“For the Jewish community next to Auschwitz, the Holocaust is never very far away and we continue to move forward.”
On 27 January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the world marks International Holocaust Memorial Day. However, for the Jewish Community Centre (JCC) of Krakow, Poland, this day is as important as every other – it’s a day of celebrating Jewish life in the city.
Opened in 2008 by the Prince of Wales, the JCC now serves as the focal point for Jewish life in the city serves a vibrant mix of Jewish and non-Jewish community members. By offering a rich variety of religious, cultural and educational programmes, it works to foster warm relationships between Jews and non-Jews in Poland while also changing the wider world’s perception of Poland. The centre serves 600 Jewish members and also offers a volunteer programme for anyone who wants to become more involved – which includes 50 non-Jews. Its members range from toddlers who attend its nursery right through to the seniors club, which includes a number of Holocaust survivors.Jewish life has always been a huge part of Polish history. For centuries, Poland was home to the world’s largest Jewish population. An estimated 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland on the eve of Nazi occupation, equating to 10% of the overall population of the country. Over 90% of did not survive the Holocaust. The remaining 10% had an enormous task before them in rebuilding their community. Jewish survivors emigrated in their droves to British Palestine, the USA and UK among other places when visa waivers were put in place.
And yet some remained, although under difficult circumstances, as JCC’s executive director Jonathan Ornstein explained: “During Communism the Jews that remained in Poland were forced to hide their identity once again. Judaism as a religion was hidden underground for another 50 years.”
It was only after the fall of Communism in 1989 that religion became acceptable again, and the underground Jewish movement was allowed to become more vocal. In the years that followed, assimilated survivors who had hidden their Jewish roots began to open up. In the last 25 years, hundreds of Poles – the children and grandchildren of survivors – suddenly learnt that they had Jewish roots.
“Every day we meet new people of all ages discovering they have Jewish roots and wanting to learn about Judaism and to start building their Jewish identity.”
For those individuals, the centre has a whole host of activities. It provides programming for Jewish holidays, services and weekly dinners for Shabbat – the Jewish Sabbath – as well as social activities and educational classes for all ages.
“We want to provide an open and safe environment for members of our community to come and explore their Jewish identity,” explained Ornstein. “We also offer many programmes open to the public so that all of Krakow can come and learn about Jewish customs and traditions.”The resurgence of Jewish life in Krakow – due in no small part to the tireless work of the JCC – is striking. Since 2011, the centre – in conjunction with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Krakow Jewish Religious Congregation – has been hosting the 7@Nite festival. For one night in June, the city’s seven remaining synagogues open their doors to thousands of visitors and host exhibitions, performance art, live music, and even late-night challah (traditional bread) baking classes. Kazimierz, the city’s historic Jewish quarter, has also seen a complete regeneration, thanks to the film Schindler’s List which was filmed in the region.
There is a view among many Jews around the world – particularly, but not exclusively, those with Polish origins – that the Jews “don’t belong” in Poland. In some ways, it’s understandable. The Jewish community has been through so much trauma in Poland – starting with anti-Semitic pogroms throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and culminating in the atrocities of the Holocaust when Poland fell under Nazi occupation. The JCC is working hard to put that view to bed, though, as Ornstein explained:
“Jews have been in Poland for over a thousand years. Most of what we practice, study and sing comes from here. Some of our greatest scholars and Rabbis were Polish. We cannot ignore the fact that we have a rich history in Poland. The JCC is proud to be here and help revitalise Jewish life in Poland. Every Jew should be able to practice and be a part of the global Jewish community regardless of where they live.”Zofia, 79, is a native Krakowian a Holocaust survivor. The centre has allowed her to re-engage with her Jewish identity and to begin to come to terms what she lived through. For her, the opportunity to return to Krakow was a blessing:
“Since the JCC opened seven years ago, I started living an engaged Jewish life. I eat meals in the JCC, learn skills here, study Torah here, meet with my friends here – and simply feel at home. I can’t tell you how important this place is to me, and other people like me.”
“Thank God we have been fortunate to return to our roots and rebuild Jewish life in Krakow.”
The deep interest of non-Jewish Poles in Jewish culture is something of a phenomenon, too, and further emphasises the fact that Jews need not be afraid to return. You might say that Poland has experienced a sort of “phantom limb” syndrome: a community that was so large and so prominent was suddenly all but wiped out, leaving a gaping hole in Polish culture. Since democracy’s return to Poland, it almost seems as if the country is making up for lost time.
Ornstein explained that non-Jewish Poles wrote books, opened Jewish Studies departments at universities and preserved Jewish institutions and cemetries.The Jewish Culture Festival, founded by two non-Jewish Poles, has now become one of the largest Jewish festivals in the world.
“Poles realised that to understand Polish history they needed to understand its Jewish component. Jewish life in Poland could not have happened without the non-Jewish Poles who wanted to preserve Jewish life and continue to have a curiosity to learn about Jewish traditions, culture, and religion.”
Agnieszka, a non-Jewish volunteer at the JCC, is one of those who learnt about Jewish culture as “something belonging to the past” and “felt the void in Polish society, and particularly in my neighbourhood”. With all this – the ever-present spectre of the Holocaust, the resurgence of Jewish life, and the deep interest of non-Jewish Poles in learning about Semitic culture – the JCC doesn’t just recognise the importance of Holocaust memorial on 27 January:
“Every day of the year we remember and honour the victims of the Holocaust by showing the world that the Jewish community still exists here. On Holocaust Memorial Day we run our regularly scheduled community services for the entire Jewish community from Holocaust survivors to teenagers and children. It’s important to understand that for the Jewish community next to Auschwitz, the Holocaust is never very far away and we continue to move forward.”
The Holocaust is clearly a huge part of Jewish and Polish history. Now the citizens of Krakow are working together with the Jewish community to build their future.