, on Adam Mickiewicz Street. The Nazis did not burn it down, happy just to desecrate it and use it as a stable. After the war it was carefully repaired by the Polish authorities and designated a historic monument. Today it is in private hands and, although protected by legislation, there remains some uncertainty about its future. The beis medresh (study hall) that once adjoined it has recently been demolished.

There are now just nine Jewish communities in Poland. Once there were over 1,200, each owning and caring for a cemetery and a synagogue. Nationalized by the postwar communist government, some cemeteries became parks, synagogues became libraries or museums, most were abandoned and neglected, with no Jews to take ownership and the country recovering from the ravages of war. After 2002 Jewish communities began to rebuild, on a small scale, and to reclaim those properties.

Konin’s synagogue is not alone, but it is the one with which I have treasured family connections. I have sought reassurance that it will survive as a fitting memorial to a once thriving Jewish community.

When my maternal grandfather Berek Pscherowitz was born there in 1877, around half the people of the town were Jews (figures for 1883 were about 3,400 in a total population of some 6,500). The synagogue, one of the first in the new Moorish style, was erected between 1825 and 1829. Constructed solidly of brick, it replaced the old wooden building that dated back to 1763. The beis medresh was added around 1870 in a complementary style.

In 1939, when the Germans invaded, there were some 3,000 Jews in Konin, still almost a quarter of the population. Today there are none.

When Theo Richmond, preparing his award-winning 1995 book, “Konin – A Quest,” visited in 1988 he found the synagogue, including its murals and other interior decorations, beautifully restored by a team of craftsmen drawn from the region. It was being used as the town library. The beis medresh was still standing. Mr Richmond’s book lovingly brings prewar Konin back to life. He interviewed many old Koniners, in England, the United States and Israel. He also had his father’s copy of the Konin Memorial Book, created in the 1960s by a group of Israeli Jews, including Holocaust survivors, to honor the memory of their lost families and townsfolk. Finally, Mr Richmond visited Konin itself, to meet people who remembered their Jewish neighbors and who had lived through the war themselves. He has told me of the warm welcome and help he received. Later he was presented with a special award by the mayor of Konin and two hundred copies of the Polish edition of his book (it has been translated into several languages, including Hebrew) were purchased to give to local students.

In October 2017, my cousin Leah Sherry and I decided to visit Konin, where we hoped to find out more about our families. From her home in the United States Leah came first to London, where she did some research at the Wiener Library. She had also contacted the Jewish Genealogical Institute in Warsaw to arrange for further research when we arrived there.

Leah wanted to learn all she could about her father. Majer Burzynski was born in Konin in 1924 and was the only member of his family to survive the genocide. His parents, Laia and Michael, died of typhus in the Ostrowiec ghetto, his young sister Pola was murdered in Bełzec. Majer spent six years in Nazi concentration camps as a slave laborer. After liberation by the British Army he managed eventually to get to Israel, where he married and settled in Haifa.

Laia was the youngest sibling of my grandmother, Frajda Lipnowski. My grandparents were married in 1905, in Koło, Frajda’s family home near Konin, but soon after they left for Antwerp and later settled in London.

In Warsaw, as well as the ghetto and the last surviving synagogue, Leah and I visited Polin, the impressive new museum, which celebrates the 1,000-year history of Polish Jews. We were surprised that nowhere in it was there any mention of Konin.
We took the train to Konin, where our guest rooms were on Plac Wolnosci, Freedom Square, in the old town. At the far end of the square a plaque – set above bullet holes in the wall – marks the spot where the Germans shot the town’s first victims, Aleksander Kurowski, a Christian, and Mordechai Slodki, a Jew.

With the carefully annotated map in Theo Richmond’s book we soon found the synagogue, by Plac Zamkowy, Castle Square, formerly the Tepper Marik, the Pot Market, the heart of Jewish Konin. The white plastered walls shone in the autumn sunshine, but we were disappointed to find the old shul locked and seemingly neglected, though it bears a fine memorial plaque. The site of the beis medresh appeared to be awaiting development. In the town hall, the registry and the archives, the officials were very welcoming and gave us every assistance, but they had little to say about the synagogue.

We left Konin feeling concerned and back in London I started to make enquiries. I happened to attend an event at the Polish Embassy in London, where Antony Polonsky was launching Volume 30 of Polin – Studies in Polish Jewry, published by the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies. When I asked Professor Polonsky why Konin is not even mentioned in the Warsaw museum he explained how difficult it had been to decide what to include. Michael Mail, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, a preservation project recently launched in the British parliament by the historian Simon Schama, had a similar story. At his suggestion I wrote to Monika Krawczyk, CEO of FODZ, the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland.

Dr. Krawczyk replied to me at some length, explaining that the foundation was established to take care of properties out of reach of established Jewish communities. It owns over 130 cemeteries and nearly a dozen synagogues. Most of them require immediate treatment and FODZ are constantly working to clean and fence as many cemeteries as possible and renovating three synagogues. Resources are limited, with very little coming from the government and most of the work being funded by the descendants of prewar Jewish communities. The future can still be unsure, as every cemetery and synagogue requires regular maintenance. However, the synagogue in Zamosc, the only one so far fully renovated by the foundation, is now a major attraction for locals as well as visiting Jewish groups.

FODZ can only operate where there is a clear legal situation. The synagogue in Konin lies beyond its jurisdiction. Dr. Krawczyk understood that the Jewish community of Wroclaw had sold the synagogue to a private owner, believing that was all they could do to save the property, as the new owner apparently promised to take good care of it.

I wrote to the mayor of Konin to ask for reassurance that the synagogue is in fact protected from further neglect and indeed from demolition. I received a courteous response from the deputy mayor, explaining that the synagogue was never the property of the city, but that it had signed a 25-year lease agreement with the Association of Jewish Municipalities in Warsaw. Konin maintained the buildings, which housed part of the public library and sometimes hosted meetings and concerts. The association terminated the lease and the city several times declared an interest in purchasing the buildings, but negotiations ended unsuccessfully. The city learned later, after the transaction had been completed, that the Jewish community in Wroclaw had sold them to a private buyer.

The city of Konin is now not responsible for the state of the synagogue or its contents, but it has been signed into the Poznan provincial register for the conservation of buildings. The legislation assigns responsibility for the care of the building to the owner, subject to clear conditions. These include enabling academic study and documentation of the building and popularizing and disseminating knowledge about its historical and cultural meaning.

The deputy mayor ended by expressing the hope “that the owner of the Synagogue will thoroughly keep to his responsibilities, so that this unique monument will be able to serve as a living lesson of history for current and future generations.”

Some citizens of Konin have recently shown concern about how proposed developments might affect this valued part of their town’s heritage. Meetings have been held and reported in local media. I wrote to the Poznan registry to ask how its conditions regarding protection and access were enforced. I have yet to receive a reply. I have also written twice to Józef Kożuch at the Wroclaw community without getting any response.

There are many organizations concerned with the rescue of Polish-Jewish heritage. I fully understand the size and difficulty of their task, but I still fear that a priceless memorial could somehow fall between them and become inaccessible – or even be lost  completely.


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