In Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character famously said, “If you build it, he will come”. His crazy dream involved building a baseball pitch in the middle of nowhere so that he could meet his baseball heroes. The sentence, so often misquoted as ‘they will come’, has come to mean that if you build something, people will be attracted to it; sometimes they just need a place to go in order to do the things that they love. This is what has happened for the Jewish community in Krakow.
I have no idea whether His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales is a fan of Costner’s, but I’d like to think so. In 2002, Prince Charles, World Jewish Relief's Patron, was visiting Krakow on a completely unrelated mission, when he met older members of the local Jewish community. He was moved by their plight, affected by seeing Holocaust survivors’ living conditions and the lack of a cohesive, warm, community space for them to gather.
It’s easy to see how for visitors to both the death camps and even to Krakow, the story that was told was one of death and despair. There is, by necessity, a constant reminder of the atrocities that took place. Auschwitz is a place as grim as any on earth, death seeping through its every pore.
So when Prince Charles had his vision, to build a Jewish community centre just an hour down the road from Auschwitz, he wanted to create something paradigmatically opposed to Poland’s death camps; a ray of hope arising from darkness.
It gave me great pride to be part of the ten year anniversary celebrations at the JCC last weekend. We celebrated Prince Charles’ vision being brought to magnificent fruition by World Jewish Relief and the generosity of its supporters.
The JCC, led by the indefatigable Jonathan Ornstein, is now the vibrant beating heart of Jewish life in Krakow. It offers a refuge and sanctuary for Krakow’s remaining Jews, many of whom have discovered their Judaism for the first time. It brings in staff and volunteers from beyond the community, creating a sense of community not seen in the city – or probably even amongst Poland’s Jewish community – since the time of the shtetl!
In a way, the JCC represents not just a rebirth of Jewish life but continuity from the past. Whilst Jewish life in the city has declined since the Holocaust, a thriving Jewish centre recalls the many centuries of a flourishing community, where people across the generations celebrated their Jewishness collectively.
And it was the coming together of the generations that was so moving about last Sunday’s event. There were people of all ages, from tiny babies to Zofia Radizikowska, born in 1935. She is one of the matriarchs of the community, one of 60 Holocaust survivors to attend the centre’s Seniors Club. A slight woman with perfectly poised presence, she survived the Holocaust by using fake documents. She is now the JCC’s most active member. The Beatles medley that her and her friends on the JCC choir sang with the words adjusted to pay homage to the JCC will live long in the memory.
Possibly the most impressive new feature of the JCC since I last went there in 2014 was the bright, sparkling new Kindergarten, the first pluralistic Jewish preschool to open in Krakow since the Holocaust. A new generation of Jewish children will grow up there.
With 700 members and growing, Prince Charles’ ambition, possibly inspired by Kevin Costner (!), has been realised. I look forward to returning in ten more years to meet some of those Kindergarten children as they undertake their Bnei Mitzvot. It’s in their tiny but safe hands that this community will go from strength to strength.
Watch this video to find out more: