Signs of Jewish Life in KrakowApr 28, 2012 at 03:15:52 PM
My visit to Poland in 2006 was filled with great pain ― the overwhelming sense of destruction, emptiness and loss. But one spot that carried a sense of hope was Krakow.
Prior to World War II, Krakow was a burgeoning Jewish center that comprised 30 percent of the city's population, with 100 synagogues and a rich rabbinic tradition dating back to the 12th century.
During the Holocaust, like the rest of Poland, the Jews of Krakow were confined to a ghetto and then murdered in concentration camps.
The physical infrastructure of Jewish Krakow, however, remained largely intact. Following the Nazi invasion in September 1939, the Germans turned Krakow into their regional headquarters. So unlike the rest of Poland, Krakow was not subject to devastating bombings. Many of the synagogues were used as warehouses, and emerged from the war relatively undamaged. This preserved Krakow's Jewish historical and architectural legacy, and the synagogues stand today as a testimony to the grandeur that once was.
My visit to Krakow coincided with the annual Jewish Cultural Festival, a week-long summer event focusing on Jewish culture, history and religion that flourished in Poland before the Holocaust. It is fascinating to see tens of thousands of Poles converge on Krakow's old Jewish district, Kazimierz, looking to discover and experience the Jewish life that was so brutally snuffed out.
Now, a new Jewish institution is thriving in Krakow ― an American-style Jewish Community Centre. The local Jewish population, numbering around 500, partakes in Hebrew classes, lifecycle events, and weekly Shabbat dinners. There is even a staff genealogist to assist those seeking to uncover their long-dormant Jewish roots.
I've often thought that if given the opportunity to spend a month of quiet writing and study, the location I'd choose is Krakow. Walking the cobbled alleys of Kazimierz hearkens back to the life my own ancestors must have led in Eastern Europe. There is the original Beis Yaakov building founded by Sara Schenirer; the old cemetery where Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Remah) and the Tosfos Yom Tov are buried; and some of the grandest synagogues you could imagine. As strange as it may sound, Krakow ― though steeped in Jewish suffering ― remains full of Jewish inspiration.