Krakow, Poland, was the location my husband and I chose to spend Shabbat with two of our children, following a nature-oriented hiking trip in the scenic mountains of Slovakia.
Poland was not the focus of our trip – just a place to spend Shabbat before heading back to our home in Israel. In those summer months, large numbers of religious Jews on “Holocaust tours” fill up the hotels and rent apartments in the Jewish area of Krakow. But our own itinerary contained no such plans.
Though I’ve read an extensive amount of Holocaust literature – especially in my younger years when I even wrote a historical fiction novel featuring a young girl being sent away from her family to escape probable death, probably borrowing from my own father’s story – I was not at a place where delving into that tragic time was on my agenda.
When I’d hear the name Krakow, it would bring to mind the famous “Krakow Niggun,” a Hassidic tune composed by the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach that my husband learned years back when he had accompanied his high school students on a Holocaust tour and that we’d often sing around our Shabbat table.
Carlebach explains the first part of the melody, which has a melancholy and haunting slow beat, to be reminiscent of the suffering of Jews in that place, before transforming halfway through into a joyous uplifting and lively tune.
The idea is that while we are still not free of religious persecution, remembering that the end will surely be good helps us though the tough times.
In general, aside from what my kids learned in school, the Holocaust was not a very primary subject of conversations in our household. The basics they knew, but I saw no benefit in delving into the subject with the prominence it received in my own childhood.
My father and his three siblings were all sent from Germany to Israel prior to WWII as children (though one was sidetracked and lived his life in Denmark). His parents, my paternal grandparents were murdered in the concentration camps.
But my mother’s family was from a small village (shtetl) in Poland, by the name of Ksiaz Wielki. Her parents, my maternal grandparents, went to seek a better life in America well before the war that would decimate European Jewry, when she was three years old.
Having left at such a young age, my mother could hardly remember Poland, but the stories I heard from her, as testified by her own parents, were vivid and horrific.
Pogroms were not uncommon, causing terrified small children as well as adults to flee for cover. In one memorable pogrom, her grandfather, my great-grandfather, lost an eye at the vicious hands of a Pole.
These episodes took place many years before WWII, and the commonality between these events and the Holocaust was the deep-rooted antisemitism shared by the both secular Nazis and the Christian theology, which portrayed all Jews as the murderers of Jesus.
When Foreign Minister Israel Katz, a son of Holocaust survivors, remarked that antisemitism was imbibed by the Polish people with their mother’s milk in response to the Polish law against blaming Poles for Nazi atrocities, it is the pogroms that preceded WWII that he is recalling.
Countless descendants of Eastern European Jews tell similar tales. Of course all this was child’s play compared to the devastating news that reached my grandmother following the war that her entire family – parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins, numbering hundreds of beloved relatives – were no longer. Understandably, from this blow she never recovered.
After almost a week of preoccupation with Waze and Google Maps, I decided to enter the name of my mother’s birthplace into the search engine and see how close it was to Krakow.
To my astonishment, a mere hour separated us from Ksiaz Wielki, so I informed my family members of a change in plans. Sunday turned into a day centered around Polish Jewish history and was to be culminated with a trip to my mother’s birthplace.
The town, according to Google maps, consisted of an intersection on a major road. I was thrilled when I first saw the sign with the town’s name, as though testifying to the veracity of all those ancient tales.
Finding evidence of Jewish history in this now semi-modern town proved to be more difficult.
I knew, through a “Roots” school project of my daughter, that the synagogue of the town still existed as of a few years prior. But how would we find it?
We finally found a young pedestrian who spoke English and asked if he knew where the synagogue and the Jewish cemetery were located. In fact, he did. After he gave us directions, something made me tell him that my mother was born in this town.
His reaction was actually quite ironic. He said something like – “cool,” hinting to a commonality between us.
He was really quite nice and I had no reason to suspect that he bears antisemitic feelings, but I could not escape the supposition that his great grandparents were likely accomplices to the pogroms suffered by the Jews in Ksiaz Wielki.
