Bus station bookstores are telling. Vilna’s window showcased a Paulo Coehllo novel. Impressive. Krakov’s station exits were lined with book sellers reminding me of NYU’s W 4th Street in front of the library or along Broadway in the Upper West Side. The variety included political, fiction, and more surprising, a few books about Judaism including a book in Hebrew. Here is a city enamored with its Jewish past and and imbedding into the present and future. A daunting task with what? 100?200? Jews that remain here. You’ve heard it before, but ‘it’s complicated’. But then, it wouldn’t be interesting if it wasn’t.
The heart of Krakow is the old city, spared during WWII (and it is important to identify which war) because Krakow was part of Germany and the Germans found use for the Syagogues turning them into stables for example. And so this city’s old town complete with a castle retains the charm of a Medeival City – which it is. Or should I say it is old on the outside and modern and hip on the inside. The large open square, Market Square is steps from my hostel and entering it is like walking into a fair ground peppered with uutdoor restaurants, muscicians, a court jester, people selling their version of pretzels, and of course tourists milling about. It was in front of the Squared large church that I joined a walking tour to Kazimirez, the former Jewish Quarter.
Pawel, our guide isn’t Jewish, but loves Jewish culture, especially the Jewish Cultural Festival that takes place in June/July for the past 20 years. More than once he talked about his love of the culture and even how other tour guides think he looks Jewish but only becuase of his beard. Jews were expelled from the Old Town in the 17th century when they were blamed for ‘problems’. Kamirez, the ruler at the time had no problems with the Jews, in fact had a Jewish lover, but decided to ‘keep the peace’ it made sense to move them out of town. But a tunnel was built from the city to Kamirez as they part of the city became known so he could visit his lover Ester. I instantly thought of the story of Purim where an Ester, one of King Ahusverous’s wife and saved the Jews. Here, Ester is memorialized by a hotel.
Krakow’s Jewish Quarter (former) is where the beginning of the movie Schindler’s list was filmed and also the location of the factory. Amid the amber shops, numerous bars, nightclubs and roving tourist groups it’s hard to believe that less than 70 years ago mankind was constructing such horrific destruction.
Before the war there were 68,000 Jews here, 3,000 after the war, and based on documentation there are now 100 Jews here. Once again it goes back to how a Jew is defined. All this was explained to me by Klaudia Klimek, a young woman active in the Jewish community and who I ‘met’ through a young Hungarian woman on my tour at the Museum at Eldridge Street. Klaudia is a dark-haired version of the actress in the TV series ‘Revenge’ and has the energy of 3 people. We met in front of my hostel and took the tram to the Jewish Quarter for a personal tour and more personal insights.
At the age of 13 Klaudia learned that she was Jewish from her father. His mother (her grandmother) was Jewish though she never told Klaudia. She was given a choice to go to a Jewish camp or elsewhere and from then on she chose to follow her Jewish roots. Why? She feels connected. I’ve certainly heard that before, that connection is a key to rootedness. Klaudia has gone on to teach Sunday school at the Jewish Cultural Center (JCC) sometimes to kids who knew more than her and now attending conferences of Judaism around the world. It’s her passion/hobby that she is looking to possibly turn into a career. One of her projects is creating a group of youth journalists to write about Jewish life in their towns. Yet one more way to provide strength and connection through stories.
The JCC takes its task to involve the community seriously since with less than 200 members, everyone needs a chance to participate. There are regular ‘meeting’s for seniors: people in their 40’s and 50’s (her dad is a regular) and then meetings for those who are older. There is Sunday school for the younger children. Most telling though is the number of synagogues or prayer groups: FOUR. There is the orthodox synagogue, the Tempel Synagogue or progressive group, Chabad (very small), and then a new Reform group with a woman Rabbi with about 40 members. Klaudia has been involved with the first two groups though is certainly a secular Jew.
The Jewish Quarter is peppered with. or should I say lightly peppered with Jewish ‘places’. There are several kosher style restaurants, one real kosher restaurant, a few very charming cafe’s, including one where we had Israeli style coffee, the Heder Cafe. A very small, sparsely stocked kosher store gives insight into how difficult it is to buy kosher food and the commitment it takes. Once again I am reminded of how easy it is for me to keep kosher without the need to even consider doing so. There were several bookstores stocked with books in several languages about the Holocaust, Jewish life, Judaism, as well as Klezmer music CD’s, notebooks, postcards and posters. It was all too much to take in a short time though perhaps it was a good thing. If I’d had a lot of time who knows how much I would have bought. I did buy a Klezmer CD at the cafe/bookstore that is frequented by the man known as the Last Klezmer. Although he wasn’t there, his red leather seat was in full view of the front door with a small, distinguished RESERVED sign centered in the middle of the table.
Klezmer music, a high-spirited mix of strings and horns is the sound of old Jewish Europe. This is the beat of the Jewish Cultural Festival that draws people from all over the world every summer. Klaudia assures me though it is not just sentimental and passionate Israeli’s and New Yorkers who show up to dance in the streets and open synagogues. The locals also love the music. This is further evidenced by the crowd that appeared when there was an ‘Open Seven Synagogue Night’. All seven synagogues in the Quarter were open one night complete with music and the streets were packed with locals rediscovering a part of the city’s cultural past.
As I heard in Warsaw, people are enamored with Jews and being Jewish. It all depends on how far you go back and what you can document. There are 30 – 40 young Poles eligible for Operation Birthright every year. This is a program that takes young Jews to Israel for a few weeks to reconnect with Judaism and Israel. To participate you have to prove your connection through a Grandparent. Klaudia went since there was proof that her grandmother left Krakow for a few years during the war because of acts against her (religion).
The JCC is staffed with a cadre of young volunteers who are in interested in Jewish culture. The Reform Synagogue is attended by others who are perhaps more loosely connected with Judaism. Klaudia seems less than luke warm about both of these groups of people. Yet while she is strongly involved in Jewish life here she can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery since technically she is not Jewish because her mother is not. Complicated layer upon complicated layer.
Of course I had to ask about anti-Semitism even though I received that same ‘oh puhleese’ look I received in Vilna from the woman in the Tolerance Center. Klaudia said I may see graffiti of a Magen David (Jewish star) along with the words Jew die or Jew go to the gas. A shuddering thought but one not referring to the race but rather the football team. There are two teams here and one was known as the Jewish team.
Before I close I’ll just share a bit of Klaudia’s Grandmother’s story which is so telling of this era of Jewish diaspora. There were 8 or 9 children in the family and during the war, they dispersed. One brother went to France and then to Argentina, one to Sweden, one eventually to New York. A sister went east to the Soviet Union, another was crossing the river, her husband on the other side when the boat tipped and she was killed. The Grandmother stayed. Klaudia’s father says the stupid are lucky and she certainly was, evidenced by giving birth to one son during the war and one shortly after. While most of the time she lived in town, she did leave for two years and was hid by a family in the countryside. At one point in time she was arrested and the Argentinian brother bailed her out (with Diamonds). With a Polish husband, she raised her sons. Looking beyond the presence of Jewish life looks assured thanks to Klaudia and others like who are connecting. Once again I”m reminded of what I’ve heard: “We’re still here.’