Krakow has a rich Jewish history - and a rich Jewish future

Yoni Birnbaum learnt an unexpected lesson on a recent trip to Poland

October 26, 2018 16:06

Every time I am in Poland I gain many new insights. Usually, they are connected to Holocaust education and remembrance. But on a mission to Poland last week with my shul, I discovered something very unexpected.

In planning our journey, I grappled with a dilemma many groups face. We began in Warsaw, travelled to Lublin and finished the final segment of the trip in Krakow. In theory, we could have flown directly home after a final harrowing visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. But that would have been emotionally difficult for participants, as well as risk leaving people without a chance to properly reflect on the lessons of the trip. So, on the recommendation of other educators, I decided to spend an extra evening in Krakow at the Jewish Community Centre (JCC). JCCs are a feature of Jewish life all over the world. But there are none quite like the JCC Krakow.

As we enjoyed a first-class kosher meal catered by the Centre, its inspirational rabbi, Avi Baumol, described Jewish life in Krakow today. Take a stroll through a park or shopping mall with a kippah on, he said, and you might get more than you bargained for. Not antisemitism — far from it. He has lived in Krakow for the past five years, always wears a kippah in public and has never experienced any antisemitism at all. I wish I could say the same thing about my own experience in London.

Instead, it is quite likely that a young person who has just discovered they have a Jewish grandparent will approach you. Even more interestingly, they may well ask you where they can find out more about their heritage. Such as the story of Paula, who was surprised when Rabbi Baumol told her that if her mother’s mother was Jewish then she was one hundred per cent Jewish herself. And then she told him that she had five sisters…

Why is this happening today? Approximately 350,000 Polish Jews survived the Holocaust. Many, of course, left in the ensuing years, often due to ongoing antisemitism and the effects of Communist restrictions on religious practice. But not all. And over the past decade or so, with the gradual westernisation of Poland, some of those elderly Jews have begun to open up about their heritage to their children and grandchildren.

For the first time, people feel able to speak openly about their Jewish roots, and many are searching for a safe space within which they can feel comfortable exploring it. The JCC, which was established and funded by World Jewish Relief, fills that space, with over 40 programmes each week, including Shabbat dinners, a childhood centre and senior clubs. It is a remarkable example of the revitalisation of Jewish life in perhaps the least likely corner of the globe.

Even more surprising to us was the number of enthusiastic young non-Jewish Poles who volunteer in the JCC every night of the week. One of the most experienced of those volunteers, Agnieska, explained why she helps out at the centre. Growing up in Krakow’s former Jewish Quarter, with its historic, yet empty, shuls she felt a tangible sense of absence. After learning a little about the Jewish history of her city, she decided that she wanted to do whatever she could to help rebuild and support modern Jewish life. Remarkably, some 55 people now volunteer at the JCC each week, and their enthusiasm for what they do is infectious.

Leading groups in Poland is an immense responsibility, and one which no educator treats lightly. Aside from the primary task of teaching about the extermination of Polish Jewry at the hands of Nazi Germany, there are multiple additional narratives that need telling and time must be given to each one. These include the roots of modern Holocaust denial, the role of the Righteous Among the Nations, and atrocities committed by Poles both during and after the Holocaust.

Yet, within those narratives, the story of the modern resurgence of Jewish life in Poland, and the support given to it by many non-Jewish Poles, also needs telling. It needs telling not only because it is a story of survival amidst total devastation, but because it resonates so profoundly with everything we know about Jewish history. Somewhere, somehow, Jewish life finds a way to continue.

Jewish life in Poland today is infinitesimally smaller than it was before the war. But in my opinion, every Jewish group visiting Poland should include a visit to the JCC Krakow on their itinerary. I guarantee that it will be worth it.


Yoni Birnbaum is the rabbi of Hadley Wood Synagogue



October 26, 2018 16:06

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive