Category Archives: Krakow

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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Auschwitz Thoughts: From unimaginable to awe

There are a few ‘must do’s in Krakow:  Auschwitz -Birkenau, Schindler’s Factory, and the Salt Mines, each reminders of the city’s past.  They also show the range of power mankind is capable of.  Although I’m in Budapest now, I had to share a few wide ranging and encompassing thoughts.

UNESCO Heritage site

Salt mine in Krakow

Krakow is a beautiful medieval city, complete with a castle, moat and never-ending winding streets.  Go back even further in time (about 700 years), 15 minutes away, and, about 500 steps beneath the surface to see what man took from the earth and the beauty he left in thanks.   The Salt Mines.  It amazes me people found salt all while uncovering its value.  Not to mention digging deep into the earth to satisfy man’s insatiable hunger for it.  This mine is unique:  as miners dug deeper and deeper in to the earth, they left their own messages through carvings of appreciation and beauty – maybe equivalent to today’s tagging and graffiti.

We reached this cavernous room  500 steps beneath the surface  by initially winding down 36o dizzying wooden steps.    Salt was so precious it became the root of the word salary.  People were (literally) paid in salt.  Our route to this  cathedral was on floors of salt,  encased in walls of salt and past small cathedrals made of, and carved into the salt.  The religious scenes were carved by miners out of love. Which religion?  You wouldn’t know it by my writing but  Krakow and this region of Galicia is strongly rooted in Catholicism.  My lasting impression of  the beauty and grandeur of this UNESCO heritage site is that this is a great symbol and reminder of the beauty mankind is capable of creating.

But mankind is complicated and easily seduced by greed, fear, loneliness and the need to comply with Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest’ in horrific ways nature seems unable to mimic.  Only 40 miles away from the depth of man’s beauty is another reminder of  mankind’s emotions.  This one focused on the cruel and unimaginable crimes mankind can create and impose on its fellow members.

Gate to hell; Auswitch

Work is freedom though there was no freedom from work here

This gate is the symbol of Auschwitz.   Though like most  things in life, can’t be captured by a picture.  Walk through this gate, through the camp barracks, crematorium, unloading platform at Birkenau and to the underground gas chambers and crematorium.  Steady yourself for the bombarding emotions of horror, sadness, loss, outrage, and, disbelief.

While standing on the unloading and selection platform in Birkenau and on the land where in winter women were forced to run naked in wooden clogs through the mud to take cold showers,  I ask myself again:

What creates enough hatred to disarm any semblance of a moral compass?

It’s a cold drizzly day, and certainly this hallowed ground, this cemetery must only have weather as sad as its story.  I’m cold in my layers of Polartec while thinking about my sore feet.  I  know in an hour I’ll be sitting in a warm bus sipping hot tea.   My cousin Sue says she always carries food in vestigial memory of those who got a cup of dirty water for dinner after working for 12 hours.   Hunger  is a feeling we may have when we haven’t eaten for a few hours.  I’m in tears as I walk around, bloated with emotions caused by the Nazi’s hunger for destruction.  Or rather to stave off their own fear.

What else can I feel other than outrage and horror except disbelief?

We are told over and over that though Jews heard about Auschwitz (and the other camps) they didn’t believe it was possible such places could exist.  Understandable – how could any feeling human being believe humankind capable of such acts?   Sadly,  this is part of mankind’s legacy.  Sadly this demonstrates the cunning, artful planning, and, exacting implementation  wasted on horrific deliberate and hateful genocide.

There’s sadness and heartbreak over the lost beauty and potential of the brilliant (more than) one  and a half million Jews who were killed here.  Imagine how different the world might be if those souls had lived.

Yet another emotion fills me as I walk and listen to our guide:  Awe.  I can’t help but be filled with  Awe, respect and pride.   Really.  I know it sounds strange.  Imagine:  That people with numbers tattooed to their forearms (and this was the only camp with tattoos) endured, survived, and went on to thrive. 

Victor Frankel in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ along with others wrote about this enduring ability of man to survive.  Standing in the cold drizzle through stark barracks and looking at the concrete bunks dusted with straw as a mattress and hearing about how bodily fluids drizzled from the top to the bottom third bunk,   I can only repeat what my mother says:  ‘The greatest miracle of all is that there are still Jews in the world.”

Books, movies, talks have shared many stories.  And as Survivors are nearing the end of their lives, even more stories are fortunately being told.   I think each and every one of us can never read or see enough.  They say Auschwitz is a place everyone should visit.  It is. These days a sign at the entrance proclaim children under 14 should NOT visit.  Clearly this sign was absent from 1941 – 1945.  (Several hundred babies were born here and some 27 are still alive – How is that for a miracle!).

When I was in Krakow’s Jewish Quarter, entering the active Orthodox Remuh Synagogue, I saw a group of Yeshiva boys leaving, dragging suitcases behind them.  Surprised, I turned to Klaudia.   Before I opened my mouth to ask about them, she let me know they were probably from New York or Israel.

Entering the crematorium in Auschwitz, the sound of men singing the Mourner’s prayer seemed both appropriate and haunting.  Inside the farthest corner of this space stood these same Yeshiva boochers (I know I misspelled that) fervently swaying and praying.  My guide told me this is the only time she has seen men praying there.

Schindler’s Factory, which most of us know from the movie Schindler’s List, is  a ten minute walk from the Jewish Quarter.  It  is  now a state of the art interactive museum about Krakow’s German occupation.  Pictures of the the lucky Jews selected to live and work in the factory welcome visitors at the beginning of the exhibit.    I look carefully at each one, wondering if I’ll see a face reminding me of others I know.

While there is so much to write about – in fact whole books have been written that I know I can’t do justice to any of it right now .  I will mention there is a lot of controversy about Oscar Schindler’s character and motive in helping Jews.  My feeling:  screw motives!  Forget he was a womanizer, gambler, drinker.  After the war, he moved to Argentina (paid for by the Jewish community) with his wife and two of his lovers.

Bottom line:  He saved Jewish lives  and for that he is to be commended and celebrated.

It may seem Krakow’s Jewish history is seeped in the past.  Not at all true!  The Jewish community here is proud of its four synagogues/groups representing its 100 (or 200) Jews.  If you are thinking that is a lot of groups for a few people I agree.  Perhaps this is the quintessential Jewish option considering the ‘joke’ for the need of at least two synagogues:  ‘One to pray in, the other I’ll never step foot in.”

As I wrote about a few days ago, yes there are lots of options:  everyone needs to participate.   Participation may be attending free Friday night dinners at the Jewish Culture Center (JCC) built by Prince Charles.  Anna Gulinska, the JCC’s program manager told me after dinner people go out for drinks  at Mechanoff, one of the trendy bars in the neighborhood.   Those who are observant and can’t carry money during Shabbat pay their bar tabs on Sunday.  Gotta love it!

Anna is a symbol of Judaism’s resurgence in Poland.  To begin with: she isn’t  Jewish. Her interest in  Jewish studies began in high school in Tarnoff.   Before the war, 40 % of the population was Jewish, now represented and remembered by the overgrown cemeteries, ruined synagogues and street names in Hebrew.   Intrigued (which says a lot about her)  she entered a contest for high school students.   She interviewed a Jewish woman, who was rescued from the ghetto by a Polish guard, who fell in love with her.  Yes, another miraculous story.  This guard rescued both her and her 2 sisters.  He later refused any honor from Yad Vashem – he saved for love .

This woman  is now 92 and living in Krakow.  She is glad Anna is interested in Jewish history since her grandchildren are not.  Anna stresses that the strength of the community is in the living ,in the present.   Not the ghosts of the past.  She hopes  people walk away remembering that Jewish culture has been and is an important part of Polish history for thousands of years.  She stressed this history needs to be preserved.  Personally I think it is wonderful she is there to contribute to celebrating this next chapter.

There is one more conversation I want to share, but not today.  Swavick Postuske, a Krakow’ Jewish Studies student was hanging around the JCC.  He stood out for two reasons – he is young and he was wearing a yarmulke!   Although he kept saying his English was bad, we talked for over an hour.   I want to give justice to his stories which are amazing as you can imagine!