US-Backed Attempt to Revive Poland's Jewish Heritage Falters
Only 5,000 Jews remain from pre-war 3 million population
KRAKOW, POLAND — On the corner of a building on Jakuba Street in the Kazimierz quarter of Krakow, faded Hebrew lettering can be seen beneath the paint, a small but telling sign of the 70,000 Jews who once lived here.
Indeed a smattering of Judaica galleries, restaurants, and bookshops have opened here in the past few years, but they seem more like relics from an ancient civilization.
Now, through the Center for Jewish Culture in Krakow and other organizations, some Poles are working to revive this once-flourishing culture that was nearly erased by the Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, which is nearby. But many obstacles still litter the path to reviving Judaism in Poland. "Our own lack of proper knowledge makes it difficult," says Joachim Russek, the center's director, who is non-Jewish. "It would be easier if we were all from typical Jewish homes, but we're not. That the center is run predominately by non-Jewish Poles for non-Jewish Poles simply reflects the sad reality."
Today, an estimated 5,000 Jews live in this country of 40 million. There were 3 million Jews in Poland before World War II. After the war, 200,000 Polish Jews returned. But hopes for a future in Poland were shattered in 1946 after a pogrom left 43 Jews dead and 60 injured. Afterward, 100,000 Jews left for Palestine marking the start of a mass exodus. During the next 20 years tens of thousands of Jews left.
Of the Jews left in Krakow, only a handful are actually registered members of a synagogue. For Jews who observe holidays, it isn't always easy, says Wotjek Ornat, a partly Jewish restaurant owner. Matzoh must be imported from either Britain or Israel and there are only two kosher restaurants in the entire country; one in Krakow, the other in Warsaw.
The cultural center opened in 1993 with an initial $2 million from the US Polish-American Joint Commission set up specifically for this task. The US government no longer provides such financial assistance since there is no money left in the commission, says Yvonna Sadecka, a public-affairs officer at the US consulate in Krakow. "The government gave the money because it was an important thing to establish this center."
The center's Mr. Russek, a lawyer by training, first worked with the Research Center on Jewish History and Culture, a department of Jagiellonian University in Krakow. The cultural center was founded to reach a larger audience. Jewish history and traditions couldn't be openly discussed here until communism ended, says Robert Godank, a non-Jewish staff member at the Cultural Center. "People started reading Isaac Bashevis Singer [a Polish-born Yiddish writer]. For most people that was the extent of their understanding of Jewish culture. But some others kept on, wanting to learn more."
Today several thousand visitors a year from Poland and around the world come to the three-story center, formerly a synagogue. The center has a library, promotes research on the Kazimierz quarter, supports restoration efforts, and helps the descendants of Krakow's Jews in genealogical searches.
However, any effort to revive Judaism in Poland must create common ground between non-Jewish and Jewish Poles, says Patrice Champion, director of the French Institute of Krakow. Last year the institute sponsored a two-day symposium called "Jewish Memory-Polish Memory."
"It is true that the extreme-right Catholics are still overtly anti-Semitic, but people are becoming more willing to accept Jews here. Simply the fact that we can start to talk openly about the past, or that something like the center exists is very important," he says.
Yet no effort will be successful without the support of Krakow's tiny Jewish population, says restaurateur Mr. Ornat. And while Ornat respects Russek's work, he isn't sure it's enough to see Judaism blossom here. But Russek and others remain determined: "We can try to make the emptiness felt by Jews living here or returning here a little less."