Road to rebirth

Despite Krakow’s new gleaming JCC and an emerging interest in Judaism by young Poles, the rife anti-Semitism raises the question: Can one be a Polish Jew today?

The Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Krakow 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Krakow 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 past.
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 Jewish.”
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 Catholicism.”
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 Krakow.
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, was 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 of all ages.
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 entrance walls.
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 dancing.
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 as such.
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 Synagogue.
The JCC, named European JCC of the month for February by the European Association of Jewish Community Centers, caters to groups of all ages including seniors.
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 Jewish.”
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 Judaism.
For one non-Jewish student volunteer, seeing the Jewish way of life in practice – not just theory – has strengthened her understanding of the Jewish people.
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 said.
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 supportive.”
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.
POLAND 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.
Through activities at the JCC, she rediscovered her Jewish roots and fell in love with Judaism.
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 students.
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 figure.
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 “new.”
“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 me.
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.
My 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 Matisyahu.
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 the JCC.