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November 24, 2017
Employment and Livelihoods

Jewish life in Krakow is back, not just surviving, but thriving


Jewish life in Krakow is back, not just surviving, but thriving

By Dan Rosenfield, World Jewish Relief Chair

My Dad and I spent a weekend in Krakow recently, hosted by the brilliant Jewish Community Centre (JCC) – established and funded by World Jewish Relief – and their dynamic director, Jonathan Ornstein. It was a fantastic trip and I thought I would share my thoughts with you.

Our trip was, in many ways, a microcosm of Jewish life in Poland. We celebrated Jewish life in the decades before the war with a tour of the charming Jewish quarter. We remembered the horrors of the Krakow ghetto and Nazi occupation, as told in the powerful museum housed in Oskar Schindler’s factory building. We commemorated the horrors of the Holocaust with a difficult trip to Auschwitz. And above all, we revelled in the revival of Jewish life in Poland, joining the JCC and Krakow community to celebrate the Bat Mitzvah of Pani Zosia (photo above), an 82 year old survivor, who has found her Judaism again.

A word on Krakow itself. As capital of Poland up until 1795, Krakow has all the grandeur of a European capital and bishopric, complete with regal castle, grand market square and vast cathedral. We got to know the Jewish quarter in Krakow, home to 68,000 Jews or 25% of the city’s population on the eve of the Nazi invasion. Like all great communities, they were over-served by shuls. Seven in total, serving Jews from the progressive to the ultra-orthodox and everything in between. Today, the quarter has survived well. Shuls that breathe history, restaurants serving the sort of food my Grandma used to put on the Shabbat table, marks in doorposts where mezuzahs once hung and tourists looking into the past.

For all its charm, the history lingers and is tough. Krakow, like many Polish cities, has a difficult story to tell. Auschwitz lies an hour from the town, a dark monument to the pure evil of the Holocaust. Harrowing, unfathomable and chilling, that day will live long in Dad’s and my memory – as it should. And in Krakow itself, Oskar Schindler’s factory tells the story of Nazi occupation, ending in the room of choices that bears the names of many Poles who resisted the Nazis and those who did not. Or the square by the Jewish quarter, lively and modern today, but the scene of the ghetto liquidation in 1942-3, the beginning of a journey that almost all did not come back from. The history is not hidden. It is commemorated sensitively and with compassion. But it has left a scar on the city and the landscape, one that will never heal and one that remains visible.

But Jewish life is back, not just surviving, but thriving. For all the loss, despair and destruction of the past, the Jewish Community Centre – JCC Krakow – is a remarkable achievement and a story we should shout about. Almost 10 years ago, with the support of HRH the Prince of Wales, World Jewish Relief funded the new centre at the heart of Jewish Krakow, an opportunity to bring together those returning to the region and those rediscovering their Judaism. And today, under the stewardship of Jonathan and his excellent team, the JCC is thriving.

RS4288 Picture 023 (2) scrHRH The Prince of Wales officially opens the JCC.

Dad and I joined a communal Friday night dinner, apparently a quiet evening as there were only 70, yes 70 diners! But best of all, we joined the community on Shabbat to celebrate the bat mitzvah of 82 year old survivor, Pani Zosia. Zosia is, quite simply, a force of nature. Having fled Krakow as a young child with fake papers, she is now the matriarch of the community, delivering the D-var Torah every week and bringing friends and family back into the Jewish community. One word: inspirational.

As World Jewish Relief, we rightly focus on our mission to tackle Jewish poverty and vulnerability. If our actions mean Jews and Jewish communities are more free and better able to celebrate Jewish life and traditions, so much the better. Jewish life, after all, is about more than surviving. It is also about thriving. And JCC Krakow embodies that spirit.

I look forward to celebrating the 10th anniversary of the JCC in April 2018.