News / Europe

70 Years after Holocaust, Poles Work to Revive Krakow Judaism

Seventy Years after Holocaust, Poles Work to Revive Judaismi
May 09, 2014 9:59 PM
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. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports that non-Jewish Poles are working to bring Judaism back to Krakow, a city near the site of an infamous Nazi death camp.
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.

Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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Comment Sorting
by: Jack Cooper from: sherwood park Alberta
May 10, 2014 9:25 PM
About three years ago my son took me to Poland.that was my ancestors family name was my studies of holocaust to life.

by: ej_ma from: Poland
May 10, 2014 9:21 PM
@Michael, you're critique is wrong. Agnieszka did actually clearly state in her sentence, "...with Polish Jews", which is accurate and there is nothing wrong with her comment.

You are also being a hypocrite because the author of the article himself distinguishes between Jewish Poles and Non-Jewish Poles in the following manner:

"More than three million Jews lived in Poland before World War II...She quotes some of her Jewish friends...Still, it’s hard to imagine a Jew walking the cobblestone streets of Krakow".

In all cases above, the author of the article fails to use "Polish Jews or Jewish Poles". Why haven't you criticized him?

@Guest, your comment "Agnieszka is probably an anti semite, just like all the other Poles" is just absurd, ugly, and inaccurate.

I know many American, French, and Polish Jews who identify themselves as nothing but "Jews". Isn't this also an insult to the USA, France, and Poland?

And lastly, you both use the term 'anti-Semite' too loosely and carelessly.

I'm an American Jew living in Poland by the way.

by: michael Zamczyk from: Sonoma, CA
May 10, 2014 12:25 PM
Interesting. The comment by Agnieszka Gris says it all "“I am Polish, and I share a lot of history with the Jews“. I am as Polish as she is, but my religion is Jewish. I guess my Catholic Poles still cannot come to terms with that.
In Response

by: Anonymous
May 11, 2014 10:48 AM
Obviously what she means is "ethnically Polish". There is a difference between nationality and ethnic origin.

@guest: the girl works at a Jewish Community Centre. Calling her an anti-Seminte is idiotic.
In Response

by: Guest
May 10, 2014 3:19 PM
Yes, Michael, Agnieszka is probably an anti semite, just like all the other Poles. But according to this logic you should be an anti semite, too...

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