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Located in the Kazimierz district of Krakow, the Old Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in Poland, and one of the foremost pieces of Jewish architecture in Europe.
Until the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the Old Synagogue was one of the most important synagogues in Krakow and served as the main religious, social, and organizational centre of the city’s Jewish community.
It was built in the 15th century (the exact date being debated due to conflicting sources which state it was 1407 or 1492) next to the 14th century city walls. It was rebuilt mid-16th century following it having been destroyed by fire in 1557. With its attic wall with loopholes, the rebuild included highly placed windows and thick, masonry walls with heavy buttressing designed to withstand siege. It took on the features taken from military architecture, making it a fine example of a Polish Fortress synagogue. Construction was completed in 1570, then later the cantors’ room was added on the southern side, and the women’s hall to the south. Although the exterior took on a Renaissance look the interior was to retain its Gothic appearance.
Over the following centuries, the building was ravaged by fire or war on a number of occasions. Despite it being renovated after such events, it was affected by deterioration and in 1888 then again in 1904 – 1913 it underwent a major overhaul which included the reconstruction of the roofs.
In 1923 the ground around the synagogue was lowered to its 15th century level, and a small museum was established in the refurbished rooms of the front porch.
During the German occupation of the city, the synagogue was ransacked - its relics and art work looted - and it was used to store armaments.
Following the damage caused by the Nazis during the Second World War, which included the destruction of the Gothic vaulting and Renaissance columns, from 1956 to 1959 the building underwent extensive renovations. In 1961 it became a museum, which it remains today, and it specialises in the history of Krakow’s Jews.
On entry to the synagogue, visitors find themselves in the vestibule with its low vaulted ceiling and entrance desk. This leads to the main room with its reconstructed cross-ridded vaulted ceiling which is supported on two slender Tuscan columns. Between these columns is the bimah which is an open iron canopy on an elevated 12 sided platform for the reading of the Torah and the delivering of sermons. On the eastern wall, facing Jerusalem is the original 16th-century stone Aaron Hakodesh - the Holy Ark in which the Torah scrolls are kept. This is framed by a late-renaissance portal with a richly decorated crown. Also on display in this room is the candelabrum which dates back to the 17th century.
Leading from the main room are a number of display rooms, devoted to specific aspects, such as birth, prayer rituals, diet, divorce and death. The museum contains a fine example of the relics of Krakow’s former Kazimierz Jewish quarter; items relating to religious rites and family traditions, pictures, old photos and documents. Each exhibit is accompanied by a description and the Jewish traditions are explained. The museum also houses temporary exhibitions which are held in the Women's Prayer or Female Room with its barrel vaulting and stucco decoration.
Over the centuries, the Old Synagogue, the main house of prayer of Kazimierz Jews, has been the site of many significant events in Poland’s history, events that are represented in the museum.