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Restored Renaissance synagogue to reopen in Poland

Seventy-two years after the Nazis arrived, the Polish town of Zamosc is getting its synagogue back.

One of the most important surviving synagogues in Poland, a Renaissance gem looted by the Nazis and suffering from decades of neglect, is reopening this week after a meticulous restoration, part of an effort to reclaim the country's decimated Jewish heritage.

The refurbishing of the synagogue in Zamosc, an eastern Polish town near the border with Ukraine, comes as Poland's tiny remaining Jewish community is struggling to preserve some of the most important Jewish sites that survived the Holocaust before they fall into irreversible decay.

But in a sign of how thorough Adolf Hitler's genocide was, there are almost no Jews left in the town. The cream-colored house of prayer will now serve largely as a place for art exhibitions, concerts and other cultural events in the largely Catholic area.

"The people, they are gone," said Michael Schudrich, Poland's chief rabbi. "But at least in their memory we can do the best to preserve that which remains."

The population of Zamosc, an exquisite Renaissance town recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, was 40 percent Jewish on the eve of World War II. Today, there are could be a handful of Jews in the town of 65,000 but nobody really knows for sure, since people here often still hide their Jewish roots, scarred by the trauma of the war and the anti-Semitism of the communist era that followed.

"(I don't) know even a single person who will identify publicly as Jewish," Mayor Marcin Zamoyski said, although he's aware of one woman born to Jewish parents who gave her to a Catholic family to ensure her survival before they themselves were murdered.

The woman learned of her Jewish roots only as an adult and doesn't even know her original name.

The near-absence of Jews today "brings to light what war and genocide and the Holocaust really mean," said Monika Krawczyk, CEO of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, the Warsaw-based group that oversaw the preservation work. "Although the Jews in Poland today are small in number, the heritage is absolutely huge."

The renovation took about a year and cost euro1.7 million ($2.4 million), funded mostly by grants from Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.

The restored synagogue will be presented to the public Tuesday in a ceremony attended by Jewish leaders, U.S. and Israeli diplomats and city officials. After that, it will serve occasionally as a house of worship for Jewish tourists who visit death camps in the area, including Auschwitz, Belzec and Majdanek. Ultra-Orthodox Jews are also drawn to the region because many founders of the Hassidic movement were from Polish and Ukrainian towns.

Mainly it will serve as a local community center, offering art students a place to show their work, schools a place for seminars, musicians a site for small concerts.

"We want the synagogue to be liked, loved and needed by people who live here — and who are the only ones who can really assure that the building will survive," said Weronika Litwin, coordinator of the restoration project. "Revitalization is not just about restoring architecture. It's also about giving the building new function, making it alive."

The synagogue was built in the early 1600s by Sephardic Jews — Jews whose families had fled Spain during the Inquisition and sought refuge elsewhere in Europe. Later, Eastern European, or Ashkenazi, Jews fleeing Cossack violence in Ukraine sought refuge there, swelling the numbers. The town grew into an important center of Jewish learning over the next decades, and for a time in the 19th century Jews made up more than 60 percent of its population.

After Germans invaded Poland in 1939, the act that started World War II, Nazis looted the synagogue and used it as a carpentry workshop. After the war, it served as a library, but in 2005 it was given back to the Jewish community as part of a broader return of synagogues, yeshivas, cemeteries and other communal property.

With no Jews to turn to in Zamosc, the preservation foundation has turned to a young non-Jew to run the place.

Krzysztof Banach, a 25-year-old who has studied history, philosophy and Judaic studies, said he considers it a great responsibility to promote Poland's Jewish heritage.

Although universities in Warsaw and Krakow now offer programs in Judaic studies and a museum on the 1,000-year history of Jews in Poland is being built in Warsaw, Poland's rich Jewish heritage is often forgotten in smaller places, he said.

"We should try to regain, to reclaim that memory," Banach said. "We need to do that in small places like this."