For many people, Jewish life cannot conceivably flourish in Krakow – a city so
close in proximity to the Auschwitz and Plaszow concentration camps where more
than a million people were murdered. To them, Krakow has simply become a
stopover on the way to the camps, to see where Schindler’s List was filmed or to
visit the graves of ancestors.
But 66 years after the war, and 22 years
since the fall of communism, the question remains: Can Krakow’s Jewish community
flourish once again? My recent visit to its Beit Chayil Jewish Community Center
proved that today there exists more than just death and a Jewish
THE JCC is the primary institution providing social, educational
and community oriented services to the Jewish community of Krakow. The director,
Jonathan Ornstein, young and seemingly popular with people of all ages, manages
the busy center both upfront and behind the scenes. According to him, two of the
JCC’s main goals are to rehabilitate the Jewish community of Krakow and to
change Polish attitudes toward Jews.
Admittedly monumental tasks, these
goals, according to Ornstein, are perfectly achievable. For him, the job of the
JCC is to “serve the community that exists and to offer those who are looking
for Judaism the option to explore what it means to be
Acknowledging that Jewish life already thrives in Warsaw, while
Krakow struggles to regain, at least in part, its once-flourishing Jewish
community, Ornstein quoted a recently deceased Jewish Krakovian historian who
said, “In Warsaw the Jews became communists and in Krakow they become Catholics.
And it is an easier path back from communism then it is from
BUT WHY does Krakow need a JCC? In June 2002, the Prince of
Wales was in Krakow as part of an official visit. Kazimierz – the old Jewish
quarter – greatly impressed him and in a meeting with the Jewish community there
he was informed it lacked a place beyond the synagogue where its members could
meet. The prince promised to help, and when he returned to London he met with
World Jewish Relief representatives and suggested building an old-age home in
After extensive deliberation, they returned with a different
proposal that would answer the needs of both the elderly population and a fresh,
emerging interest in Judaism by young Poles by reestablishing a Jewish
community. Receiving his keen approval and a generous donation, WJR provided
funding and began construction in close coordination with the prince’s personal
architects. In 2008, the prince returned to Krakow for the official opening
ceremony of the new JCC.
The building, an artsy, modern and colorful
four-story structure situated among buildings more than a century old,
designed to stand out but blend in. With a cheery photo exhibit in the
windows during the day and a fascinating light-show display on
its facade at night, the JCC is an appealing gathering place for people
In the past, one had to go to the synagogue, often too intimidating
a setting for the uninitiated, and connect with the rabbi there to learn about
Judaism. The JCC has changed that with a culturally connected, hip environment
that exudes energy and amplifies optimism.
Creative and colorful posters
designed by one of the JCC’s brilliantly talented young frequenters adorn the
The absence of a police presence in front is strikingly
unusual and significant, since in most of the Diaspora Jewish institutions
remain under heavy guard.
The open gates at its entrance are another
remarkable feature of the JCC. They suggest to passersby that all are invited.
More form than function, they do not act as a barrier but rather allow strangers
to feel less intrusive and more welcome.
WHY REESTABLISH a Jewish
community in Krakow? Shimon Cohen, amicable and focused, is a public relations
and communications consultant, founder of The PR Office in London and a council
member of World Jewish Relief. The JCC exists largely due to his personal
involvement in its planning and construction. He enthusiastically stressed that
Krakow is the only Jewish community regenerating from within and sees the JCC as
a Jewish renewal project – a magnet for young and old.
Many young Poles
are discovering their Jewish roots, but want to stay in Poland to learn more
about Judaism. To accommodate this, it was necessary to come up with the idea of
a JCC that would attract people to Judaism and provide them with a place to meet
others and participate in activities ranging from Torah classes to belly
The war – the elephant in the room – has left an indelible and
visible mark on Krakow’s population. But as Cohen and Ornstein continuously
emphasized Jewish life in Krakow – not death – I was hesitant to address the war
and thought of John Cleese as his character Basil in the 1970s British sitcom,
Fawlty Towers. In one of the episodes, when German guests arrive at the hotel,
he constantly reminds his staff, “Listen, don’t mention the war!” And then fails
miserably in heeding his own advice.
And it is easy to see why Jewish
life in Krakow is the focus. With approximately 60,000 Jews before the war, it
today likely has around a thousand, with only about 200 identifying themselves
The annual Jewish Culture Festival held in the summer attracts
thousands of Poles – Jews and non-Jews alike. A combination of music, workshops
and exhibitions, the festival, together with the JCC, helps place a spotlight on
the revival of vibrant Jewish life and identity.
In 2010, the festival
hosted Matisyahu, a popular Jewish reggae singer, at the Tempel
The JCC, named European JCC of the month for February by the
European Association of Jewish Community Centers, caters to groups of all ages
Contrary to the perception of old, dying Polish Jews,
these seniors live vibrant lives and some come here occasionally to visit
family. The “Seniors Club” maintains a room on the ground floor where elderly
members of the community come to socialize. One of the members survived the war
when, as a baby, he was passed through a hole in the ghetto wall to his saviors
on the other side.
Henrick Meller, 80, was eager to recount his story of
survival throughout the war as a brilliantly street-smart 10-year-old
“cigarette-seller” – one of many homeless kids forced to survive on the streets
by buying and selling cigarettes. Once pessimistic about Jewish revival, Meller
has since changed his assessment. To him and many others, the JCC has become an
integral part of Jewish life.
“We need to work to maintain the JCC to
allow elderly people like myself to come here and have a facility to gather in,”
he said. “The success of the JCC has convinced many people that it is worth
investing in the Jewish community here.”
