The Remuh Synagogue is named after Rabbi Moses Isserles, known by the Hebrew acronym ReMA, the author of a collection of commentaries and additions that complement Rabbi Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Aruch, with Ashkenazi traditions and customs. Remuh Synagogue is the smallest of all historic synagogues of the Kazimierz district. It is currently the only synagogue in the city to hold regular services.
According to one popular tradition, Israel ben Josef, the grandson of Moshe Auerbach of Regensburg, founded the synagogue in honour of his son Moshe Isserles, who even in his youth was famed for his erudition. A more plausible motive for the synagogue’s origin stems from the Hebrew inscription on the foundation tablet which implies that the synagogue was built in memory of Malka, the wife of Israel ben Josef. The year 1552 must have been a terrible time for the family of Israel: his mother, wife and daughter-in-law, the first wife of Rabbi Moshe Isserles, and probably other family members died in an epidemic that hit Krakow that year.
Israel ben Josef was a wealthy banker who settled in Krakow only in 1519, following the expulsion of Jews from the German city of Regensburg. Another tradition maintains that the synagogue was founded by Rabbi Moshe Isserles himself in memory of first wife Golda, who died at the age of twenty.
The admission to the synagogue costs 2-5 zlotys.
The Remuh Synagogue was built in the 16th century in Kazimierz, then a suburban village outside Krakow, located on the right bank of the Vistula River, immediately to the south of the Royal Castle on the Wawel Hill. Kazimierz had a Jewish community since the 15th century, transferred from the budding Old Town by King Jan I Olbracht following a fire in 1495.
Originally called the “New Synagogue” to distinguish it from the Old Synagogue, the Remuh Synagogue was built in 1553 at the edge of a newly established Jewish cemetery (today known as the “Old Cemetery”) on land owned by Israel ben Josef. This date is stated clearly on the foundation tablet. Nevertheless, the royal permission by King Sigismund II Augustus of Poland was obtained in November 1556, after long opposition from the Catholic Church.
As it is hard to believe that the construction actually began without the royal permission, the inscription should therefore be understood as possibly referring to the date when the founder made the decision to build a second synagogue in Kazimierz.
The first building of the synagogue, probably a wooden structure, was destroyed in a fire in April 1557, but following a new permission granted by King Sigismund II Augustus, a second, stone building was erected in 1557 after the plans of Stanisław Baranek, a Krakow architect.
The original, late Renaissance style edifice underwent a number of changes during the 17th and the 18th centuries. The current building traces its design to the restoration work of 1829, to which some technical improvements were introduced during the restoration of 1933, conducted under the supervision of architect Herman Gutman.
During the Holocaust, the synagogue was sequestered by the German Trust Office and served as a storehouse for firefighting equipment, having been despoiled of its valuable ceremonial objects and historic furbishing, including the bimah. However, the building itself was not destroyed. In 1957, thanks to the efforts of the local Jewish community and of Akiva Kahane, the Joint Distribution Committee representative in Poland, the Remuh Synagogue underwent a major restoration that re-established much of the pre-war appearance of the interior.
The entrance to the synagogue courtyard is located at 40 Szeroka Street at the heart of the historic Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. Above the gate is an arch with the Hebrew inscription: “The new synagogue of the ReMA, of blessed memory”. The courtyard walls carry inscriptions in memory of the Jews of Krakow who perished in the Holocaust.
The main room of the synagogue is accessed through a small entrance hall on the north side of the building next to a separate entrance to the women’s section. It has white painted limestone walls with large round-headed windows in the north and south sides and lunettes on the east and west sides. A number of chandeliers, some standing and others hanging from the ceiling contribute to the bright and airy atmosphere of the interior.
The prayer hall features a centrally situated rectangular bimah with a reconstructed wrought-iron enclosure that has two entrances, one displaying an 18th-century polychrome double door coming from a destroyed synagogue outside Krakow.
The bimah door is decorated with a crowned menorah in gilded bas-reliefs whose style appears to have been inspired by popular art of the region.
The late Renaissance style Holy Ark has an Art Nouveau door, above which there are Hebrew inscriptions from the Bible. Although the synagogue has been rebuilt many times, this is the original feature, carved in 1558.
A ner tamid with the Hebrew inscription “An eternal flame for the soul of ReMA, of blessed memory” is situated at the left side of the Holy Ark, while at its right a reconstructed plaque commemorates the place where Rabbi Moshe Isserles used to pray. One of the chairs by the eastern wall is reserved in his honour. The foundation tablet has been preserved near the southern wall.
The women’s section was originally located on the first floor of a wooden structure connected to the northern wall of the synagogue. It has since undergone major restorations and the present women’s gallery is adjacent to the northern wall of the praying hall.
Szeroka Street has a fenced area that apparently was once a cemetery. This place is connected with a highly instructive story. As legend has it, two young people were engaged to be married and planned their nuptials for Friday before sunset, the start Shabbat, thus neglecting the various bans concerning the holy day of rest.
The wedding took place, and good times ensued, with everybody enjoying themselves late into the night. It was already Shabbat, and the wedding guests were disrupting peace of devout Jews who were praying in the Remuh synagogue. The revellers didn’t even pay attention to the warning of Rabbi Moses Isserles who advised them that they violated a commandment by partying on a holy day. They should have listened to him as they were severely punished: all of them died on the same night. They were buried in a mass grave and walled up. Some say you can still hear their moans and regretful whispers.