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Around the Jewish World Sukkahs Built in Polish City Honor Krakow’s Proud Jewish Past

October 5, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Three sukkahs are growing in Krakow this fall. The sukkahs, built to commemorate the harvest festival, join a host of Jewish symbols that have become commonplace in the city today.

The symbols appear to be a partial answer to the question of how citizens of Poland, non-Jews as well as the Jewish community of no more than 5,000, will address its proud Jewish past — a process that began after the fall of communism in 1989.

The Remuh Synagogue is home to one of the sukkahs.

Built in the 1500s, the synagogue was restored in 1957 and serves the city’s small Jewish population, providing Orthodox services and holiday celebrations. The sukkah near the entrance to the synagogue joins the cemetery out back as a symbol of Jewish continuity.

A second sukkah stands in the courtyard outside the Galicia Jewish Museum, a new exhibit devoted to portraying the Jewish past in the historic region of Galicia through contemporary photographs depicting the remnants and relics of Jewish life.

Jaime Ashworth, the director of education at the Galicia Museum, said the museum hoped to “provide a space for people who are interested in the tradition but who don’t know what to do with it, for people who have given up on finding Jewish culture in Poland.”

Przemyslaw Piekarski, an assistant professor at the city’s Jagiellonian University, where he teaches Yiddish, constructed the sukkah from branches that were lying in his yard.

Sitting in the sukkah, Piekarski told JTA, “I had mixed feelings performing the mitzvah of making the sukkah,” noting that Jews made up a quarter of the prewar population of Krakow. If that proportion was true today, there would now be approximately 200,000 Jews in this city; the number of Jews registered with the official community currently stands at 140.

That number would be much larger in Warsaw, which had a prewar Jewish population of 300,000, making up one-third of the city’s total.

The Galicia Museum must negotiate the line between observing religious tradition and presenting cultural experiences to its Polish and foreign visitors: The museum holds Yiddish folk concerts and weekly Hebrew and Yiddish lessons. For Rosh Hashanah, it hosted a night of music, dance and practical instruction into the religious customs surrounding the holiday, and it closed for Yom Kippur.

Ashworth, a non-Jew originally from Britain, said the museum is proud to offer its foreign Jewish patrons the chance to fulfill the mitzvah of entering the sukkah in Kazimierz, the Jewish district of Krakow.

At the same time, non-Jewish visitors, particularly local Poles, see the structure and begin to ask questions about its significance to the Jewish people, he said.

One of Krakow’s museums was planning to host a special event where Polish schoolchildren will make decorations for the sukkah, which will stay up past the holiday to allow time to display the children’s work.

Asked whether people would take the mitzvah a step further and sleep in the sukkah at the Galicia Museum, Ashworth, the educational director, said, “I’m not sure that’s a great idea in October in Poland,” where the temperature most nights is already in the low 40s. “Living is also a mitzvah.”

Allen Haberberg, an American Jew who owns the Hotel Eden in the heart of Kazimierz, is responsible for another new physical sign of Jewish life in the city.

Haberberg, whose grandparents were Polish Jews, moved to Poland 10 years ago. His hotel is an oasis for Jewish visitors to Krakow: It is right around the corner from the Remuh Synagogue, and home to the only kosher food in the city.

Recently, Haberberg decided to inquire about purchasing a Torah for the hotel.

He enlisted the help of Rabbi Edgar Gluck, a New York rabbi experienced in scrutinizing Torahs for flaws.

Gluck certified that the Torah was kosher, even subjecting it to a computerized scan to assure that no letters had flaked off or torn, and flew the Torah to Krakow first class.

Haberberg dedicated the Torah in memory of his father, who passed away earlier this year.

The Eden also houses the only mikvah, or ritual bath, in Poland.

To Haberberg, the proliferation of sukkahs, the Torah and the mikvah are signs of the return of a renaissance in Jewish life, or at least a maintenance of Jewish life, in Poland.

It’s saying, as Haberberg put it, “You didn’t get us all. We’re still here.”

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