Passover in Krakow: Jewish revival in Poland

Jews and non-Jews attend Seder at Jewish Community Center.

Passover seder in Krakow 370 (photo credit: Nissan Tzur)
Passover seder in Krakow 370
(photo credit: Nissan Tzur)
KRAKOW – Seventy years after most of Polish Jewry died in the Holocaust, it seems that Jewish life in Poland is experiencing a revival.
More than 150 people gathered at the Jewish Community Center in Krakow on Monday evening to celebrate the Passover Seder. Among them were non-Jews, mostly Catholic Poles, with a great interest in Judaism. For many of them, it was the first Jewish holiday they had ever celebrated.
Leading the Seder was David Pash, son of the city’s Chief Rabbi Boaz Pash.
Guests sat around tables laden with traditional Passover dishes and kosher Israeli wine and matza, and listened to the Haggada in Hebrew and Polish.
Jonathan Ornstein, head of the Krakow JCC, told The Jerusalem Post about the preparations for the Passover evening and said that even he was surprised by the number of requests they had received to attend the celebration.
“We had a lot of interest, and we had more than 150 guests, including locals and people from all over the world, including Israel, the United States and Canada who are visiting Krakow and asked to join us,” he said.
“We had people of all ages, from a six-week-old baby to a 90-year-old guest.”
He added that “our main mission is, of course, to build Jewish life here in Krakow, but we are always happy when visitors can join us and see the wonderful rebirth of Jewish life in Krakow.”
According to Ornstein, the Monday night event was “the biggest Seder we have had so far. We even had to split the Seder into two parts, and we accommodated people in the reception area, in the hall, and even had to take some doors off to give us more space. David Pash, who led the Seder, asked me how we would open the door to invite Elijah if we had taken them all off the hinges. When I think about the Seder this year, that so many local Jews wanted to come... It’s heart-warming.”
He also sees the significance in celebrating Passover in a place that is most often associated with the biggest Jewish tragedy in history.
“I come from the United States, I used to live in Israel, and now I have Polish citizenship,” he said. “I know how we are supposed to feel about the time when the Jews left Egypt, but when I look around this room and see 15 or 20 Holocaust survivors sitting together for Passover Seder, I think: These people really did come out of slavery.
That’s why for us it is always special to celebrate Passover in this place, which actually saw Jews coming out of the slavery of the Holocaust.”
Ewa Wegrzyn, 31, is one of the Catholic Poles who attended the Seder. Her fascination with Judaism started many years ago, when she became interested in Jewish life in Poland before World War II. After taking courses in “Jewish studies” at the Jagiellonian University of Krakow, she now holds a PhD in Judaism and is teaching the next generation of students.
“This is my first-ever Passover Seder,” she said. “I have a lot of Jewish friends in Krakow, and I know that it is a very important evening for them. I wanted to share it with them.”
Asked what her impression of the Seder was, Wegrzyn smiled. “First of all, a lot of food. It is very interesting. I know the story from the Bible and I speak Hebrew, but not ancient Hebrew, so it was a little difficult for me to follow the prayers and the song. Nevertheless, I found it very interesting and a very pleasant experience.
Sometimes I also come to the Jewish Community Center for Shabbat dinners.”
What made a Catholic Pole like her become so interested in Judaism? “I was always very interested in history,” she said.
“At high school, I heard about the Jedwabne massacre [in July 1941], when Poles murdered their Jewish neighbors. When I was close to graduating high school, my teacher told us that we should learn a lot about Jewish-Polish history because it might appear in the final exam. I started to become very interested and spoke with my grandmother.
It turned out that her best friend before World War II was a Jewish girl from the same village called Rachel.
“I started to be more and more interested in Jewish life, and then decided to study Judaism at the Jagiellonian University. Later I traveled to Israel and learned Hebrew, and that’s how I fell in love with Israel and Judaism.”
She says she can also see a revival in Jewish life in Poland.
“I can say that not only here in the Jewish community, but also in our institute of Jewish studies, we have more and more non- Jewish students who are interested in learning about Judaism,” she said.
“We are the generation born after Communism, and we look at history from a different perspective. We are still ashamed of the pogroms against Jews in Poland after the war, but on the other hand, we have a Jewish festival in Krakow every summer that attracts thousands of people, many of them Poles with no Jewish roots.”