Krakow is a gorgeous city, especially the old-city and—as a separated quarter within it—the district of Kazimierz where the Jews lived from the middle-ages. This is the region of Galicia in Poland, the birth place of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism in the 1700’s. As I often identify as post-modern neo-Chasidic Jew personally, this region is of major significance to me. I was, in fact, reminded of this being the birth-place of Chasidism by a small group of Chasidic men we encountered in front of one of the synagogues we visited and who were on their own pilgrimage from one grave of a great rabbi to another throughout this foundational region.
Beyond touring between all the beautiful sites and learning about so much of the city and its history from our guide (who defies any superlative I could dream up to describe how good he was) one of the places that inspired me most was our quick stop at the 7 year-old Krakow’s JCC. Yes, believe it or not, there is a JCC in Krakow (and Warsaw as well) and it is called JCC here too, and not, as you might expect, the equivalent in Polish. There was a group of about 50 people, a few Jews but most no Jewish, working toward the renewal of Jewish life in Krakow. The rabbi there is an American Jew living with his family in Israel, who spends two weeks per months in Krakow. We met a young woman from NYC, sent by the Joint, who is posted for a year to support existing programs and emerging efforts. It seemed that the rest of this bare-bone staff and a large group of volunteers were all non-Jewish Poles. The interest of non-Jews in matters of Jewish nature seems to stem from people coming to the realization that, though they live in Polish cities filled with Jewish landmarks, they know close to nothing about the how’s and why’s of such obvious Jewish presence. Their need to understand their own history and identity as Poles, they feel, is incomplete without learning about the Jewish Polish history. However much this made sense to me (and one could wish this to be done at the national level through, at least, primary and secondary education,) this is the farthest from being a widespread trend in non-Jewish Poland. Yet 50 of these people were interested enough to volunteer at the JCC.
Some roles of the JCC here in Krakow (beyond and differing from what we traditionally know it to do – i.e. organize Jewish educative experiences, classes in Hebrew, teaching about and celebrating Jewish holidays and Shabbats) has been to support non-Jewish Poles interested in conversion and be a resource for Polish Jews interested in reclaiming a long-time buried Jewish identity or Jews-by-surprise who don’t know where to turn to with the thousand questions they have. Jews-by-surprise is a growing category of Jews who are learning late in life that they were Jewish children rescued from the Nazis by families who adopted them as their own when their biological parents didn’t return, or biological Jewish parents who suddenly acknowledge being Jewish after years spent in fearful silence. Not every one of these Jews-by-surprise decide, however, to act on that knowledge and many ignore this piece of information to continue their lives as the Polish Roman Catholics they always knew themselves to be. And who could blame them? Some, however, find their way to the JCC that act as a resource for the beginning of their often difficult journey of re-discovery. Though there also is Chabad in town and as well as a woman Reform rabbi, the JCC provides a more neutral ground religiously which makes it more inclusive for those who are just taking their first initial steps in their new-found Jewish life. As I said earlier, I was inspired by the staff of the JCC, their work and their mission.
With that, one need also to bear in mind that even though the war has been over for 70 years, and the communist block fell some 25 years ago transforming Poland into a thriving capitalistic democracy, there are only 600 self-identifying Jews in Krakow. And that’s after the many years of diligent efforts from the JCC and other Jewish organizations in the city. 600 Jews in the city of Krakow speaks of the devastating impact of the Shoah on the Jewish community of Poland which was decimated to the tune of 90% of its total population. The few hundred thousand (out of 3.3 million) who managed to survive, never came back after the war, and those who dared coming back found themselves so badly persecuted by the communist government that thousands fled or were expulsed in the decades that followed the war.
And so, though I admire and understand the work the JCC is doing, believing it to be a needed resource space for those Jews-by-surprise, I find myself questioning the motivation behind their mission. Should we try and revive Jewish life in Krakow in particular, in Poland or even in Europe in general? And if we should, why? Anti-Semitism is on the rise again everywhere, with Western Europe leading the charge. My own mother is preparing to leave France in case the far-right fascist party comes to power in the next elections. Herzl, at the end of the 18th century already, prophetically warned that Europe no longer was a safe place for the Jews; that it was time to leave. After 70 years since the end of the Second World War it seems that the lessons from the past have faded from global consciousness; that the memories of the camps have receded from public discourse. The world has closed its eyes to the annexation of Crimea by Russia (pretexting similarity of language and culture to invade) and in the interest of “appeasement” and fearing broader conflict the West remained silent. The resemblance to the Nazi’s invasion of the Sudetenland under the same pretext and the silence of the Western World, is more than eerie. Even the propagandist language is the same. Ukraine is bracing for more take-overs and Poland is extremely concerned (to put it mildly) with an imminent invasion of Russia. When one sees with one’s own eyes history repeating itself, one must choose a different path in response. If Herzl was right decades before Nazism, and European Jews didn’t listen then, we might be wise to heed his call today when our brothers and sisters of Europe seem to be suffering from short term memory loss.
I don’t have an answer to these questions. To be honest, I could—at this junction—argue the other side as well and find a dozen reasons for the re-establishment and development of a Jewish community in Krakow. For one, there are Jews living here; and that’s as simple as that. But the sense I got from listening to the staff at the JCC was more than it being a resource for Jews wandering back home, but to be a platform from which to grow a Jewish community like a missionary organization would. That they kept the “JCC” as their name, defining themselves as an American institution in Poland, struck me of such missionary-like mentality. But there was more. Staff members who talked to us, for example, mentioned two brothers who were Jews-by-surprise and had come to the JCC with inquiring minds. One of them ended-up choosing to practice Judaism again—and they were clearly proud of that—the other decided, as many do, to remain a practicing Roman Catholic and not concern himself with his Jewish heritage. While they emphatically called the first brother a Jew, they called the second a “potential” Jew. This hidden agenda made me feel greatly uncomfortable because the intention I perceived went far beyond simply acting as a resource center for disoriented people wrestling with a major identity crisis. I read this kind of remark as connected to the age-old fear of the dwindling of the Jewish population worldwide. We need more Jews, the voice of fear goes, because inter-marriages and the disaffection of Jews from the Jewish communities in droves threaten the continuing existence of the Jewish people as a whole. Reviving the Jewish community of Poland adds Jews to the tribal roster. I, unfortunately, suspect that the hidden agenda as more to do with that than anything else. Now I may be grossly projecting here, but in my darkest moment of suspecting the worst in people, it has also crossed my mind that, in the Jewish unconscious, a need for “winning by re-population” could be the ultimate—though unavowable—motivation for such an effort in Poland. Hitler wanted Europe—and especially Poland—to be Judenrein (empty of Jews). Rebuilding Jewish life in Poland might be a way to say “Hitler didn’t win. We did.”
Food for unfolding thought and enlightening conversations.
Tomorrow we will be in Warsaw, birth-city of my grandmother (z”l). I am thrilled beyond words to be sharing these days with my mother. Our group is doing extremely well and we all feel deeply touched and enriched by what we have lived together so far. I am looking forward to the last few days of our trip.