Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Jewish Quarter and the Camps

On our first day in Cracow we met up with Bartosz, my fellow student from the Vilnius Yiddish Institute who lives here. He took us around the former Jewish district, much of which surrounds our hotel. We are located on Szeroka Street which is surrounded by three synagogues. Ironically, while there are many synagogues that survived in Cracow, there are only about 200 Jews. Many of the synagogues have been converted to cultural centers that have exhibitions related to Jewish history in Kazimierz. In the quarter where we are staying there are many Jewish themed restaurants and Klezmer bands that play regularly. An hour away is the Auschwitz camp as well. Thus the area often attracts visitors of Jewish heritage.

Jews originally settled in Cracow as early as the 13th century, but in 1495 were expelled from the city. It was at this time that they took up residence in nearby Kazimierz which already had a small Jewish community. The area is named after King Casimir who legend has it loved a Jewish woman named Esterka. The story parallels the Purim story of Esther and is often offered as an explanation for Casimir’s support of the Jewish community.

Our first stop of the day was at the Rema Synagogue, built in the 1500s by Rabbi Isserl in his wife’s memory. It has had many renovations over the centuries. The synagogue takes its name from Rabbi Isserl’s son Rabbi Moses Isserles who was known as the Rema. As is true of many of the synagogues, it was looted by the Nazis and used as a warehouse. The Nazis used Cracow as the capital of Poland and this may have resulted in a reluctance to burn synagogues, especially as they are often in close proximity to other buildings.

The synagogue is quite small, but is used for regular services today. Adjacent to the synagogue is the old Jewish cemetery. The cemetery was severely damaged by the Nazis. In 1959 over 700 tombstones dating back to the 1500s were discovered buried beneath the surface. These tombstones were re-erected, but not necessary near the burial site itself. Fragments of damaged tombstones form a striking mosaic on a wall that surrounds the cemetery.

As we walked through the area we noted a prayer house on Jozefa street with two Stars of David designating its function. This street once had two names, Zydowska (Jew Street) and Catholiska (Catholic Street). Also on Jozefa is the High Synagogue, now an exhibition hall with a photography exhibit. Originally built in 1560, this synagogue was looted by the Nazis and now has no interior furnishings. You can still see the ark and fragments of paintings and text on the walls.

The Popper Synagogue is a few doors down from our hotel on Szeroka. It was originally built as a private prayer hall for the family of Wolf Popper in 1620. Today it is used as a cultural center.

Perhaps the most beautiful synagogue was the Tempel Synagogue from the 1860s for the Reform Jewish community. It is the only synagogue from this time period to have survived the Holocaust in Poland without significant damage. It is similar to those synagogues that we saw in Budapest in its Moorish design and the use of decorative gold paint in its designs.

Other synagogues in the area include the Old Synagogue from the 15th century with a twin nave structure and the Izaak Synagogue from 1638. The Kupa Synagogue was originally built in the 1640s. This synagogue was recently restored and has astrological symbols around the room.

As we explored the area, we ducked into a courtyard that dated back to the first half of the 16th century. Directly behind it stood a monastery, underscoring the fact that the Jewish community and the Catholic community co-existed in Kazimierz.

Plac Nowy, the former market area is located in the middle of Kazimierz. It contains a round building which used to be a kosher butcher and still sells meat although no longer kosher meat. Surrounding it are stalls selling produce.

We then crossed the river to the area of the Ghetto during WWII. The original residents were moved out for the creation of the ghetto and moved back after the liquidation of the ghetto. We walked to a nearby park where we found a section of the ghetto wall. It is scalloped like a series of attached tombstones, somehow a fitting metaphor for what the ghetto represented. Children’s playground equipment sits in front of it in the park, presenting an odd juxtaposition.

We also stopped at Plac Bohaterow Getta (Ghetto Heroes Square) which is where Jews were gathered for deportation. In the corner of the square is a small museum which once housed a pharmacy which was a place of aid for the Jews by its Christian owner. There were several powerful films that captured the Jewish community prior to WWII and the movement of the Jews from Kazimierz to the Ghetto. Images of Jews carrying such household furniture such as chairs to the ghetto were quite striking particularly juxtaposed with a memorial of a series of bronzed chairs in the plaza, derived from such imagery.

A brief walk took us to the factory of Oskar Schindler of Shindler’s List fame. We were able to see very little as they are currently renovating the space for exhibitions. We concluded our tour by stopping at the new Jewish cemetery. Bartosz pointed out that many of the tombstones have candles, which is not a Jewish tradition. This arises because the person being buried may well be the last person in the family who identified as Jewish. Younger generations were not familiar with Jewish traditions so adopted the traditions of their Catholic neighbors.

During the course of our day we had many interesting discussions with Bartosz on anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe and the impact of the Communist regime on Poland. Bartosz told us that while learning English wasn’t prohibited under Communism, there were no English teachers because people could not travel abroad. It was a very insular society. As a result the generation that came of age during Communist times frequently does not speak English. He noted that after the fall of Communism there were suicides of Russian teachers as the demand for their services dropped precipitously.

He noted that Poland was not affected in the same way as some other Eastern bloc countries because it had been an independent nation previously. Thus for example, it did not have the communal farms that one found elsewhere. We also discussed countries such as Lithuania which he felt had to be viewed in the political context. While anti-Semitism does exist, they are also struggling to forge a national identity. Through my eyes it seems the two get easily intermingled.

We also discussed some of the historical events that affected the Jews of Cracow. In 1968 there was an anti-Semitic campaign by the government from which many Jews had to immigrate. About 20,000 Jews went to Sweden or Denmark, not Israel as they were not religious.

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Today we spent the day at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a place that has been thoroughly documented so there is not much new to share about it. In many ways we found Madjanek more affecting as it was fairly deserted when we arrived. No guides and tour groups walked around the premises. That allowed each person to react directly rather than filtering it through a guide. At Auschwitz the belongings of the prisoners were safely behind glass and failed to create the visceral recoil from the smell of leather that we experienced with the thousands of shoes at Madjanek. The sheer volume of people who go through Auschwitz requires the kind of organization which they did quite well. At the same time, it detracts from the personal experience that one has in a less structured and more private environment.

A few facts….
An estimated 1.1 million Jews were in Auschwitz with the next largest group being Poles (140-150,000). The walls of the buildings we first entered had the faces of many of the Polish prisoners who perished. The average life span in Auschwitz was 3 to 6 months. Of those who entered Auschwitz about 10-20% were selected for work. The rest went to the gas chamber directly. Of the total 1.3 million who passed through Auschwitz only 200,000 survived. Prior to the war Jews represented 10% of the Polish population and totaled 3 million. Our guide guessed at most there might be 20,000 today. Of those that survived, many emigrated to Israel due to anti-Semitism after the war.

Auschwitz-Birkenau had a section of the camp they maintained as a showpiece for the Red Cross. Families were kept together in it and not required to work. Eventually they too went to the gas chamber. We saw a small crematorium at Auschwitz that was partially reconstructed. In Birkenau we saw the ruins of the crematorium and gas chambers that the Nazis destroyed to try to hide their tracks.

And a few of the things that moved and disturbed me…a small pink ballet slipper in a display of thousands of children’s shoes, yards of textile woven from human hair, an enormous pile of pots and pans that were brought by the women to prepare for their new life. Despite all that we saw, it is still difficult to grasp the ability of people to inflict genocide and yet it continues.

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