After decades of remaining empty, a synagogue in Poland formerly used by the “Hitler Youth” (Hitlerjugend) reopened for the Jewish New Year services. The synagogue is in Dzierżoniów, a town in southwestern Poland which used to be part of Germany.
The building had been in danger of collapse, having been deserted for more than 25 years.
But on Friday, it sprang to life with new vigor, the Rabbinical Centre of Europe (RCE), which provides resources to Jewish leaders and their communities in Europe, having provided at least a significant part of the wherewithal for its rejuvenation.
The story begins during World War II, when the Nazis seized the city of Reichenbach (as it was called when it was part of Germany).
Like almost every other in the region, the synagogue of Dzierżoniów was in danger of being demolished under the Nazi regime.
To save their beloved house of worship from this disaster, the Jewish community turned to Conrad Springer, a gentile who worked as a maintenance man for the community. Springer was given money by the members of the community to purchase the building from the authorities.
The synagogue was thus converted into the local headquarters for the Hitler Youth movement – The Hitlerjugend.
After the war, when remnants of the Jewish community returned to Dzierżoniów, Springer returned the keys of the synagogue to them without a request for payment.
“I have finished my task, now the synagogue is returned to you,” Springer told the Jews who returned. Springer’s grandson, who now lives in Berlin, still maintains a good relationship with the Jews of the community to this day.
Many Jews came to Dzierżoniów after the Holocaust and it soon became such a thriving Jewish city that many called it “Little Jerusalem”.
The synagogue also survived other tumultuous events. In March 1968, anti-Semitic riots broke out in the town, inspired by the communist authorities.
Most of the community fled to escape the persecution, leaving only a handful Jews in the town. The synagogue remained in use, however, until 1984, when at last it closed its doors. Slowly, the building deteriorated, becoming dilapidated and surviving a fire. It was even used as a rubbish dump by the local Poles.
It took 20 years for a rescuer to arrive.
In 2004, former resident Rafael Elias Blau set about returning the synagogue to its former glory. Blau enlisted the other 20 remaining Jews in Dzierżoniów in forming an association called “Beitenu Chai” (Our House Lives), which bought the synagogue and restored it.
“Now after the five years since we bought the synagogue and restored it, and 25 years since a single prayer was heard, the synagogue returns to its original purpose,” Blau said excitedly.
From Israel, the U.S., Sweden, Denmark and Germany, a group of 50 Jews who fled the March 1968 pogroms returned to the synagogue to attend Rosh HaShanah prayer services. The RCE helped make the celebration possible by providing all the necessities, including prayer books, prayer shawls and Shofars (the ram’s horn blown during the New Year’s service).