Jewish Krakow

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Jewish Krakow

“As the Nobel laureate, Elie Wiesel warned years ago, to forget a holocaust is to kill twice.”  Iris Chang

 Krakow was my first stop in Poland. I was there for a week.  It was a picturesque city with unseasonably hot sunny weather and friendly people. My hotel overlooked the stunning Vistula River and Wawei Castle. It was not the grey and gloomy city of the black and white World War Two or Communist photos.

Maciej Zabierowska from the Auschwitz Jewish  Center was our very knowledgeable, interesting guide in the Jewish quarter Kazimierz. We walked around the streets, decorated with colorful street art and set with trendy cafes, cool bars, art galleries, and boutiques.

Maciej’s stories of the history and the peeling, old, facades of the buildings, allowed me not to forget the terrible horrors which took place right there, not that long ago.

We start at the Old Synagogue which was badly looted during World War ll and is now a museum.

The museum shows the history and culture of the Jews of Krakow.

Dating from 1553, the Remuh Synagogue is Kraków’s smallest but most active synagogue, with Shabbat services once again taking place here each Friday.

The synagogue was established by the family of famous 16th century Polish Rabbi Moses Isserles – better known as ‘the Rema,’ The old Jewish Cemetery is next to it.

Kazimierz has many  Jewish-themed tourist restaurants. Its “Jewish” cafes present a nostalgic, literary image of prewar Jewish life — some with taste and sensitivity, others in a disturbing way.

I didn’t eat in them but it looked like they were going for old world shtetl chic. Some of the names of the restaurants are in Hebrew style letters.

I checked a few menus and there were things like Rabbi’s salad and Yiddish fish. There were Klezmer bands playing music (like Volare?)  it had a Jewish Disneyland feeling but without the  Jews.

There are many Lucky Jews. The Lucky Jew comes from Polish folk art. In many places, not a trace is left of the Jewish community that once lived there. That blank space is filled today with images of Jews––figurines, pictures, magnets, postcards, and more. The lucky Jews are negative stereotypical caricatures of the Jewish people.  They seem to reflect the preconception that Poles are antisemitic.  According to the Poles, it is an amulet or good luck charm, like a happy fat Buddha. Little Lucky Jews stand at cash registers holding bags of money or a coin for good luck.

There are also paintings and caricatures of them. It is based on centuries of living side by side and stereotypes. Their story is complicated and due to some protesting, there are less of them now. 

We stop in at the Pharmacy Museum.

It is five floors of all kinds of things used as pharmaceuticals but we are here to see the exhibit about Tadeusz Pankiewicz, who operated a pharmacy in the Kraków Ghetto during WWII.

He was the only Roman Catholic pharmacist in the area to decline the German’s offer to relocate outside the ghetto.

He helped with medication, often free, hair dyes for changing identities, tranquilizers for children during Nazi raids, smuggling food and messages etc. His story is on display here.

We continue on through the ghetto.

The Galicia Jewish Museum is home to the permanent photographic exhibitions, Traces of Memory: A contemporary look at the Jewish past in Poland, and An Unfinished Memory. The goals of the Museum are to challenge the stereotypes and misconceptions typically associated with the Jewish past in Poland.

Oskar Schindler saved the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and ammunitions factories.

  This incident was made famous by Stephen Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List’.

Located on the site of Schindler’s Enamel Factory is the Historical Museum of Krakow which tells the story of Kraków and its inhabitants during the Second World War.

Visitors can explore artifacts,  photographs, eyewitness accounts, films and multimedia exhibitions, which show the history of life and tragedy during this time.

Gosia Fus,  our guide here and in the old city is visibly moved as she guides us through the exhibit. (memorial)

The Plaszow Concentration Camp was not far from the Schindler Factory and four kilometers from the Market Square.

Amon Goth the brutal camp commandant lived on the hill overlooking the camp. The Schindler workers walked back and forth every day. It is a mass cemetery of unmarked graves and pits filled with corpses.

it looks like a wide expanse of grass and stone. The camp was built on top of two cemeteries and the tombstones were used as pavers in the roads. It went from a forced labor cam to a mass execution site of the Jews from the emptying Krakow Ghetto.

There are no headsets, tour guides or multimedia displays and I walk the grounds to try to feel the past beneath my feet. 

We go to our first Shabbat at the Jewish Community Center of Krakow. It is run by a New Yorker, Jonathan Orenstein. Rabbi Amichai Lev Lurie who is traveling with us leads a beautiful, thoughtful service which puts everyone in a spiritual mood.  I am sitting next to a Holocaust survivor who had been hidden during the war. There is a school group from Israel, converted Jews who found out a grandparent or relative was Jewish, and some Polish Jews. The staff, volunteers, and community were warm and welcoming. We had a typical  Sabbath Dinner. The doors are open to all. Make it a point to stop in if you are there on a Friday night.  

I have to thank our guides in Kraków  Maciej and Gosia for their kindness, empathy, and knowledge. I did not know what kind of people i would find in Poland after all that history and the right-wing media publicity. I have traveled enough to know that there are always a few people in a country who will change your life for the better. You have to travel to open up a worldview that is almost impossible to comprehend without meeting the people in a country different from yours. Both Maciej and Gosia are those kinds of people.

Fly safe,

JAZ

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Auschwitz (Oswiecim) Poland

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Auschwitz (Oawiecim) Poland

“At a mass meeting in Berlin, Adolf Hitler shrieked, “And who is responsible for all our troubles?” Ben Cohen shouted, “The bicycle riders and the Jews!” Hitler looked up, astonished. “Why the bicycle riders?” “Why the Jews?” replied Cohen.” Leo Rosten.

We start our day at the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oświęcim (Oshpitzim in Yiddish), a small town in southern Poland 31 miles west of Krakow .http://ajcf.pl/en/ The town went from anonymity to being known by its German name Auschwitz.The word Auschwitz has become synonymous with the worst things human beings can do to each other.

As with other parts of Poland, there is an old synagogue (that was returned to the Jewish community)  and a museum about Jewish life in Oscwecim over the last hundred years and no Jews.

The Center is used a lot by tourists and schools to promote dialogue about Polish Jewish life, xenophobia and the Holocaust. The Museum Of Jewish Heritage that I am traveling with was responsible for helping to create this Center. It does not have local community or government support.

Maciej Zabierowski our wonderful  guide for the Jewish quarter in Krakow works there. As with our other guides, Maciej’s quiet honorable manner makes you feel hopeful that there are more like him than the Nationalists in this country. Tomasz Knncewicz  tells us some of the history. We ask about the law passed earlier this year which criminalizes false attributions to Poland’s responsibility in the Holocaust. I have read that Auschwitz  guides have been accused of downplaying the fact that 74,000 Poles were also killed in Auschwitz. He mentions that there are pressures being exerted on Holocaust and Jewish Museum directors and Auschwitz guides due to the wave of hate.

I think about it on the short drive to the Auschwitz Birkenau Camp.  On one hand, the government is right. It is a distinction without a difference and a horrific thing. But, the Jews were killed because of racism. Many other victims were also deemed by the Nazi’s racial ideology  as unfit to live such as gypsies, homosexuals and the handicapped. The Poles and people from other German conquered countries were killed because of power.

The Holocaust happened at a time in the present to people like you and me. How did a civilized society do this? At what point does the Nationalism and hate rhetoric we are hearing in the world today, take a turn like this?

We pull into the very busy Auschwitz car park along with many buses and cars. There is train whistle in the distance.

Fly safe,

JAZ