Nestled in the northern reaches of Poland, Torun is a medieval gem renowned as the birthplace of the illustrious astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. Beyond its celestial connections, this quaint town is celebrated for its rich tradition of gingerbread making and stands as a testament to the few Polish cities that emerged from World War II unscathed.
Torun achieved UNESCO World Heritage status, thanks to its impeccably preserved street layout and the enduring beauty of its medieval brick architecture. Often likened to “Krakow of the North” for its enchanting allure, this city has cemented its status as one of Poland’s premier tourist destinations, ranking just behind Krakow in terms of popularity. Torun boasts an unparalleled collection of historical treasures, boasting the country’s most extensive array of original and meticulously maintained monuments.
Situated gracefully on the banks of the Vistula River, this walled Gothic town is a must-visit for travelers seeking a glimpse into Poland’s rich past and a taste of its captivating charm.
“The Jewish Community of Torun: An Evolving History”
The Jewish community in Torun had its beginnings at the close of the 18th century when a mere trio of Jews—comprising a teacher, a kosher butcher, and a cook—established their presence in the town. However, it was not until Torun returned to Polish sovereignty in 1920 that the local Jewish community began to take shape, albeit as one of the smallest in the country, numbering just 354 individuals by 1925.
As World War II loomed on the horizon, the Jewish population in Torun had grown to around 1,000 individuals. Notably, not all of them actively engaged in Jewish organizations or communal life; some opted for more independent paths.
Yet, the ever-shifting landscape of geopolitics and the evolving demographics of the time led to a gradual decline in Torun’s Jewish population. Some departed for distant shores, seeking refuge from the impending conflict, while others chose to assimilate into Polish society, integrating their identities into the broader cultural mosaic. These intricate historical forces, which the Jewish community of Torun grappled with, reflect the multifaceted nature of its history.
“Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalisher: A Torchbearer of Zionism in Torun”The influence of Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalisher, an Orthodox German rabbi born in 1795 in Lesano (now Leszno, Poland), left an indelible mark on this small town. He is recognized as one of the foremost pioneers in the early days of modern Zionism, championing Jewish resettlement in the Land of Israel from a religious perspective.
After settling in Torun as an adult, Rabbi Kalisher dedicated his life to the town, serving as an “acting rabbi” for four decades without seeking any financial compensation. His devoted wife, who operated a modest shop, supported their household. In 1862, he published “Drishat Tzion” and articulated the profound idea: “When we redeem the land, we make a pathway for our God and a Kalischer way towards final redemption.”
Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalisher’s legacy extends beyond Torun. A street in Tel Aviv, situated off HaCarmel Street, bears its name, as does a religious kibbutz in the Bet She’an valley known as Tirat Tzvi. In 2008, Israel honored him with a postage stamp in recognition of his significant contributions. In Torun, a plaque commemorating him can be found on the wall of the building where he resided at 46 Szeroka Street, serving as a lasting testament to his enduring impact.
“Ul. Szczytna 12 Synagogue: A Testament to Resilience and Remembrance”
The synagogue is situated at Ul. Szczytna 12, constructed in 1847, stood as a sacred haven for local congregants to gather and offer their prayers. Tragically, this place of worship fell victim to the destructive forces of the Nazis during the war, leaving it in ruins. Today, a poignant commemorative memorial plaque stands in place of the former synagogue, serving as a poignant reminder of the enduring spirit of those who once prayed within its walls and as a testament to the need for remembrance.
“Exploring the Heart of the City: The Lachmann Family House”
At the heart of the city, a fascinating piece of history awaits visitors in the form of the Lachmann family house. “This residence, once belonging to the Lachmann family, still proudly displays a Jewish star by the window stairwell—a poignant and enduring symbol of its rich heritage.”. Today, this historic house has been repurposed into a typical rental apartment building, blending its storied past with the modern present.
The Lachmann family, known for their legacy in trade, embarked on a journey to Hamburg over a century or two decades ago. They specialized in the commerce of corn and wool, forging connections between Germany and Russia. Though their physical presence may have shifted with time, the mark they left on this house endures as a testament to their contributions to the city’s history.
“Exploring Torun: Must-Visit Attractions”
“Old Town Square: A European Gem
Much like many European cities, the Old Town Square in Torun captivates visitors with its historic charm. At the very heart of this enchanting square stands the Town Hall, making it the ideal starting point for your exploration. Dating back to the late 14th century, the Town Hall is not only the most significant building in Torun but also a gateway to some of the city’s most exquisite architectural treasures. As you wander through this square, you’ll encounter landmarks like the Postal Building and the Arthus House, each contributing to the city’s rich tapestry of history and beauty.”
Capture the monuments
There are plenty of statues and monuments throughout the Old Town and most come with a legend or story, such as the dragon of Torun that was apparently spotted by a couple in 1746. The tortured wooden donkey directly across from the Copernicus statue shows a painful contraption used to torture and humiliate the criminals who were forced to sit on it before being whipped. Keep your eyes open in the town center! My favorite is the statue of Filus, an adorable puppy with a hat in his mouth known from a popular Polish comic strip.
“Discovering the Legends: Statues and Monuments of Old Town
“Venturing through Old Town, you’ll come across an abundance of statues and monuments, each with its own captivating legend or story to tell.”. For instance, there’s the legendary dragon of Torun, reportedly sighted by a curious couple in 1746. Nearby, you’ll find the haunting wooden donkey, positioned directly across from the Copernicus statue, which served as a painful contraption used to torment and shame wrongdoers who were made to sit upon it before enduring their punishment.
Intriguing surprises await around every corner in the town center, so be sure to keep your eyes wide open! Among the many captivating figures, my personal favorite is the statue of Filus, an endearing puppy with a hat in his mouth, beloved for his role in a popular Polish comic strip.”
The Gingerbread Museum A delightful stop for both young and old, the Gingerbread Museum celebrates Torun’s rich tradition of gingerbread making. Through a fun and interactive exhibition, visitors can uncover the secrets behind Torun’s beloved gingerbread. This experience ranks among the city’s most popular and memorable activities. The art of gingerbread baking has woven itself into Torun’s cultural fabric since the 14th century, with even the baking tins and molds bearing the marks of true craftsmanship.
The Castle Ruins To the east of the remaining Old Town walls, the remnants of the Teutonic Castle stand as silent witnesses to history. Destroyed in 1454 during a revolt by the city’s inhabitants against the oppressive rule of the Knights, the castle now exists in a state of captivating decay. While much of it lies in ruins, some sections, including a bridge and a tower, have defied the passage of time and remain remarkably well preserved. These castle ruins have earned their place on UNESCO’s list of recognized historical sites.
The Leaning Tower Torun’s Leaning Tower, a medieval marvel, has tilted over the centuries. Unlike its famous counterpart in Pisa, here you won’t be climbing it. Instead, you stand at the tower’s base, legs together and arms outstretched in front of you. Local superstition weaves a fascinating twist into this experience, suggesting that if you can maintain this pose for longer than five seconds, you may be considered unfaithful to your partner. Whether you test superstition or simply marvel at the tower’s lean, it’s an intriguing addition to your Torun adventure.
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To plan a trip to Poland, contact the Polish National Tourist Office in North America or go to:
Story and photography by Meyer Harroch, New York Jewish Travel Guide, and New York Jewish Guide
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Polish National Tourist Office in North America.