Acknowledging that the JCC
attracts Jews and non- Jews, Meller said, “It is good that non-Jews come here to
learn about Jews. There are still many hidden Jews and intermarried couples.” He
paused thoughtfully. “If it weren’t for the Holocaust, I wouldn’t be
To him, the Holocaust is a constant reminder that he is Jewish,
but the JCC is the conduit through which he is able to live a Jewish life. In
fact, he attended his first Jewish wedding at the JCC.
A UNIVERSITY CITY,
Krakow is home to thousands of students from across Poland and other countries,
many of whom attend the Jagiellonian University – one of the oldest in the
world. Some of the students involved at the JCC are non-Jews who volunteer their
time and dedicate themselves to its efforts to educate the public about
For one non-Jewish student volunteer, seeing the Jewish way of
life in practice – not just theory – has strengthened her understanding of the
To her, seeing Jews as equals and observing that they look
and act like everyone else is central to eradicating age-old beliefs about their
way of life. Anti-Semitism still exists in jokes and literature, and young Poles
need to spend time thinking about their origins, why they were written and the
context and time of their authorship.
“In addition,” she said, “the JCC
is not only a good place for Poles to learn about Jews but also for Jews to
learn about Poles.”
Another volunteer clarified that young Poles see
everything through the pall of war. For them, “the war had created a perception
that Jews are heavy, gloomy, sad and only connected to the Holocaust,” she
As communist authorities suppressed Jewish culture between 1968 and
1989, Poles were reticent to speak about Jews. “The term ‘Jid’ is considered a
derogatory word. The perception is the old, wandering Jew and it is wrong,” she
exclaimed, gesturing with her arms to emphasize the point. “Anti-Semitism still
exists in Poland, but my friends all know that I come here and they are fully
Interestingly, a report published recently by the Friedrich
Ebert Foundation in Berlin titled “Intolerance, Prejudice, Discrimination: A
European Report,” revealed what appears to be considerable anti-Semitism in the
EU. According to the report, “More than 70 percent in Poland believe that Jews
seek to benefit from their forebears’ suffering during the Nazi era”; 63%
believe that Israel “is conducting a war of extermination against the
Palestinians”; and “almost half of Polish... respondents believe that Jews...
have too much influence.”
Most surprising though, and in seeming conflict
with the report, was the insistence by these gentile Polish students that they
are fascinated by Judaism and are but a few of thousands of young Poles across
the country taking courses on the subject.
With such prevalent public
attitudes as reflected in the report, and a recent decision by Poland to suspend
progress on restitution of Jewish property confiscated during the war and under
communism, it is easy to see why the JCC has its work cut out for it. Through
cultural activities, lectures and seminars, it works to educate the public. By
giving students, including non-Jews, the opportunity to volunteer, the JCC has
placed itself on the map for those ready to reject age-old prejudices and
yearning to relearn everything they know about Jews and Judaism.
IS a country where an ornament of a Jew holding a coin is actually considered a
gift of blessing for financial success. However, the constant presence of the
war and widely prevalent anti-Semitism, coupled with strongly positive feelings
for Poland and Judaism have raised the question: Can one be a Polish Jew today?
For Marian, a young mother of two, the answer is yes.
at the JCC, she rediscovered her Jewish roots and fell in love with
She also fell in love with another student who was in the
process of converting to Judaism. In one of the first Krakow Jewish weddings
since 1945, they wed in the courtyard of the JCC which is also the backyard of
the old and beautiful Tempel Synagogue. Proudly Polish and Jewish, she now runs
educational programs at the JCC where she shares her experience with other
Carolina, 23, is a student of cultural studies who wanted to do
something connected to her Jewish roots but did not know what. She eventually
heard about the JCC and became involved in its myriad activities, including the
weekly Friday night Shabbat dinner.
With the help of a volunteer
genealogist at the JCC, Carolina managed to find distant relatives and, after
discovering a trunk full of old documents relating to her family’s history, was
able to piece together her Jewish ancestry. Last year, she even visited Israel
for the first time on a Taglit trip.
With all of its successful programs
and activities, the JCC would still be lacking without a spiritual
Rabbi Boaz Pash, brightly spirited and energetic, serves as
Krakow’s chief rabbi. Amid his busy schedule of classes at the JCC and other
rabbinical duties, we sat down to discuss Jewish life in Krakow. Pash emphasized
that Judaism for Poles is different than it is for other nations. Judaism in
Poland is not a new phenomenon.
Rather, it is a continuation of the
Judaism of the past.
Today’s American and Israeli Judaism is
“Many people come to Poland to explore their Jewish roots. But
people everywhere need to view Polish Jewry in the context of 700 years of
existence and not just the few years of the Holocaust,” he reminded
Other institutions in and around Kazimierz cater to those who merely
want to know about Judaism.
Although the JCC has non-Jewish volunteers
and occasionally assists Jewish tourists in need, its main efforts, according to
Pash, are ultimately geared toward people who want to be Jewish.
meetings with the JCC staff and volunteers highlighted their belief in the
credible prospect that a Jewish community, like anywhere else in the Diaspora,
could certainly blossom again in Krakow.
When I first arrived there,
mournful strains of Itzhak Perlman’s violin piece from Schindler’s List
resonated repeatedly in my mind. By the time I left, I was humming “One Day” by
Some travel guidebooks describe Krakow as a mixture of Paris
and Prague. I would add Jerusalem into that mix. For Krakovians and anyone
visiting, the gates are always open at the JCC.The writer was a guest of
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