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Krakow's Jewish community builds a future in Poland

Krakow's Jewish community was decimated in World War II, but it is now seeing a revival. DW's Naomi Conrad reports on the struggle to change the perception of a city linked to the Holocaust.

The few tourists that have ventured out onto the narrow streets of Krakow's old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, on this Sunday afternoon are being mercilessly battered by the driving sleet that almost instantly turns into grey slush underfoot. Yet someone's taken the time to build a tiny snowman outside one of Kazimierz's synagogues. Perched on the edge of the wall, it grins out into the world, waving its spindly arms made of twigs, as the snow builds up around it.

From there, it's only a few steps to the Jewish Community Centre (JCC), which, as the huge, neon green sign above the door advertises, "is building a Jewish future in Krakow." Inside, the coat rack is overflowing, a young man is bent over his Hebrew textbook and a small girl is drinking from a water fountain that's almost as big as she is.

The window frames of executive director Jonathan Ornstein's spacious office are painted the same neon green, his sofa's a shocking orange and the walls are plastered with vibrant art, including a huge set of traffic lights he brought back from his home city, New York. The color scheme, Ornstein says, was a conscious decision.

"The Jewish world has such a strong collective idea of Poland being gray and black and white." He shrugs. "So it was clear that we had to be colorful, that we couldn't be beige or grey." Green, he says, symbolizes life.

'They thought it wasn't safe'

Ornstein, who has been at the helm of the JCC ever since it was created in 2006, has been trying to rebuild the Jewish community in Krakow and breathe new life into what was once a thriving community. Roughly a quarter of Krakow's population was Jewish, until it was almost entirely wiped out in the Holocaust and subsequently emigration to Israel following outbreaks of anti-Semitism in Communist Poland. Half of the 6 million Jews killed in Germany's death camps were estimated to be Polish. By minibus, it's just over an hour to the former Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz, as advertised by the many tour operators around town.

A snowman in front of a synagogue in Krakow's old Jewish quarter

A snowman in front of a synagogue in Krakow's old Jewish quarter

So Ornstein can understand that his Jewish friends thought he was "absolutely crazy" to move to Poland after he fell in love with a Polish girl, to a country that many still inexorably link to the Holocaust, death and destruction. In fact, many Holocaust survivors, his father's neighbors in New York, used to plead with him not to go back, he says. "They thought it wasn't safe."

But he ignored their advice and today heads an ever-growing community. After all, he says, smiling, building the Jewish revival in Krakow, so close to Auschwitz, is the best way to honor the victims and survivors of the Holocaust. Today the center has more than 500 members, some 100 of them Holocaust survivors. And then there's an ever growing number of young members.

"I'm sure, the latest new member must have walked in a couple of days ago", Ornstein says. The JCC, he adds, is the focal point for the thousands of people in Krakow who have Jewish roots. Many of its members are not Jewish in the strictest sense, meaning that their mothers are Jewish - being Jewish is normally defined as being passed on through the maternal bloodline.

But, Ornstein says, he wants to welcome everyone, no matter whether they're technically, in the Orthodox sense, Jewish. "We owe everyone the chance, and it's our duty to provide as many ways back into Jewish life as possible."

Many find out accidentally about their Jewish heritage

Take Joanna Broniewska, a thoughtful, eloquent 20-year old linguistics student who joined three months ago. Her grandfather was Jewish, but converted when he married a Catholic woman. It probably saved his life, Broniewska whispers, standing inside one of Kazimierz's oldest synagogues, watching a family of Hasidic Jews, dressed in black, recite their prayers. "His uncle and his family died in Birkenau."

Joanna Broniewska

Broniewska: "It's so hard to change the thinking of some people"

She follows the family out to the Jewish cemetery adjacent to the synagogue, its gray tombstones coated in snow. Contrary to many young people who almost accidentally find out about Jewish ancestors, Broniewska grew up knowing that she had Jewish roots. Her grandfather would tell her Jewish stories, her parents, though they were Catholic, took her to kosher restaurants and Jewish music festivals. Why? She shrugs, pulling at the strings of her red and orange hat. "They felt that the culture was always part of our family."

So when she accidentally found out about the JCC while she was surfing online, she decided to join, she explains later over a cup of coffee in a cafe full of tourists escaping the snow. Many of the Poles that come to the Student Youth Club meetings and Friday evening Shabat dinners are Catholic like her, Broniewska says.

Some tried to join the Orthodox Jewish communities - and were rejected on the ground of "not being Jewish enough." She sighs: "I think that's wrong. How can they be properly Jewish with our history?"

Broniewska doesn't plan to convert and isn't really all that interested in the religion, she says. She realizes that for people from outside of Poland it might seem strange, "but I feel, given Poland's history, that it's important that we are part of it, because of our Jewish roots."

'No general climate of fear'

It's because of people like Broniewska that Ornstein is so hopeful that Poland can rebuild a community. And that, he says, is a strong message to the world: "For there to be an idea of a Jewish future in Poland, which is defined by Holocaust and tragedy, is a message of redemption and hope."

He smiles. Today, he says, it's safe to be Jewish in Poland - contrary to many countries in Western Europe that are seeing an increase in anti-Semitism. "Here, there's no general climate of fear of being Jewish."

Broniewska agrees. Polish society is getting more tolerant, she says. "We're growing up, in a way." Then she pauses and takes a breath: A while ago, during one of her classes a friend of hers, "or maybe more like a classmate," referred to a Jewish character in the book they were studying. "She said something like: They should have got rid of all of them during the war and then she laughed."

Broniewska, she says, told her off and her friend apologized. She sighs, as a little golf cart, covered in tarpaulin, trundles past through the slush, taking another group of tourists to the former factory of industrialist Oskar Schindler, who saved around 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust. "It's so hard to change the thinking of some people."

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