Around the Jewish World Krakow’s Jews Mark 700 Years, Aware of Complex Position in Poland

There’s much more to Krakow’s Jewish history than is depicted in Holocaust films. Indeed, when the city’s Tempel Synagogue was being built between 1860 and 1862, Jewish life already had been thriving here for over 550 years.

A ceremony and concert this week in the synagogue, which was restored in 2000, marked the 700th anniversary of Jewish life in Krakow.

The event drew local and national dignitaries who delivered speeches on the historical and cultural significance of Jewish life in Krakow.

“Jews helped build this town,” said Mayor Jacek Majchrowski. “They were doctors, teachers, and today with Jews and Poles working together we will ensure that the Holocaust will never happen in this world again.”

The exact year of the anniversary was determined by the first mention of Jewish street names in the city’s archival records in 1304.

Krakow’s Jewish district used to be in the center of town near the main market square, near what are today Saint Anne Street and the main buildings of Jagiellonian University.

In 1495, Jews were effectively expelled from that area and moved to Kazimierz, which was separated from the rest of Krakow by the Wisla River.

Jewish life flourished for hundreds of years in Kazimierz and in the nearby district of Podgorze, until the Nazis established a ghetto in Podgorze in 1940.

Jews from all over the city were forced to give up their homes and move into the ghetto. It was liquidated in March 1943, and those who had survived the harsh ghetto life were marched to the nearby Plaszow labor camp, or deported to the Belzec death camp in eastern Poland.

Kazimierz lay fallow for some 50 years, a neighborhood of low-income housing and high crime. After the fall of Communism in 1989 and the success of Stephen Spielberg’s Holocaust film, “Schindler’s List,” in 1993, Kazimierz was revitalized: Synagogues were restored and Jewish-style restaurants opened.

Today, the area is one of the largest tourist sites in Poland, attracting Jewish and non-Jewish visitors from all over the world to glimpse the centuries-old history.

Poland’s new chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, addressed this week’s gathering.

“We thank God for the past 700 years, and for the next,” he said.

Schudrich followed his remarks with a Hebrew prayer.

Franciszek Cardinal Macharski, archbishop of Krakow and head of the province of Malopolska, also attended and spoke. The ceremony was followed by a concert showcasing Jewish cultural life, both old and new.

The Klezmer band Kroke — Yiddish for Krakow — performed new interpretations of Klezmer classics.

They were followed by Leopold Kozlowski, known as the last Klezmer of Galicia, who conducted a group of musicians and vocalists singing in Polish and in Yiddish. Their show energized the audience of Holocaust survivors from Krakow and elsewhere in Poland, other local Krakowians and young Jews.

At a reception following the concert, the complicated state of Jewish life in Poland today was on the minds of many guests.

Daniel Bertram survived the war in the Soviet state of Georgia, and made his way back to his hometown of Krakow after the war ended.

“When I returned my whole family was gone, 18 people murdered,” he said. Bertram found his apartment had been taken over, and when he tried to get a passport out of Poland he was denied.

Today Bertram remains in Krakow, near where his great-grandfather lived, and prays at the Orthodox Remuh synagogue. Though the war changed everything, Krakow is still his home, he said.

“I’m a native,” he said, “I come from an old Krakow family.”

It’s difficult to count the number of Jews in Poland today because of the displacement of Jews during World War II and the subsequent Communist regime, but Schudrich estimated the country that was once home to 3.5 million Jews now has upward of 20,000. That number is growing, he said.

Ola Wilczura, head of the Krakow branch of the Polish Union of Jewish Students, was skeptical about the future of Jewish life in Poland. “Most Krakowian Jews go abroad to Israel or the U.S.,” she said.

Most Poles with Jewish roots come from intermarried families — a grandmother was hidden or converted, for example, or a father negated his Judaism during the Communist era.

For these Poles, returning to Judaism is a complex process. They can be intimidated by the Orthodoxy of the official Jewish community in Poland, and many seek alternatives that will allow them to embrace their Jewish roots without a total shift in character.

Wilczura noted that in Krakow, “the community doesn’t have programs for young people that will accept Polish and Jewish roots. We need education, and it’s not so easy.”

In the midst of the celebration, Wilczura considered the present difficulties in Polish Jewish life. Asked if there would be an 800th anniversary of Jewish life in Krakow, she shook her head uncertainly.

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