The AlteNeu (Old and New) Jew

krakow JCC sign

The Germans did not bomb Krakow – it was the seat of Hans Frank’s General Government. Because of this,  the buildings are old and beautiful – three stories, colorful with intricate facades. Some have been kept up well, others are peeling and cracking – showing their age – just like the hand full of Holocaust survivors who live here.

I met a few of these survivors at the Krakow Jewish Community Center (JCC). They have a group called Children of the Holocaust. Many of them also participate in the JCC senior’s club. Most of them were hidden children during the war – hidden in convents or by Righteous Gentiles. After the war, they remained in Poland, but many kept their Jewishness secret. For some – even from their own children.

But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Poland changed. Democracy became the norm and society thawed. The Krakow Jewish Community Center, founded in 2008, creates a safe and inviting space for these survivors. Their secrets can see sunlight.

Kristina never told her children or grandchildren that she was Jewish, but with the opening of the JCC, she secretly began attending senior events and reclaiming her Judaism. One day, her granddaughter, Magda, overheard her telling a friend on the phone that she was going to the JCC. Inquiring why she was going there, Kristina confessed – “I am a Jew.”   Magda, wondering what this meant, explored her Jewish identity at the JCC. Magda is now also an active member of the Krakow Jewish Community.

Zosia is another child survivor who came to the JCC and found a warm and welcoming place. She gives the Dvar Torah (short thought about the weekly Torah portion) at the JCC’s weekly Friday night dinner and sings in the JCC choir.  (she is the woman on the far left)

Krakow JCC choir

This third, post-Holocaust generation – dubbed by Katka Reszke as “the unexpected generation” – continue to discover their Jewish roots and to celebrate them.  Katka is one of the unexpected generation.  At age 15,she woke up and had an inexplicable feeling that she was a Jew.   She asked her parents if there were any Jews in the family and they assured her – -there were not. Well, after much study and personal reflection, she began to lead and still leads a Jewish life. It was only after death-bed confessions of two grandparents, that her mystical hunch was confirmed. She indeed has Jewish roots on both her father and mother’s side.

In just nine days in Poland, I met many young people. They all told some version of the same story. They found out they were Jewish as teenagers or in their early 20’s, or knew they were Jewish but were never allowed to talk about it, let alone practice.

OK, Poland is no Jerusalem, but after spending two Shabbatot there, I felt the vibrancy, excitement and potential of the Warsaw and Krakow Jewish communities. In Warsaw, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, has worked for the past 25 years to create safe and meaningful Jewish spaces for both the survivors and the unexpected generation. On Saturday night in Warsaw, I attended a silent dance party at the JCC. It was amazing. Putting on head phones and tuning in to channel 1 – the one with the Israeli and Hebrew songs – I began to dance together with Shoshana, Esther, Micha and some of the Warsaw Jews. I connected to them through movement and smiles – we danced in a circle, a line or solo.

There was a break in the dancing and we all gathered outside while Rabbi Schudrich made Havdalah- the ceremony with wine, candle and sweet smelling spices that separates Shabbat from the rest of the week.   We continued to danced inside and outside the small JCC. I saw a young man standing in the corner, watching. I went over and introduced myself. I asked if he wanted to dance with us. He said no thanks.   I asked why he was there. He told me he is not Jewish, but he comes from a small town outside of Warsaw and he never saw a Jew before. So he was in Warsaw and wanted to come to the JCC to see some Jews. I was not sure if I should laugh or cry, but I shook his hand and said “super” (this is actually a Polish word).

Warsaw JCC Rabbi Schudrich Havdala

I was in Krakow the following Shabbat. It was just hours before the opening of the 26th annual Jewish Festival.  So world class Chazanim (cantors) and the choir from the Jerusalem Great Synagogue filled the Old Izaak’s shul with music that gave me chills. I sat in the shul and wondered who sat in this seat before me – before the war.

I ate Friday night dinner at the JCC. It was festive and the room was packed. There were approximately 150 people. About half were tourists like us, but the other half were “regulars” – Jews of Krakow – old and young – who come each week to celebrate Shabbat together.

Saturday morning, I again prayed at the Old Izaak’s synagogue. As Hebrew letters faded from the walls, the harmonies bounced off the vaulted ceiling. I ate lunch at the JCC where I had the opportunity to study the Torah portion of the week with Rabbi Avi Baumol and some of the young Krakow Jews. I met a young woman from the Ukraine who came to Krakow to study in the University. She knew her father was Jewish, but it was a family secret. There was nothing positive associated with being Jewish. One day she wandered into the JCC and sat down in an intro to Judaism class. At the end the Rabbi said if you have one grandparent who is Jewish, you can be a member of our Jewish Community. She told me that this was the first time she ever had anything positive associated with being Jewish. She signed up.

One of the last things I did in Krakow on Sunday afternoon was attend a JCC choir concert.  It was held in the small, but beautiful courtyard between the JCC and the Temple Synagogue. I grabbed a glass of Israeli wine at the bar and sat on a stool – the only space left to sit among the crowd of people. I listened to this group of old and young Krakow Jews sing Sabbath songs, Jewish prayers and Yiddish melodies.   The voices were beautiful and the harmonies delightful. The encore song was Mizmor L’David – the 23rd Psalm – the same melody that we sing at our Shabbat table each week. I sang along, mesmerized by the sound. At the end, I clapped. Turning to Esther I said – “Right now, my soul is filled with joy.”

I left Poland wanting more. I can’t wait to finish my book and come back. I got my first invitation for a book party – from the Krakow JCC.

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