A young man in a yarmulke swept through my field of vision and competed with Anna G.’s story for my attention. Don’t get me wrong, she was charming, passionate and brilliantly informative. But a yarmulke? Outside of a synagogue? Here in Krakow? And although we were in the Jewish Cultural Center (JCC built by Prince Charles, mentioned in ‘Krakow’s past blends into the present’ with the promise to write about Stawek), I couldn’t help but be intrigued by this proclamation of Jewishness. Anna seemed amused by my interest letting me know that about 15 men and one teen wear yarmulkes without anti-Semitism or curiosity. Nevertheless, I wanted to hear about this young man’s journey and how he came to be hanging out in the JCC on this Thursday afternoon.
Stawek P. gave a friendly but hesitant smile, letting me know his English
wasn’t very good. Sitting in a large meeting room decorated with a local artist’s paintings to the right of the reception area wasn’t very private or cozy. But as he settled into his story words flowed and we spoke for the next 90 minutes.
(Stawek corrected some of the facts in this post for me. He reported that there was a big chanukja on Szeroka Street and the JCC. Yes, the spelling for chanukja is correct, though I have misspelled his name – the second letter is closer to an ‘l’, though a letter that we do not have in the English alphabet! If you ever wondered why my spelling seemed ‘off’, it is because I often used spellings of my ‘host’ country.)
Stawek was born in Plesse (Pszczyna), a town with a large Jewish population before the war, reduced to 200 after, and now numbering 15 – his family. Following this family’s religious affiliation through the last few generations is a unique yet familiar story: Hasidic grandparents; secular, not Jewish parents, and now Stawek, a 20 year old Jewish studies student who wears a yarmulke. Proudly he shared he is 100% Jewish and 100% Polish. Poland was the land of the Jews, the capital of Jewish culture and the history of both people is tightly interconnected.
Going to synagogue wasn’t important growing up. Yet all his classmates went to church – not him. He didn’t celebrate the same holidays. When his teacher asked about Christmas he had a tree and presents but no tradition. (Something we can all think about this time of year!) When asked, Stawek is happy to be Jewish, a response I’ve heard elsewhere. There are 100 (or 200, depending on definition) Jews in Krakow, and he questions whether there will be Jews here in a generation. A response to ponder considering four congregations reach out to meet the needs of this small community.
Stawek ‘became’ Jewish since moving to Krakow for school although he grew up hearing his grandparents speak Yiddish, which he believes to be a dying language. It was Malgosia ( Perla), his paternal grandmother with whom he was close who told him about Jewish traditions. Malgosia died in 2003 and her miraculous story of survival is melded into his own.
Stawek’s great-grandfather Josef Anszel Lednicer in 1930’s , moved with his future wife from Krakow to (Pszcznya) Pless for economic reasons (NOT because he ‘saw’ danger as I previously wrote). In 1941 Malgosia was born while the family was in hiding. During the war, Polish friends of his great-grandparents gave them shelter in their house from 1940 to July 1941 . Shortly after, a Polish neighbor ‘outed’ Malgosia’s parents as Jews. In July 1941, the family separated as Malgosia’s parents went to the Sosnowiec Ghetto while she stayed with the host family. Two older children (Nesia and Alter) were placed with other families.
From the Sosnowiec Ghetto, Malgosia’s parents were sent to Auschwitz. Her Mother was sent to Ravensbrick, the Father to Bergen-Belson, where he survived the death march. Both were liberted by American troops. Both decided to return to Plesse at the same time where they were reunited – meeting randomly in the street! Collecting their three children from their ‘adopting’ families, Malgosia’s – and Stawek’s – family was the only full Jewish family in Plesse to survive the war.
A miracle. Another miraculous story of body and faith survival. These are the types of stories I could hear every day and which I was ‘gifted’ many times on my journey. These survival stories shared by children and grandchildren in synagogues felt even more miraculous. Like everything, survival is complicated, and in retrospect I wonder how the storyteller is effected and guided by their family’s miracle? As hidden and ‘forgotten’ Jews follow their hearts and curiosity into a synagogue or JCC, how do these personal and collective stories shape this next generations personal and religious identity? I don’t have the answer to these questions – yet. All I know is that stories continue to be told and shared, a sign of hope and wonder. And wonder raises questions that beg to be answered.