The Jewish community once destroyed by Nazi terror is flourishing again in Krakow and young people want to continue the Jewish tradition. One of them is Slawek, a 23-year-old who moved from his small town to the city to uncover his Jewish past.
“Hope, life and renaissance” are the three words written on the small signs that hang on the gate of the Jewish Community Centre in Krakow. These words describe what’s happening today in the city: Jewish life is being rebirthed, as different generations come to the centre to share their heritage and express their Jewish identity.
The city and the community mean a lot for 23-year-old Slawek*, who’s an active member of the Jewish community’s student club. He moved from a small town near the area of Galicia in Poland, to Krakow to be closer to his Jewish heritage. He wanted to be a part of the tradition and talk about his Jewish thoughts, as he never really did during his childhood. “When I was a child it was not something special for me. I just knew that we were Jewish,” says Slawek, dressed in tidy clothes and stylish glasses, making him look like any other university student in Europe.
Slawek’s parents were born into Jewish families, but they weren’t raised with Jewish traditions. This was typical at that time because Poland was healing from the Second World War and was ruled by a communist government. The Holocaust was over, but it was still a strong and fearful thought in people’s minds. Slawek says the country wasn’t ready for different nationalities, which meant children could be mocked at school. He remembers hearing children chanting, “Jew, Jew, Jew.” This is why Slawek’s grandparents didn’t want to convey the tradition strongly to their children, but rather they only had Jewish celebrations on certain occasions.
Slawek’s parents followed in their parent’s footsteps and raised him away from tradition. But, he was — in a way — always connected to Jewish culture because his family visited his grandparents’ house whenever there was a celebration. “We visited my grandparents’ house when it was the Jewish celebration. I remember my grandmother used to sniff an apple with spices and then she didn’t feel hungry anymore,” Slawek recalls, referring to the fasting that Jewish people keep on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
The family lost everything
Something changed for Slawek in high school. He had a great, open-minded class that allowed students to be different, which is why he decided to tell his classmates that he was Jewish. Slawek says this was a big change, as only his close friends in primary and secondary school knew about this. Telling the truth was a start to Slawek’s discovery process and he started searching for his identity and the history of his family. After high school he moved to Krakow and started Jewish studies at the university. He was happy in the city because he felt connected to his Jewish roots.
“Before I came here I wanted to talk about my Jewish feelings, but I couldn’t. There weren’t even Jewish places in my hometown; the last synagogue was closed in 1961. The only activity was the funerals,” Slawek says. When Slawek was born, there were 35 Jewish people in his hometown. Today, there are only 12.
His journey of searching for his family’s history has brought up many difficult things because of the Holocaust where Nazis took Slawek’s great-grandparents into concentration camps during the Second World War. Slawek is determined to know the stories of his family history. “The historical part of Judaism is for me more important than the religious part,” he says with a heavy voice.
Slawek’s grandparents survived because they were hidden with Polish families. He tries to talk about the history of his grandparents on his mother’s side, who are still alive. Although his grandfather talks about it when he remembers something, it’s often too difficult for him and he has to stop.
“We have only one, one photo of my grandfather’s parents. They had an amazing villa with 40 hectares of field. They had a car — the most luxurious car at that time,” Slawek says. “They had everything…and they lost everything.”
His interest in his family history is perpetual. It’s been difficult for him to get the stories he has today, but he still feels he doesn’t know enough. “Sometimes I have questions that nobody can answer,” he says with a pause. “But maybe I will find an answer.” When he eventually finds the answers, he’d like to publish their story.
The real magic
Before the Second World War there were approximately 60,000 Jews living in Krakow, which allowed Jewish life and culture to flourish. However, 90 percent of these Jewish people were killed during the Holocaust in the concentration camps.
Today, Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter in Krakow, attracts tourists from all over the world. They visit the Jewish museums here to learn more about the horrors of the Holocaust. Despite the scarring past, the quarter has several beautiful synagogues and exquisite Jewish food and music that tourists enjoy. “For tourists, this place is magic, but for me — no. Of course I feel good here because of the Jewish institutions and places and sometimes you can even feel the Jewish atmosphere,” says Slawek, who lives in one of the main street of the quarter.
The real magic for Jews doesn’t happen in the restaurant tables that are filled with eager tourists, but rather during the evening when people gather in the Jewish Community Centre in Kazimierz. Kazimierz is crowded with people wearing white and blue, the colours of the Israeli flag. There are old people, middle-aged people, young people, and children all singing together in Hebrew, one of the Jewish languages. In between the spurts of loud, melodic chanting, people enjoy barbecue food and socialize with one another. But, it’s not just any party, everyone is celebrating Israeli Independence Day, a true testimony to Krakow’s thriving Jewish community.
“When I came here, I started to be a real Jew. In the Jewish community we can be Jews. We have this special thought inside, ‘when we are together, we feel safe,’” Slawek says, using his hand to make an imaginary circle to symbolize the community’s strength.
It’s this sense of community that has Slawek coming to the centre every day. He says there’s always something happening: Friday is the Shabbat dinner, a Jewish day of rest for spiritual enrichment, Saturday is the prayer service, and the rest of the week entails everything from yoga to cooking workshops.
Although it’s called the Jewish Community Centre, it’s open for everybody — something Slawek thinks is necessary. “We cannot be closed. We are not only Jews, but also a part of European society. For me, it is amazing to meet people from all over the world,” he says. The centre’s inclusivity is important to Slawek, as he sees himself as Jewish, Polish and European.
While the Jewish Community Centre wants to be open, not everybody in Poland is ready for this. Slawek says that Polish identity is still strongly connected to Catholicism and there are anti-Semitic attitudes in the country.
“There are many right-wing politicians who say, ‘you are not Polish because you are not Catholic. You are a Jew, you are connected to Israel, so go to Israel,” he states.
Although the Jewish community in Krakow wants to focus on what is happening now and in the future, the past cannot be taken away, as it’s still present in people’s stories and thoughts. Slawek highlights that each person is different and handles things differently. While some people have always known that they are Jewish, many of Slawek’s friends in the centre are just learning about it today. He recalls a Jewish girl’s story about her grandfather who passed away. When she went to the funeral and opened the car door she realized ‘Oh my god, we’re in the Jewish cemetery.’ It’s these stories that illustrate the difficulties that Jewish people have endured after the Holocaust.
Despite the scars of the past that mark Krakow, the city is healing and the Jewish Community Centre is a part of this. Green is the colour of the centre, a colour that symbolizes those three words on the main gate: hope, life and renaissance. The Centre’s been an integral part of Slawek’s journey of uncovering his family history and providing the opportunity to continue his Jewish tradition.
“The blood of my family members is here. I want to continue their memory. For the old generation the things that happened are most difficult to deal with. For my parents it was the era of communism, but we — the third generation — we were born in free Poland,” Slawek says in an assured voice, as he knows the real meaning of freedom.
*Editor’s Note: Slawek doesn’t want to reveal his last name and hometown due to privacy reasons.