A (Promised) Krakow Story and PICTURES!

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

Stawek P

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.

Some pictures:

This Krakow courtyard is likely to be one of the most memorable images from Holocaust movie history. This courtyard is from the opening scene of 'Schindler's List' and perhaps the reason we know of Krakow.

Marker found on the Schindler Factory which is now a museum about the occupation and worth a trip to Krakow to see

Yes, Krakow has a fairy tale castle and this is the sight that greeted me as I entered the old city on the way to the hostel

Blug, Wadia, and Michael, three amazing students from the Netherlands staying at my hostel. These young guys were full of personality and insight and were great fun to chat with

These chairs are the memorial to the Krakow Ghetto found on the outskirt of Kazimeriz the Jewish Quarter. The chairs represent the furniture the Jews brought that didn't fit into their small apartments as they were ordered into the ghetto. The chairs seem scattered throughout the square and face in different directions pointing towards possible destinations including Auschwitz and Palestine.

Krakow's ghetto wall was shaped like a tombstone (notice the curved top). The man who built the wall knew the fate that was in store for the ghetto residents

The Remah Synagogue is the oldest active (Orthodox) synagogue in Krakow from the 1500's. Orthodox Yeshivah boys come to pray here and at the Rabbi Yom Tov's grave.

The renowned Rabbi Yom Tov's Tombstone in the Remuh Cemetery. Notice the small scrolls on the stone - it's said if you write a wish and place it here it will be 'express-ed' to G-d since this Rabbi was so holy. His tomb is next to Yossele the Miser, the richest man in Krakow who was known to be miserly until his death when all the poor who had received anonymous allowances no longer did. In fact it was Yossele who had annonymously cared for them. And yes, I wrote a wish!

A view of the barracks inside the camp

Suitcases from Auschwitz. I didn't really want to take any pictures at the camp. Some pictures/images are famous: hair, piles of shoes, but it was these suitcases that hit me as reminders of the hope and optimism packed as Jews and others arrived.

These tracks show where the trains stopped in the camp as prisoners were unloaded and separated into groups - to work or to the chambers

The place for trendy nightlife is the former Jewish Quarter: Kazimeriz (Like New York City's former Jewish area, the Lower East Side, and Budapest's former Jewish QuarterThis main square was filled with restaurants, pretzel vendors, and as many locals as tourists

Krakow was untouched during the war. This traditional synagogue is one of seven in the city

I liked the message: all diferent all equal

Sign for July festival that brings thousands (of NY and Israeli Jews) to listen to music

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2 responses to “A (Promised) Krakow Story and PICTURES!

  1. Interesting post Linda.

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