How a royal gift gave the Krakow community a new beating heart

By Leon Symons, May 1, 2008

Six years ago, Prince Charles promised to provide a group of  Polish Jews with a place to come together. Last Tuesday, he opened its new centre to a sea of smiles

Zofia Radikowska summed up the feelings of the Krakow Jewish community towards Prince Charles.

“So many people have been here in the past and made promises that they would help us. They went away and never came back,” said the beaming 72-year-old academic, who taught law at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University — known as the Cambridge of Poland — until she retired.

“But Prince Charles has kept his word. I told him that it was so important that he came back and kept his promise. He said he was very pleased and happy that he could do it. There was such much joy in people’s eyes,” said Mrs Radikowska, after she showed the heir to the throne and his wife around the seniors’ club in the new Jewish community centre that bore his name.

“We showed him all kinds of our activities. He was very interested to see what people were doing. He asked us about our problems. I believe he is a very friendly person who understands people.

“This was a great and historic day for the Jewish community in Krakow and for the whole of Poland,” she added.

Indeed it was. The streets outside the smart new four-storey building rang with laughter and excited chatter on Tuesday in anticipation of the royal visit and the celebrations that followed.

Not that long ago, and within the memory of some of those older citizens, the scrunch of Nazi jackboots brought fear and terror to those same streets.

Pensioners and school pupils, parents and children, Jew and Catholic, stood side by side bathed by the warm spring sunshine and marvelled at how the partnership of the Prince and World Jewish Relief had transformed a piece of scrubland next to the Tempel Synagogue into the community’s new home.

Those invited to the opening queued patiently to be screened by very tight Polish security — the armed officers at the gate were even checking a plate of sandwiches loosely covered with foil that were brought in by one centre worker.

The Prince visited Krakow in 2002. In the course of his trip, he met some of the elderly members of the Jewish community and asked what he could do for them. On his return, he was put in touch with WJR by Dame Vivien Duffield. What made this initiative different from any previous royal involvement in Jewish projects was that Prince Charles contributed some of his own money.

So Tuesday was a time for the community to say thank you — and they did it in style, showing off the range of activities that the centre will host.

The royal couple’s guided tour began, as ever, with primary schoolchildren singing and dancing. Then the emphasis shifted to the other end of the age scale, with the seniors’ club.

Here, the Prince and Camilla joined in with an impromptu English lesson and sifted through some of the dozens of photographs laid out on tables. Then they went on to eavesdrop briefly on a discussion among some teenagers.

After performing the official opening, the Prince and Camilla did a mini-walkabout, shaking hands and accepting small gifts as they crossed the street for a reception in the grounds of the nearby Kupa synagogue.

Once inside, they were engulfed in a sea of well-wishers and, in the course of the last hour of the three scheduled for the event, stopped to exchange a few words with almost everyone inside. One of them was Wlodzimierz Smietanski, who featured in a JC article when the scheme was unveiled five years ago.

Now 88, he announced proudly: “The Prince remembered that I was one of those who met him when he was here and we talked about facilities for war veterans, that we suffered from lack of a place to meet.

“We hope that this house will now serve for all Jewish organisations, both old and young.”

Thadeus Jakubowicz, 69, president of the Krakow Jewish community since 1997, said: “When this started, I was pessimistic because so many people had asked the same question. When World Jewish Relief became involved, I began to realise this might happen. Now it has been built, it is a dream come true.”

Karina Wroblewsqa, 59, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, said: “My mother is 90 and was not well enough to come, so Prince Charles said to give her his best wishes. He was so nice.”

The 85-year-old Leopold Kozlowski, a composer and conductor of klezmer music and a Krakow ghetto survivor, found himself talking music with the Prince. “He wanted to dance with me,” said the octogenarian.

Andres Spokoiny of the American Joint Distribution Committee, which will help run the centre, said: “He was very pleased that other people were partners in running the centre. He also said that when he wants something, he never takes no for an answer.”

Allen Haberberg runs the Hotel Eton in the town. “I told the Prince that my grandfather was on the last Kindertransport to England. So I am here now because of what his grandfather did to allow them to enter in 1939,” he said. His daughter Natalia, eight, presented Camilla with a bouquet.

Argentinian Mendel Freedman was one of four Lubavitch students who engaged the Prince for several minutes. “He was asking a number of questions, some about the March for the Living.”

Deputy Israeli ambassador to Poland Yossi Levy said: “I thanked him from the depths of my heart for building bridges between Britons, Poles, Israelis and Jews. I said it was Israel’s 60th birthday and he said it was his, too.

“He said he had two relatives buried there [in Israel] and had never been, but that he would like to visit soon.”

WJR donor Cyril Dennis said: “He was talking about how important it was to help communities and how he was involved in trying to regenerate older communities in England.

“He also talked about green (environmentally friendly) cars.” His wife, Hilary, chatted with Camilla: “She was absolutely charming and said this was her first visit to Poland.”

American-born Jessica Bayner, meanwhile, tried to converse in Welsh. “I know some phrases such as ‘welcome’ and ‘my name is Jessica’ but then he answered in Welsh and I didn’t know what he was talking about,” she laughed.

As the couple departed in a mini-motorcade, WJR chairman Nigel Layton declared: “This has been a wonderful day for all of us. But without the Prince,  it would not have happened.”

Last updated: 9:47pm, May 21 2008