Renovated Synagogue Becomes House of Cultures in Poland, Sparking Local Controversy

After Dabrowa Tarnowska lost most of its Jewish population during the Holocaust, EU steps in to fund culture center as a meeting place for all faiths.

A Jewish synagogue has transformed into a culture center in the Polish town of Dabrowa Tarnowska, but not without sparking controversy.

“The Jews have a synagogue, but we got no money,” read huge billboards currently posted along a number of main roads leading to the Krakow district town.

The posters were sponsored by a city council member from the Law and Justice party in response to the House of Cultures’ grand opening, which took place on Sunday in a magnificently restored synagogue. The representative of the right-wing party also claims that not all those who worked on the renovation got paid what they had been promised.

The restored synagogue dates back to the 19th century when the town’s residents were almost all Jews. But during the Holocaust, most of Dabrowa’s Jews were deported to the death camp at Belzec.

Some 200 Jewish residents of Dabrowa survived the Holocaust, a few with the help of neighbors who were later recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. According to the book by Polish historian Jan Grabowski, “Hunting Down the Jews, 1942-1945,” a similar number of Jews were murdered by locals or turned over to the Germans by locals or by the Polish Police.

At the end of World War II, all those who survived left Poland, some for Israel and some for the United States.

Since a town that had no Jews had no need for a synagogue, the district community decided, under Communist rule, to give up the building, which had been damaged by the Germans, and give it to the state on the condition that they open a cultural center there.

The communists did not keep their word, and it was only recently, thanks to a $3 million grant from the European Union and with the help of contributions from the Polish Culture Ministry, the municipality and the Krakow Jewish community, that the renovations were completed in August after two years.

At the festive opening on Sunday, the chief rabbi of Krakow and the local Catholic bishop offered a joint prayer. The mayor, responding to all those who cast doubt on the wisdom of the renovation, said, “It’s our obligation to nurture our history and our joint heritage. I would like to recall the worlds of Pope John Paul II, who declared we are all Abraham’s children.”

According to the local daily Gazeta Wyborcza, the center, called the House of Cultures, is attracting visitors from Israel, the United States and Australia.