Our guest blogger today is Paul Radensky, Museum Educator for Jewish Schools. His Ph.D. is in Jewish History with a focus on Eastern Europe. We've asked him to blog about his first trip to Poland.
Last month, I accompanied six graduate students for a week- long visit to Poland. The graduate students were Fellows of the Auschwitz Jewish Center, a program that brings young scholars to Poland to learn about the former Jewish community of Oswiecim and about the Holocaust.
We spent one day touring the Polish historical sites in Krakow and another day visiting the synagogues, the old Jewish cemetery, Plaszow, and the Schindler factory. Later in the week, we took a trip to Kielce, where we met with Bogdan Bialek, who is working with the Polish population in Kielce so with the goal that they will acknowledge the participation of their fellow Poles and ancestors in the 1946 Kielce pogrom. Afterwards, we travelled to a number of small towns which still have historic synagogues within them: Szydlow, Chmielnik, and Dzialoszyce. We then visited the small town of Lagow, the ancestral home of one the fellows who was on the program. On my own, I visited Auschwitz I and Birkenau. From Birkenau, I took a cab to the Auschwitz Jewish Center, where I met with Tomek Kuncewicz, the director, who showed me around the Center, including the beautifully restored Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue. After Auschwitz and Birkenau, being in a functioning synagogue was healing.
I was deeply impressed by Poland’s beauty, but the thing that struck me the most, in Krakow and beyond, was the near total absence of Jews. Ironically, the week I was there coincided with the Festival of Jewish Culture, which takes place in Kazimierz and probably attracts a few hundred Jews from abroad. Even so, outside of the venues of the Festival, there were practically no Jews to be seen. It is striking when we consider that Krakow was a quarter Jewish before the war, and in the small towns that I visited, the Jews were usually the majority of the population before the Holocaust. The absence of the Jews, especially in the presence of large abandoned or former synagogues, drives home the reality of the near complete destruction of Jewish life in Poland.
I say near complete, because I also saw some positive signs of life. We were in Krakow on Shabbat and we were fortunate to have a Friday night dinner with Rabbi Boaz Pash and members of the Krakow Jewish community. There were not huge numbers of people at the dinner, but there were some, and there were young people as well, which is a good omen. I saw another positive sign the next night when I attended a Melave Malka concert in the Tempel Synagogue in Kazimierz. Part of the programming for the Festival of Jewish Culture, the event included performances of different kinds of Jewish music. The place was packed. Traditionally the Festival draws thousands of people, but only a few hundred are Jews. And true to form, many of the Jews who came for the Festival were there, but the overwhelming percentage of the audience was Polish. The rise of interest in things Jewish by the Poles hopefully means a greater acceptance of and respect for Judaism. This is, in general, a good thing, but in the case of Poland, it may mean that more people with a Jewish past will be willing to step up to claim a Jewish present and a Jewish future. I would be remiss if I did not mention another hopeful sign for Krakow’s Jewish community: the establishment of the Krakow JCC. Like other JCCs, the Krakow JCC provides programs for seniors and is creating a nursery school program for the growing number of children in the community.
I left Poland grateful for having had the opportunity to visit. Seeing places where Jewish life had been and is largely no longer was sobering. Nevertheless, the story of Jewish life in Poland is still not a closed book. The reawakening of Jewish life in Krakow (and other Polish cities for that matter), the interest in Jewish culture by Poles, and the increasing Jewish presence (as in the Auschwitz Jewish Center) are causes for cautious optimism.
*This image is of the Tempel synagogue in Krakow.