Krakow: Jewish identity returns
The Jewish Community Center in Krakow is a contact point for Holocaust survivors, Jewish and non-Jewish Poles.
Holocaust survivors and other Jews and non-Jews feel at home in the Jewish Community Center in Kazimierz. As the closest city to Auschwitz, Krakow's efforts matter.
"Building a Jewish future in Krakow" is written on a banner hanging across the entrance to the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Krakow's Kazimierz district.
It's a Friday, shortly before Shabbat, and more than 100 people are sitting at festively laid tables in the community center, waiting for the communal prayers and the Shabbat feast that follows.
Because the JCC sees itself as a non-religious, open place, guests from all over the world meet here every Friday evening: people of Jewish descent, but also those who are simply interested in Jewish culture, religion and tradition.
The JCC was officially opened in 2008 by Charles III, now King of the UK.
It's located in a spacious new building with large windows and bright rooms, offering space for cooking courses, a choir, Yiddish and Hebrew language classes, and even a kindergarten.
History of the Jewish community in Krakow
Before the Nazi occupation, Krakow was one of the largest Jewish communities in Poland, with approximately 65,000 people.
Today, some 50 Holocaust survivors live in the city on the Vistula River. Most survivors never or only reluctantly returned to the place from which their family, friends and relatives were deported by the Nazis and murdered in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp just 50 kilometers away.
The fact that Kazimierz was once home to a large Jewish community can be seen in the many synagogues, school buildings and mikvahs, the Jewish ritual baths. "Here, where Jewish culture has been so completely torn out, the cultivation of every Jewish root, no matter how small, is something very important," says Sebastian Rudol, deputy director of the Jewish Community Center.
He is pleased to note that the number of members is growing. The third post-Holocaust generation is discovering its Jewish origins. "Many of the 800 members of the Jewish community in Krakow are not Orthodox Jews, but people who have only recently realized that they have a Jewish identity because their family hid it from them for years."
Antisemitism stole Jewish identities
The impact of antisemitism led to a loss of Jewish identity in the decades following the Shoah, says Rudol. "Many only found out about their origins by chance. They had a DNA test or found their name somewhere in a Jewish online archive." The JCC also welcomes Jews who have had to flee Ukraine, providing them with a contact point and place to receive donations of food and clothing. "The JCC has taken in more than 200 Ukrainian Jews," adds Rudol.
Providing care for Holocaust survivors
When asked how the JCC looks after Holocaust survivors, Rudol says, "Most of them stop by every day." They come for memory training, or to have a chat or sing with others.
Among them is Bernard Offen, a regular at shabbat dinners. The 95-year-old film producer with the gray ponytail and bright blue eyes says he wants to use the time he has left to pass on what he knows about the Holocaust. Offen returned to Poland for the first time since the Holocaust in 1981, in what he describes as a process of healing that involved confronting his past.
Offen was witness to the inconceivable. He was born in 1929 in Krakow-Podgorze, which later became the Krakow ghetto. He survived five concentration camps: Plaszow, Julag, Mauthausen, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the Kaufering IV subcamp of the Dachau concentration camp, where he was liberated by US forces in 1945.
Now, Offen meets with young people at the JCC. "I think that Poles, especially the younger generations, know very little about what happened in the Holocaust," he says. "In my encounters here at the JCC, I try to make survival understandable, beyond the statistics. I talk about what happened to me, my father, my mother and my sister." More than 50 people in his family were murdered; apart from Bernard Offen, only his two brothers survived, with whom he reunited in Italy after the war.
Bernard Offen decided to make his home in Krakow again. The JCC has provided him with an apartment and helps him with daily tasks. He says that when it gets too cold for him in the winter, he returns to the United States to see his family there.
"I was never a Polish citizen. I was a Jew. That's how the Catholics here treated me. There was — and still is — discrimination," Offen says. "My message is that, if you're a religious person, you can't hate other people." He adds that, although the JCC is not a religious center, he's glad that, "it preserves a few traditions."
JCC receives support from the United States
Sebastian Rudol emphasizes that the JCC hasn't resurrected Jewish life in Krakow from nothing. It had never fully disappeared from the city.
But this renaissance was only possible once there was private financial support from the United States. "The Jewish committee in the US was very moved by the idea of a Jewish community near Auschwitz," he says.
Rudol adds that for a long time, Holocaust survivors and their descendants believed there was nothing left of Jewish life in Krakow aside from "blood and ash." Being located only an hour's drive from the former Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, Krakow is a particular location within Poland.
And Sebastian Rudol is aware of the responsibility that places on the JCC. "We have to be very active in promoting what we do here and talk about the Jewish resurgence and the fact that it is safe here. Because the more we talk about it, the more people will find out about it and maybe decide to come here," he says.
Bernard Offen is proof that's possible. Today, he takes young people to the places where he lived and survived. For him, the JCC is an "oasis of humanism."