Part 1 of a Series: Krakow Experiences Renewed Interest in Jewish Culture — But Without Jews

Poland has been described as a country having "anti-Semitism without Jews."

The country’s once-flourishing Jewish population of about 3.5 million, destroyed by the Holocaust, has dwindled to a number estimated to be somewhere between 7,000 and 30,000.

But here in Krakow, once a center of Jewish learning boasting an estimated 300 synagogues, a new phrase springs to mind: "Jewish learning without Jews."

With American and outside Jewish support, a small group of non-Jewish Poles dedicated to preserving Jewish culture have created a Jewish study center here in the middle of the Kazimierz district, for centuries the heart of Krakow’s Jewish community and now a shell of its former self.

And across town, a public school classroom composed of non-Jewish Polish high school students, sparked by an enthusiastic teacher, has embarked this year on a pilot program to learn Hebrew.

The situation in Krakow, as far as Jews are concerned, is paradoxical.

Jews used to account for about a quarter of Krakow’s residents. But today, there are only two functioning synagogues in the city, one of which is used only on special occasions.

The second, known by the name of the scholar with whom it is most associated — the Rama, Rabbi Moshe Isserles — dates back to 1553. Today it is guarded by old men who say that after they die, Jewish life in Krakow will go with them.

A few blocks away, Krakow’s oldest synagogue is now a Jewish museum — a fitting transformation in a city where only 150-200 Jews remain, most of them elderly.

‘NO RATIONAL EXPLANATION’

Unlike the pattern in a few other Polish cities, the most notable example of which is Warsaw, there has been little success so far here in interesting young Poles of Jewish ancestry in their Jewish heritage.

"Warsaw is a success story. Krakow is not," said Konstanty Gebert, a journalist in Warsaw who has been a leader in Poland’s small Jewish renewal. "We tried and tried."

"The only young Jew in Krakow is over 40 years of age," said Joachim Russek, a non-Jewish Polish academic in Krakow.

The picture is bleak for a city that before the war had a population of 56,000 Jews, out of a total of 300,000 inhabitants.

But in the mind of Russek, a lawyer by training who says there is "no rational explanation" for his interest in things Jewish, Jewish culture could once again flourish in Krakow.

Russek is the executive director of the Center for Jewish History and Culture, a sister organization of the Research Center on Jewish History and Culture at Krakow’s historic Jagiel-lonian University. The research center opened in 1986.

Back in the early 1980s, Jozef Gierowski, also a non-Jew, then the university’s rector and now the center’s director, decided that Poland needed such a research institute, because of the contribution of Jewish culture to Poland.

But in 1983, before the fall of Poland’s Communist government, Russek recalled, the "idea was still a hot potato."

Today, the original center is doing well, and its younger offshoot, the cultural center, is newly housed in a modernistic building, once the site of a synagogue, in the middle of the Kazimierz district.

The cultural center, which opened last November, offers lectures on Jewish themes, films, and art exhibits, and also publishes its own material. It is designed to serve visitors from abroad and non-Jewish Poles in Krakow.

‘AN ADDRESS WAS NEEDED’

With the growth of tourism from Israel and elsewhere, the organiers realized "an address was needed in Kazimierz for the growing number of visitors," Russek said.

"This should be the first place for everyone coming to Krakow," said Janusz Makuch, the center’s program director.

Makuch, who also is not Jewish, is organizing a Jewish music and film festival in Kazimierz, to take place in June. It will be the fourth such festival since 1988, and will include American klezmer groups.

Most of the money for the center’s creation came from the Polish-American Joint Commission for Humanitarian Assistance, a congressional project sponsored by Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). The commission funds projects in Poland through the sale of surplus American commodities.

Mark Talisman, the former longtime Washington representative of the Council of Jewish Federations who has long been involved in Eastern European Jewish issues, has been instrumental in the center’s development. He currently serves as a member of the joint commission and a vice-chair of both Krakow centers.

Talisman, who visits Poland regularly, said from Washington that the center’s purposes include briefing visiting groups on "the history and culture of Jewish life that was and is," and also on Auschwitz-Birkenau, the former concentration camp located about an hour away from the city.

Meanwhile, another sign of interest in Jewish culture can be found across town at a public high school here, where the first Hebrew class in a Polish school has had an apparently successful opening year.

Recently, the students there played host to a joint Jewish-Palestinian group, and the Polish students might visit Israel for a study session that would include a stay at a kibbutz. They are also being trained to work as guides to the Jewish areas of Krakow.

The students, none of whom are Jewish, know no Jewish people except for their Israeli visitors.

When asked why they chose to study Hebrew — the class is an elective for which families pay a fee — one student responded in Polish through an interpreter that she wanted "to learn tolerance. A number of people here are not exactly of that view."

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