Today was the most powerful of the trip so far. We spent a good part of the early afternoon touring the Kazimierz part of Kraków, the old Jewish Quarter.
After visiting the old, we went on to see the current Jewish Community Centre in this modern and trendy city. Firstly we heard from one of the survivors, Marla, who now lives in England. Her story is a horrifying first hand account of life in the harsh ghettos of Poland; she described the beatings that were given and the losses of friends and family, the deportations from one horrible place to another and then the unfathomable conditions within the death camp from where she was liberated by the British: called Bergen-Belsen. I have tremendous respect for the survivors for continually telling their story to many groups year after year. It cannot be easy re-telling difficult stories, let alone the energy needed to travel regularly across Europe. I thank them for joining us and I take it upon myself to ensure that their testimony isn’t forgotten going forward.
Following this we heard about the future of Jewish life here in Poland, specifically in Kraków. Members and volunteers of the current Jewish Community Centre spoke. These are young Jews who have been brought up Jewish in Poland or have discovered their Jewishness. One girl googled her name when she was 12 and found lots of Jewish content; she questioned her mother who confirmed it. She then set it upon herself to discover Judaism through the JCC and she is now a key member of the community. Another non-Jewish girl, Kinga, came to the JCC to learn about Judaism, only to discover that her Grandmother also kept milk and meat separate in the kitchen. Rabbi Avi Baumol pointed out that she is probably Jewish and is now part of a conversion class with him. Everyone here engages with Judaism in a positive way, in an open and welcoming context; a fantastic contrast to the history of the Nazi occupation. A discussion about current levels of antisemitism showed that the young people living here in Kraków feel very safe and extremely positive about a strong Jewish future despite the relatively small size right now.
Fortunately we had the opportunity to hear from another survivor, Renee. Her story involved many deportations to different camps. Each event seemed worse than the other; she mentioned the fear that overcame her when a man couldn’t get his wedding ring off when prompted by the SS on entry to a camp: he was threatened with the guards chopping the finger off but fortunately managed to squeeze it off. She mentioned someone who stole a small piece of bread that she was clutching whilst sleeping; she was saving it for her cousin but couldn’t believe someone could be so awful in the camp. Almost all of her family were lost to the Nazis and she spent time both at Auschwitz and finally Bergen-Belsen.
The camp was liberated by the British and the prisoners were treated extremely well by these soldiers. They had not been given any compassion for years, but the British did everything they could to make sure that the victims were looked after in the best possible way.
Our final “processing” session was extremely interesting. Focussing on the question of whether the world has a good Jewish future and specifically if Poland does. Our discussion took on many points, such as the prevalence of anti-semitism globally, but also about the validity of the small and powerful Jewish community in Kraków.
I raised a point from my personal experience with the JCC Kraków that I have been welcomed by the members, staff, volunteers and Rabbi for the last 6 months. We had a 150 person strong Seder night last week which was extremely powerful for me. The doors are open to anyone. This is a great statement, especially given the location. The key to a happy future is no doubt increasing education to everyone, no matter their background with Judaism. The level of observant Jews here is not going to grow overnight to the levels they were before the war, however this example of a strong Jewish open community here is immensely valuable and we all agree a fantastic attitude in making the world a better place.