Reconciliation Concert in Krakow Brings Jews and Catholics Together

Jews and Catholics felt their eyes well with tears Wednesday at a special concert held here in a long-unused synagogue, but some voiced pain that high church officials were absent from the “reconciliatory event” for two faiths long at odds in Poland.

“There is a gap between the worlds in which we speak and the worlds in which we live,” said Rabbi Ronald Sobel of Temple Emanu-El in New York. He was referring to the ongoing gulf between Judaism and Catholicism in this country that is the birthplace of Pope John Paul II and was a center of world Judaism until World War II.

The three-hour concert. by the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of American Jewish conductor Gilbert Levine, was sponsored by the United Jewish Annual in an attempt to promote interfaith relations and counter the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism in Poland and other European countries.

The concert was a highlight of the UJA Young Leadership Cabinet’s Morasha (Heritage) Mission, which included a four-day visit to Poland, followed by a program in Israel.

More than 250 UJA mission participants were joined at the concert by Krakow Mayor Jacek Wozniakowski, U.S. Ambassador Thomas W. Simons Jr. and Israeli Ambassador Meron Gordon.

Conductor Levine said several high-ranking church officials had been invited, including Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, the archbishop of Krakow. But all of them sent regrets. The church was represented by a local priest.

A letter from Macharski was read during the concert saying, “We are both people who lived side by side in the same land.” But Jews, the letter said, “were driven from our towns into ghettos and then to death in gas chambers. This was done in our country, maybe to bring ignominy to our land.”

POPE SENDS MESSAGE OF PEACE

The letter, read by Rev. Stanislaw Musial, a Polish church liaison to the Jewish community, quoted the pope as saying: “We are children of the same God, and I offer you peace. Shalom.”

Levine said he had discussed the concert beforehand at the Vatican with the pope — who formerly served as Krakow’s archbishop — and was “delighted” by the pontiff’s enthusiastic support for the project.

The program opened with the national anthems of Poland, the United States and Israel, followed by a performance of Max Bruch’s work “Kol Nidre.” That piece was performed by 18-year-old Matt Haimovitz, an Israeli-born cellist now living in the United States. The concert also included the works of Beethoven and Dvorak.

“Being here and listening to the music of our people is a way to tell the world that we go on living,” said Irene Weingarten of Houston, a participant on the UJA mission.

The dark apricot walls and gold filigree arches and columns of Temple Postenowa reflected five decades of neglect, but the concert’s audience of 400 people sharing the small space with the orchestra was moved by the music.

In front of the temple ark stood a replica of a giant tree with dead branches, but some with green fabric buds and leaves symbolizing the living and growing Jewish culture.

“This is rejuvenating and wonderful,” said Millie Gitter, women’s campaign director for the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans. “To think that this synagogue has been sleeping for 50 years and is now waking up to our music is fantastic. We are alive and well in Poland as American Jews. I want the world to know that,” she said.

Emily Zimmern of Charlotte, N.C., co-chairwoman of the UJA mission, said: “This concert is a symbol that while some may seek to destroy Jews, none can destroy the Jewish people.”

SHUL NOT USED SINCE THE NAZIS

Before the concert, a new brass Star of David was put on top of the synagogue, replacing one torn down by the Gestapo in November 1939.

The 100-year old Reform temple has not been used regularly since the Nazis arrived, although some preliminary efforts have been made to preserve the building in Krakow’s Kazimierz section. The neighborhood had been populated by Jews since the late 1300s but is now bereft of their presence.

The chief of Krakow’s tiny and mostly elderly Jewish congregation, Czeslaw Jakobowicz, said he found the event “sad but nice.”

“You know, we all lived together, Catholics and Jews, in this society for hundreds of years,” he said. “There’s no reason it can’t be like it used to be.”

In recent years, Catholic-Jewish relations in Poland have been strained by the presence of the Carmelite nuns at the Auschwitz concentration camp, 36 miles from Krakow, where 1.35 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. The nuns are eventually to be relocated to a nearby interfaith prayer center now being built.

This year has also witnessed a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Poland and elsewhere in newly democratic Eastern Europe. Neo-Nazi slogans and anti-Jewish slurs have appeared in brochures, scrawled on bus stops and even the memorial at Umschlagplatz, the site in Warsaw where hundreds of thousands of Jews were sent to their deaths in concentration camps.

The trend is somewhat bizarre, as only a tiny fraction of Poland’s prewar Jewish population of 3.5 million remains in the country. The community is now said to number 10,000.

‘MIXED SADNESS AND ANGER’

But Boston attorney Stuart Rossman, who has been elected chairman of the UJA Young Leadership Cabinet for the coming term, cautioned against over-generalizing the image of Poland as an anti-Semitic nation.

“We have to start breaking down barriers,” Rossman said. “Between us there is a lot of mixed sadness and anger, and I think this concert should make us all proud.”

Before the concert, the UJA group spent the day touring Auschwitz and Birkenau. From Poland, the group went on to Israel.

“Poland and even the death camps show up where our roots and history lie,” said Rossman, “Israel showed us our future.”

Dr. Owen Perlman of Ann Arbor, Mich., a UJA mission co-chairman, said the trip and concert represented “not just a step backwards, but also a promotion for the future. We are the last generation to bear witness to survivors and their lives in Central Europe,” he said. “It is our obligation to keep the link and memory alive for them and for generations to come.”

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