Reclaiming History: Why the Jewish European Experience Should Matter to All of Us

Bente Kahan
Founder and Chairwoman of the Board of The Bente Kahan Foundation Executive Director of the Center for Jewish Culture and Education in the White Stork Synagogue

Bente Kahan is a Norwegian born Jewish actress, musician, director, and playwright, who has produced and created countless dramas, concerts, recordings, as well as exhibitions, all focusing on European Jewish heritage. In 1990, she founded the Norwegian-based theatre, “Teater Dybbuk-Oslo” and in 2005, after having moved to Wroclaw, Poland, she created the Center for Jewish Culture and Education in the city’s 200-year old White Stork Synagogue. The following year, the Bente Kahan Foundation was established which has been responsible for the restoration of the synagogue, the little synagogue, the “mykvah,” ritual bath, and the educational center in the synagogue’s basement. Bente Kahan is an “Honorary Citizen of Wroclaw.” She has also received the “Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany” and the “Order of the Cavalier Cross of Restored Poland.” and

What does it take to understand the larger consequences of annihilating your fellow citizens and what measures should Europe take?

Holocaust is the main reason for the lack of Jewish presence in Europe today; however, communist regimes have also assisted in this process, not to forget the Spanish inquisition in 1492. In most major European cities, there is today a void of all the people that this heritage once belonged to. The fact that much of the Jewish heritage does not exist anymore, being merely empty valuable plots of lands with foundation walls under the grounds, or deserted, dilapidated synagogues, makes the task of preserving and restoring even more challenging. By using Jewish heritage for educational and cultural purposes, the Bente Kahan Foundation aspires to help in the process of teaching our fellow citizens the consequences of our continent’s past mistakes—attitudes and opinions that are showing their ugly faces again while we are preparing to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. Do we really want to build a modern society on racism and bigotry? How can we accept immigrants and minorities in our modern societies if we do not confront our past with an open mind, free of nationalism and propaganda?

I believe that in order to build European societies on human rights and mutual respect, the history of the Jewish minority of Europe must be included, their heritage preserved and respected, including synagogues and cemeteries, and the unique Jewish languages of Yiddish and Ladino, both developed on this continent.

In the former German city of Breslau, the word culture lost its meaning on the Chrystal Night, November 9, 1938, the night where hatred won, and neighbours stood by and watched indifferently while their fellow citizens were persecuted. In 2016, in that same city, then Wroclaw in Poland, was a European Capital of Culture, this time priding itself of their Jewish presence and heritage. This was possible mainly because of one thing: the restored White Stork Synagogue which completed in 2010.The once 200-year old ruined synagogue, previously a symbol of the suffering of the Jews of this region of Europe, became a symbol of rebirth and hope for a better future. Once again, the synagogue with its attached building complex was playing a vital role in the city—not only for its Jewish community which counts for about 300 souls but also for all of its inhabitants.

The Center for Jewish Culture and Education in the synagogue was inaugurated in 2005 with me as its director and first as part of the Jewish community. The purpose of the Center was to make the building an integral cultural and educational space in the city. In 2006, the Bente Kahan Foundation (FBK) was established, and one of its tasks was to run the Center in cooperation with the Jewish community which was made possible because of funds from the city of Wroclaw. FBK has created an active center emphasizing on Jewish history and culture, while the foundation, at the same time applied for funds and later restored Jewish heritage including the White Stork Synagogue from 1829, the Little Synagogue and the mikveh, ritual bath from 1902 and the educational center in the basement.

