Krakow used to be a mecca for Poland’s Jews, a center of cosmopolitanism and Jewish life in what was Europe’s most heavily Jewish country.
Now that there are few Jews left in Poland, Krakow still holds some Jewish allure, but for a very different group: With only about 200 Jews left in the city, Krakow has become a center for non-Jewish Poles interested in Judaism and Jewish life.
Students from all over the country come to Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, the country’s oldest, to study Jewish studies.
Approximately 150 students, few of them Jews, are enrolled in the university’s Jewish studies program, studying the history and politics of the Jewish people in addition to Hebrew and Yiddish.
What’s more, they’re not only studying Jewish life in school; they’re commemorating it with passion and vigor outside of the university.
Some of the students are members of the Polish/American/Jewish Alliance for Youth Action, an organization founded three years ago by a group of Americans and Poles interested in combating prejudice, intolerance and ignorance in Poland and among U.S. Jews. The group promotes dialogue among U.S. Jews and Poles and creates educational projects for the two communities.
Last month in Krakow, the group held an event honoring half of Krakow’s 56 Righteous Gentiles — non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
The alliance’s president, Dennis Misler, an American Jew who is in Krakow for a year to promote the group’s programs, said he hopes that Polish and Jewish young people are coming together “to ensure that the future is free of the suspicions, prejudices and misunderstandings that too often manifested themselves in the past.”
Michael Sobelman, spokesman for Israel’s Embassy in Warsaw, and Maciej Kozlowski, Poland’s former ambassador to Israel, also spoke at the event.
Most Jewish events in Krakow take place in Kazimierz, the historic Jewish quarter of the city where Steven Spielberg shot several scenes for “Schindler’s List.”
But the alliance’s student members got permission from the city to hold their event honoring Righteous Gentiles — called “In Honor of Those Who Acted” — in one of Jagiellonian’s main auditoriums, conferring special status on an evening that surpassed the often small, religious atmosphere of most Jewish-related gatherings in the city.
University Rector Franciszek Ziejka came, as did Tadeusz Jakubowicz, president of Krakow’s Jewish community.
There are many reasons drawing non-Jews to the university’s Jewish studies program.
Young Poles who grew up after the fall of Communist rule in Poland often had little or no exposure to Judaism in their education. Some of them see Judaism somewhat mystically, defined by an absence of Jews in the villages, towns and cities once full of Jews.
For others, such as Karolina Komorowska, whose great-grandmother was a Righteous Gentile, the family legacy of reaching out to Jews was passed through the generations, spurring her to learn the language and culture of the people her progenitor found it in her heart to rescue.
Maciek Zabierowski, a student involved in the alliance, said that the event honoring the Righteous Gentiles was “very fruitful because young people were given the opportunity to learn about real heroes. Events like ‘In Honor of Those Who Acted’ create possibilities for taking Polish-Jewish dialogue a step further by spreading knowledge about common history and mutual understanding.”
In his remarks, the alliance’s president reiterated the importance of honoring Righteous Gentiles and their impact on future generations of Jewish people.
In founding the alliance and engaging in Polish-Jewish dialogue, Misler said, he “learned that a country is neither bad nor good, but that the people within the country act as individuals and make their own individual choices.”
Misler added that the Righteous Gentiles’ legacy will “live forever in the proud history of Poland and in the lives of the thousands of Jewish men, women and children and their progeny who had the amazing good fortune to encounter one of them. May none of us ever be put to the test that they so magnificently passed.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.