Jews for the Poles: The Monument of Casimir the Great and the Integrationist Strategies of the Progressive Jews in Kraków

In Krakow, similarly to other urban centers in the partitioned Polish lands, emerged a group of so-called progressive Jews who wanted to pray in the “modern manner” and opened a modern synagogue (“synagoga postępowa”, also called Tempel). In the second half of the 19th century the Tempel, which regularly organized pro-Polish manifestations commemorating Polish poets and writers and important events in the Polish history, became a center of Polish patriotism and Polonization.

The “cultural text” I would like to focus on is the description of the project of the statue of the Casimir the Great which was supposed to be built in Kazimierz (Jewish quarter in Krakow) in the last decade of the 19th century. The building committee constituted in 1880s from the progressive Jews and included the most prominent members of this synagogue. The committee was active for more than two decades and did not manage to raise the monument, although the works were significantly advanced (the project was already commissioned and the talks with the sculptor were advanced).
The statue was intended to be several meters tall and present the whole figure of the king. It was supposed to be built in the Wolnica square, namely in the old market square of the town Kazimierz, near the former town hall. The founds for this initiative were being collected exclusively among the Jews, mainly from Krakow, but also from the other cities. Because the money was collected only among Jews, the statue was presented as being a sort of a gift from the Jews to the whole society, composed from both Jews and Christians.

This initiative needs to be placed in several context, both historical and cultural, which reach beyond the most obvious one, namely the processes of assimilation and acculturation of Jews to the Polish culture. The most important are in my opinion the following contexts:

1) “The commemoration culture”. The project of building the statue of the Casimir the Great was similar to other initiatives of building the statues of the “great men” well established in the European culture. Moreover it was developed simultaneously to the project of building the statue of Adam Mickiewicz in Krakow, carried out by Christians. Since no Jews were invited to participate in the works the Mickiewicz’s memorial committee they symbolically forced the synergy between Jews and Christians by commemorating other figure important for the Polish nation as a whole, composed of both Poles and Jews.
2) The context of other initiatives, financed exclusively by Jews and devoted for both Christians and Jews. Progressive Jews since 1870s created a number of philanthropic initiatives and foundations which were supposed to support the needy Jews and Christians alike (“with no difference depending on the faith”, “bez różnicy wyznania”). Those initiatives included – among others – funding academic scholarships, buying the supply of coal for the winter, providing needy children with the daily hot meals. The founders of these social, philanthropic initiatives not only wanted to manifest their current pro-Polish attitude, but also wished to contribute to improvement of the future Christian-Jewish relations.

These initiatives – both building the monument and philanthropic ones – were actively creating a new social circumstances in which the separationist tendencies were to a certain extent surmounted. In this sense this strategy can be labeled as a strategy of “active” or systematic integrationism since it involved not only attitudes of the individuals and their entry to the non-Jewish social spheres, but actively created a new Christian-Jewish basis of cooperation. This cooperation required however a transgression from the traditional Jewish culture. On the one hand Jews involved in these initiatives stressed their Jewish identity (they acted as “Jews”, not simply as Polish citizens or “Poles of Mosaic faith”) but on the other hand they copied the modus operandi of the non-Jewish society.
The project of building the statue of Casimir the Great although in the 1880s and 1890s engaged numerous notable Krakow citizens and artists is nowadays completely forgotten. Interestingly in the last two decades various artistic, intellectual, political circles – having no knowledge about the 19th century Jewish initiative – have been discussing the idea of building the king’s statue in the Kazimierz district . As they asserted Krakow from all the cities due to its history should possess this kind of monument.

During the workshop I would like to draw participant’s attention to this project, present it in the above mentioned contexts and show how it could serve as a methodological tool in analyzing the agenda of the so-called progressive circles (praying in the Tempel/progressive synagogue).