Aside from descendants of the now extinct Jewish population who, like me, came to see the remnants of a once vibrant Jewish community, this Polish youth was unlikely to come across a Jewish person.
We found the synagogue: a badly aged, damaged, multi-storied brick building, still barely recognizable, completely enveloped in protective material barring entrance inside the condemned structure.
My tall son took advantage of his height to photograph the insides of the edifice through the windows, which bore the characteristics of synagogue windows. While circling the building, a mature Polish woman, probably in her 60’s and likely born after the war, saw us surveying the area.
She wanted to communicate with us, but did not speak much English. She communicated to us that she was going to find a translator.
She came back with a younger woman, the translator. The older woman, who clearly bore no responsibility for any of the deeds of prior generations, dedicated time and energy in talking to us and pointing out the Jewish cemetery, and Jewish homes including the rabbis house.
She told us what I’d already known, that the entire Jewish population of Ksiaz Wielki was murdered by the Nazis, most refusing to be taken away or separated from their families.
Prior to World War II, the Jews of Ksiaz Wielki numbered close to 1,000 and constituted a large percentage of the town’s population.
She told us that the tombstones of the Jewish cemetery were used to pave the road during the Nazi regime, but were restored to the cemetery during the subsequent Communist rule, though obviously they were not placed on the individual graves, since no one was left to identify the names or grave sites.
My son climbed over the locked fence to the Jewish cemetery and explored the closed off area, but was not able to identify anything testifying to the place’s significance amid the jungle of foliage remaining.
The woman told us (via the translator) that she is a history teacher. It was clear from her voice and face that she feels deep regret and shame for the actions of the previous generations in this town and, I dare say, she did not convey the feeling that the Nazis alone bore blame for the travesties perpetrated against the Jews of Ksiaz Wielki, even though they alone committed the final decimation.
The fact that this kind Polish woman felt compelled to speak to us about the now extinct Jewish history in Ksiaz Wielki and the fact that even a young Polish man knows exactly where the Jews lived and the fact that the cemetery, the synagogue, and old homes still stand, gives me hope.
Of course it’s possible that these structures still exist because no one wants to spend the money to destroy them, since, unlike Israel, there’s no shortage of land in these parts.
But I choose to interpret the closing off of the Jewish cemetery as a small symbol of respect for the Jewish community that once was. I prefer to believe that subsequent generations in Eastern Europe are no longer inculcated with the insidious teachings to hate Jews.
Of course, now that very few Jews remain in their midst, I suspect there’d be few occasions for antisemitism to be displayed.
Possibly the religious teachings have been modified when Christians came to understand that antisemitism among the common people enabled the murder of millions of Jews, which surely could not have happened on that scale if a majority of these “occupied” Poles had not eagerly supported the program.
If Polish ministers feel outrage at Katz’s remark, it comes from shame and a desire to distance themselves from the behaviors that allowed mass murder. The Poles are singled out in the Holocaust due to the fact that the number of Jewish Polish victims surpasses other countries.
We all know too well that the new brand of antisemitism storming Europe today is not the old brand imbibed in the mother’s milk. It is the Islam-fascist brand, every bit as insidious of the old kind but motivated by a very different worldview.
At a time that antisemitism thrives in Europe, it is not wise to incite a marriage between the old and the new in this regard.
Ironically, the Polish government is invoking claims of racism on our part. Poles should and could be vindicated, I believe, if they would admit that their ancestors were brought up on Jewish hatred.
They could then distance themselves from these misguided teachings, just as Germans have expressed contrition. And then, though we do not forgive or forget what was, we can believe that each generation and each individual holds the potential to pave a new path, making room for a better, more tolerant tomorrow.The author, is a descendant of European Jews. Born in the US, she immigrated to Israel in 1984. She works as a systems engineer and lives in Rehovot.
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