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May 09, 2014

70 Years after Holocaust, Poles Work to Revive Krakow Judaism

by Jerome Socolovsky

About an hour’s drive from the heart of darkness that was the Auschwitz death camp, there is a bright sunlit room in Krakow full of young Poles learning Hebrew.

“Metzuyan!” (Excellent!) the teacher exclaims in Hebrew, encouraging her students, who like her, are not Jewish. Together they negotiate the foreign tongue with zest, and give it a Polish twist.

“Teachers love to drink vodka with lemon,” they say in Hebrew in unison, repeating after the teacher.

More than three million Jews lived in Poland before World War II. Now, they number in the thousands. Fairly or not, Poland is often accused of having played a role in the Holocaust; but, non-Jewish Poles are working to bring Judaism back to Krakow, hoping to chip away at the perception of their country as a bulwark of anti-Semitism.  And the Jewish community is beginning to thrive.  

Over at the Ram'a synagogue, restoration work is under way to uncover what are believed to be ancient drawings on the walls of the chapel. The Ram'a is one of seven synagogues still standing in the Kazimierz district, home to one of the best preserved Jewish quarters in Europe.

European tourists in golf carts crisscross this once-thriving center of Polish Jewry, and American Jewish youth groups come to hear stories of their folklore in the place where it happened.

A few blocks away, a community-wide Sabbath meal is being prepared at the Krakow Jewish Community Center.

Built with a donation from Britain’s Prince Charles, the center’s happy pastel-colored interior is a deliberate contrast to the black-and-white images of the Holocaust. And the rooms are alive with activities, led by a small army of Gentile volunteers.

After a junior high school trip to Auschwitz several years ago, Agnieszka Gis, who grew up in this neighborhood, vowed to help revive Jewish life here.

“I am Polish, and I share a lot of history with the Jews, with the Polish Jews, who are here now, and I believe that their future is something we need to build together,” she says.

She quotes some of her Jewish friends who were told by their grandparents not to come to Poland, or “‘you can come to Poland to visit camps, but you should leave immediately because it’s not a good country,’ and actually when they came here and met Poles, they fell in love with Poland.”

You do hear anti-Semitic slurs, says Zofia Radzikowska, a Holocaust survivor who has lived her whole life in Poland; but, she says the words don’t lead to actions.

“We have nothing,” she says. “We have no attacks on the street. We have no attacks on synagogues. In many European countries these things happen. Not in Poland.”

At night, Klezmer music reverberates from the cafes in the Kazimierz that serve traditional Yiddish food.

With such an interest in Judaism, there’s no reason for Jews to not come back, says the community center’s New York-born director, Jonathan Ornstein.

“I’m not trying to rebuild the Jewish community here to plant a flag,” he says, sitting for an interview on a bright orange sofa. “I don’t think we’re trying to do this to thumb our noses at the Nazis and say, ' Look, we can live here'.  I think that Jews should live here today in Poland because Jewish life is good in Poland.”

Still, it’s hard to imagine a Jew walking the cobblestone streets of Krakow, past the empty synagogues, and not feeling a deep sense of loss.