In its restored grandeur, the main hall of the synagogue is used as a synagogue for major high holidays. However, regular cultural events take place there, including prestigious concerts as well as theatre performances dealing with the Jewish historical experience. More than 30,000 students from schools in the region have attended one of those FBK’s productions. The concert hall can take 400 people. The two balconies in the building serve as exhibition space including the permanent exhibition “History Reclaimed” about Wroclaw’s 800-year-old Jewish history. It is free of charge to visit these balconies and they are open every weekday and Sunday. In the attached building complex, there is a Little Synagogue from 1902, restored in 2015, now serving as a regular place for prayer for the Jewish community. A mikveh in the same complex has been restored to its previous function, a ritual bath, but serves also as a lecture hall, exhibition space, and concert hall. In the basement of this large complex, there is a 3-D film room, workshop space and the permanent exhibition “Unfinished Lives,” a multimedia exhibition about European artists who lost their lives in the Holocaust, presenting their biographies and artistic work through texts, photos, and films. The basement will from September 2019 serve as a venue for Holocaust education, an additional project by the Bente Kahan Foundation done in cooperation with Wroclaw’s schools and supported by the city of Wroclaw.

Since its inception in 2006, the Bente Kahan Foundation organizes the Days of Mutual Respect which ends with the march from the White Stork Synagogue to “Die Neue Synagoge,” once a synagogue with a place for 2000 worshippers; now merely an empty space. Every year, Wroclaw’s citizens with its former Mayor Rafał Dutkiewicz and representatives from local and state governments as well as from the diplomatic corps join the Foundation (FBK) and the Jewish community on this march which has now become part of the annual events in the city. It is no more considered solely as a “Jewish commemoration,” but is a commitment by the citizens of Wroclaw to protect its city against anti-Semitism and xenophobia. In 2017, with funds from the President of Germany Walter Steinmeier, the Foundation did an archeological search at the site of the former synagogue, which confirmed that the solid fundaments are still being preserved under the ground; one more challenge to solve for this very European City.

The aim for us at the Bente Kahan Foundation is to reclaim history; take an active part in restoring valuable historical heritage and create in them meaningful educational and cultural programs aimed for students of all ages as well as local and foreign audiences and visitors. The Bente Kahan Foundation committed itself to work that was almost impossible. Establishing an NGO with the purpose of restoring heritage with no considerable funds of our own and with a property that did not belong to us but to the Jewish community of Wroclaw, one would think the odds for success would be minimal. Yet, our human resources were our strength, using ourselves as volunteers in our own organization. The hope for a better future kept and keep us going. I would specially mention Aleksander Gleichgewicht, the former Head of the Jewish community, Dr. Marek Mielczarek, the supervisor of all the restoration projects and Dr. Maciej Sygit, the foundation’s first Head of the Council Board. Numerous personalities including artists, engineers, intellectuals and people from the business world in Wroclaw have contributed with their time and talent to work for the foundation’s projects, many pro bono. But still, taking all this into consideration, our projects could not have been realized without the strong local support from Wroclaw’s visionary Mayor Dr. Rafał Dutkiewicz (2002–2018).

Having the city as a partner and Poland joining the EU in 2004, possibilities opened up for us to apply for available funds helping us reclaim some of the history and narration that had been lost in this city for more than 70 years. In order to continue our work, we need trust and will from both the local Jewish community and the local government. Only then, can the Bente Kahan Foundation function as an operative partner, safeguarding the Jewish heritage in our city for future generations.

doi: 10.18278/aia.4.2.10


The Bente Kahan Foundation has been responsible for restoring the following Jewish heritage in Wroclaw:

The White Stork Synagogue (2010) with funds from a European Economic Area grant (EEA—Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway), the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, the City of Wroclaw, the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, its Wroclaw Branch, and the Bente Kahan Foundation.

The Little Synagogue (2015) restored with a grant from the European Regional Development Fund, and funds from the City of Wroclaw, the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, the Taube Foundation and FBK, the leader of the project.

The Mikveh (2018) funded by a grant from the European Regional Development Fund, the city of Wroclaw. The Mikveh received additional funds from Deutsch-Polnische Stiftung Kulturpflege und Denkmalschutz (German–Polish Foundation for Cultural Heritage and Monuments).

The Basement (2018) funded by a grant from the European Regional Development Fund, the city of Wroclaw.

Die Neue Synagoge (2017) an archeological site made possible by funds given to the Bente Kahan Foundation from the President of Germany, Walter Steinmeier.