Krakow's Jewish community copes with Poland's controversial Holocaust law
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A recent law that forbids ascribing Holocaust atrocities to the Polish State has sowed malaise in Krakow, where the city’s Jewish community has been enjoying a revival over the past decade.
It is Friday night in Krakow: in the Kazimierz district, which boasts the city’s densest collection of bars and foodtrucks, a small group of Orthodox Jews clad in white shirts, black pants and kippas threads its way through the tourists and partygoers. Before the Second World War, this district was home to most of the city’s 65,000 Jews, a quarter of Krakow’s population. At the time, there were three million Jews in Poland. By 1945, 90 percent of that population had been exterminated, in part at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 60 kilometres west of Krakow. Rare are the Holocaust survivors who chose to stay.
Little by little after the fall of Communism and the filming of Steven Spielberg’s WWII period drama Schindler’s List, the cobblestoned streets of Krakow’s old Jewish quarter regained their (more or less authentic) lustre. Shops feature statuettes of Wandering Jews for a handful of zlotys; self-styled kosher restaurants that serve pork are a reminder that Yiddishland is lost forever. But reality eventually caught up with those gimmicky re-creations: The past decade saw the veritable renaissance of a Jewish community in Krakow.
First Jewish crèche in 70 years
With its bright colours, the Jewish Community Centre of Krakow (JCC Krakow) established in the heart of Kazimierz in 2008, is a symbol of that renewal. Thirty-odd employees – “half Jewish, half not Jewish” – and some 55 volunteers are at work here to “build a Jewish future in Krakow”, the centre’s slogan says. “In 2008, the JCC had about 100 members, now we have 700,” explains Assistant Director Sebastian Rudol, whose enthusiasm is palpable as he recalls the opening last year of a nursery adjacent to the centre, “the first Jewish nursery in Krakow in 70 years”.
In that context, the Holocaust law the Polish Senate passed in February came as a real blow. “For the past 10 years, we were in a virtuous circle with a growing curiosity for Jewish culture and memory among Poles. This law created a lot of confusion. In 10 years of existence, we were at our lowest,” says Rudol. The legal text that spurred tensions with Israel, the United States and Ukraine is supposed to punish anyone who might, “contrary to the facts”, accuse the nation or state of Poland with participation in the crimes of Nazi Germany with three years in jail.
The law also loosened anti-Semitic tongues, and not just on social media. “Over the past four months, our association has noted more anti-Semitic incidents than ever before,” says Anna Tatar, an activist for the anti-racism NGO “Nigdy Więcej” (Never again), created in 1996. It is said at a neighbouring synagogue that members of the Jewish diaspora cancelled their trips in the days following the vote on the law and that tourists preferred to celebrate Shabbat in their hotel rooms, afraid of venturing outside. The climate recalled another, 50 years ago: “Some made the comparison with the anti-Semitic campaign the regime led in March 1968,” says Anna Tatar. Back then, thousands of Jews fled the country.
An ‘unacceptable’ law
Several weeks on from February’s thunderclap vote, many looking back seem to interpret it similarly. “This law is not clear, but the government didn’t expect it would give voice to the anti-Semites,” says Rudol.
A few streets away, at the Isaac synagogue linked with the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Rabbi Eliezer Gurary speaks of it in similarly measured terms, saying “this text does not target Jews but it is still an unacceptable law”. Anti-Semitism is not exclusive to Poland, the rabbi says. “Anti-Semitism is also present in the US, in Europe, in France…”
In Rabbi Gurary’s community, which includes Polish Jews, Jews who have emigrated from the US and Israel, like him, and Polish Catholic converts, “people are not really worried”, he says. “You can lead a full Jewish life in Krakow without fear of an attack,” explains the rabbi, who habitually strolls through the streets in an overcoat and felt hat.
Weeks after parliament’s vote on the law and its signing by President Andrzej Duda, many are still hoping for a positive outcome: amid the international outcry, the president asked a high court to pronounce on the text’s constitutionality. Whether it is thrown out or not, the law is telling of the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party’s strategy: to draw advantage from national identity politics and showcase Polish heroism and martyrology… even if that means taking liberties with history.
It marks a step backwards for a country where, until the fall of the Communist system in 1989, the official line glossed over whole pages of the past. “The myth of a Polish nation that did nothing but look to save Jews during WWII was only challenged in the early 2000s by the historian Jan Gross with his investigation into pogroms committed by Poles. After that, people became aware that Poles had killed Jews during the war and that one could not speak of a single Polish attitude,” says Tatar.
'Don't tell anyone'
Poles’ complex relationship with their history, the Holocaust and the place of Jews comes into most striking relief in listening to personal stories. Rudol, who like many others at the JCC is not Jewish, explains that he sought to promote Krakow’s Jewish history out of an “interest in history”. “I am from Chrzanów, 20 kilometres from Auschwitz. It is a town that is currently 100 percent white and Catholic Poles. But my grandparents told me about their Jewish neighbours. Before the war, half the town’s population was Jewish,” he says. “Across Poland, Jews represented 20 percent of the population. It was a large minority. They had an important impact on Poland,” he says.
Marcjanna, 26, who heads the student club at the JCC, was 13 when she discovered she was Jewish. “Like all teens, I typed my name into Google and came across a family tree,” she says. When she asked about it, her mother said, “Yes, did I never tell you?” “It wasn’t a shock for me,” the young woman says.
Indeed, unbeknownst to her, Marcjanna’s family had already passed along a number of Jewish traditions: Separate dishes for meat and dairy-based dishes, gifts every day during the Christmas period (for Hanukkah), unleavened bread (matzo) around Easter (for Passover) and Judaism classes on Sundays because her mother found it “interesting”. “You know, but don’t tell anyone,” Marcjanna’s grandmother told her. That was in 2005, 15 years after the fall of Communism, when many Polish Jews who had survived the Holocaust were opting for discretion. “My story is not unique,” Marcjanna insists, when many Poles are, like her, just discovering their Jewish roots.
What about anti-Semitism? Marcjanna says she has faced it "only" twice in her life: Once, a drunk man who caught sight of her Star of David called her an “ugly Jew"; another time, after she had given a television interview, a commenter under the video posted that she should "go back to Israel". Still, she says, "There is no anti-Semitism" in Krakow, but "in the countryside, there might be".
'Don't forget that evil can grow bigger'
Between hidden Jewishness, anti-Semitism and lingering Holocaust guilt, it seems much has been left unsaid in some Polish families. Kamilla, Rabbi Gurary's assistant, confides that she hasn’t told her practising-Catholic mother-in-law that she works in a synagogue. She has already heard the woman say that "the Jews killed Jesus". But Kamilla, 46, thinks her mother-in-law is actually Jewish herself: "There are mysteries in her history; she spent her childhood hiding in a forest during the war," she says.
Kamilla, who calls herself a Judeophile, studied Judaism and named her daughter Hannah, “like Hannah Arendt". Why? "I have no idea. I love the Jewish religion," she says. She is part of the generation that, as schoolchildren visiting Auschwitz, was told the victims were Poles and Russians, but not Jews.
Very critical of a government that "every week finds a new Polish hero" and "opens the floodgates of xenophobia", Kamilla believes one must be vigilant. She cites Marek Edelman, one of the instigators of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, who said, "Don't forget that evil can grow bigger."
This article has been translated from the original in French.