If Krakow was a food it’d be a seven-layer cake because that’s how many layers, at least, of complexity exist here. If a babka has layers, complexity, and a traditional richness then all of Poland maybe a babka.
If you want a whole discussion on great Jewish foods, check this website out. If you want to hear about lots of questions and thoughts I had about Krakow, keep reading (or do both, I don’t judge).
My head is spinning after only a few days in Krakow. I needed to get it all down on paper – yes I hand wrote most of this first, because, sometimes that’s just how I roll. I also wanted to write up thoughts while in Krakow since I knew that Warsaw would expand and impact my experience, which it has – spoiler, I’m a bit behind on posting blogs...typed in Warsaw, posted from Riga...more to come. Also going to toss out there that the below is pretty Jewish centric, partially because that is the lens through which I look on this trip. Also, I’m aware that I’ve been profoundly impacted by Krakow (or Poland itself), and in editing this days later realize my thoughts are continually evolving, so again bear with me.
I’ve never thought of myself as Polish, or Russian for that matter. In fact, when I think of where I “come from” in some ways I always felt like my grandparents were from far off places where everyone only spoke Yiddish, and places that couldn’t be visited. I have one grandfather from Poland, a grandmother who came to the US from Russia with her brother by themselves at the age of 12, and on my father’s side, both his parents come from a shtetl called Bershnitz (forgive the spelling), or my grandfather from somewhere near there in a place that may have sometimes been Poland. I share all this because in these ways my history traces back to Poland, maybe not in an exact way, but in a way. It’s never occurred to me how much of my Jewish story is rooted in Poland (and Russia but I haven't been there yet) and if you are an Ashkenazi Jew in the US right now, likely some part of yours too.
Ok, layers. If you come to Krakow, I would urge you to dig into more than Holocaust connections, if you can, you should find ways to engage in more than just one of the following perspectives and “stories” I’m going to share (or don’t stop with mine). You, like me, may walk away with more questions than answers. What you choose to focus on, past, World Wars, post-war, present, future, or anything in between, that is up to you, but you should make sure to find multiple stories. It shouldn’t be hard.
Also, if I didn’t say this before, go visit Poland. ;)
The Jews of Europe. Some numbers that spoke to me. Prior to World War II, 25% of Krakow was Jewish, one in four people in the city were Jewish, in some towns through the countryside, upwards of 60-70% were Jewish. Think about that, let that sink in. It’s not to say all Jews were religious Jews, but communities were made up of diverse Jews who participated in daily life in every way. Today there are still over 700 synagogues in Poland, very very few of these are active, and given what was destroyed this is probably a small number of what once was. These synagogues today are used for everything from memorials to libraries, to stores, to being run down and in ruin. I visited a wonderful museum that documents much of these various stories in Poland and has beautiful photography. I’m sending a book home from the exhibit, once it gets there go visit my parents to see it (my parents love visitors ;)).
I have to reiterate this layer, because I constantly was thinking, why don't we talk about this more? We talk about the Holocaust but how often do we talk about Jewish life prior to the war? While cannot forget the impact of the Holocaust, I think studying pre-War era provides a new lens to showcases a vibrant, diverse, and really interesting chapter in Jewish history.
I’m not going into so many details here because this is the piece a majority of the folks reading this will have some understanding of. It’s also a huge reason most people visit Krakow as part of a visit to Aushwitz-Birkenau. I decided on this trip not to visit. Reasons ranging from being on my own, timing, to deciding that the conversations and other visits I was having would take precedent, to also recognizing that for this trip I felt like I have been continuing to immerse myself in Holocaust research and discovery outside of visits. I’m sure I’ll go one day, I don't think this will be my only trip to Poland. You also don’t have to go far in Krakow to feel the impact of the Holocaust. There are definitely other important sites related to the Holocaust to see, I didn't do so many of them. Most people, tourists, come to Krakow to see the Holocaust sites, and it’s a huge piece of the history, but even without focusing on this piece, I was able to connect, learn, and discover about history, the War, and the Holocaust.
Where and Who are the Jews of Krakow?
Ready for some complexity? Prior to the War there were an estimated 3.5 million Jews in Poland. There might have been 200,000 who returned after the war, but many returning were killed, or left for Israel, Europe, or the US, having nothing and no one to return to in their homes. Between the Communist era and the deportation of Jews in 1968, the number of known Jews today in Poland is very small. Add on to that, those that are Jewish often did not know they were until more recent years of the 1990’s and 2000’s, and still to this day, when grandparents or parents started to answer children’s questions, or on their deathbeds share this long kept secret. Today’s Polish Jews rarely were able to grow up in a Jewish household, or may have grown up not knowing what it means to be Jewish. If not in this post, at some point I"ll get back to this question - what does it mean to be Jewish? Where do you start learning? How do you start learning?
Okay, so what else do you have that adds the next layer? A huge number of Poles who are not Jewish but recognize the importance and vacancy of Jewish life in their Polish history. They study Jewish studies, Jewish culture, they created the world’s largest Jewish cultural festival that happens each summer, they want to learn, and embrace Jewish culture. Most often tours, museums, and even a number of employees at Jewish institutions are not Jewish. What impact does that have? As a non-Jewish person poignantly said, “I do this because I want to commemorate, I recognize the importance of the Jewish story being a part of my Polish history and culture, but I also know that I can’t build Jewish life, I can’t really create Jewish life in Poland, because I’m not Jewish.” But it still begs the question, how do you build it?
The JCC, and other local organizations are creating Jewish life in Krakow. The JCC has a building filled with activities and people, and numerous articles written about their work, they also love hosting guests and sharing their story. (hint, hint, visit).
Within the JCC there is regular programming for all ages, Shabbat dinners, a new preschool, Sunday school, and more. Additionally in Krakow there are two orthodox shuls, a progressive reform community and synagogue, a kosher restaurant, a Hillel, and other artists and cultural events that create quite a flourishing Jewish community. There are complexities to all of these organizations, as they explore, define, and work to build modern day Jewish community in Krakow. I was able to find many people who are willing and wanting to engage in conversation about the Jewish community in Poland. From the team at the JCC, to a visiting Rabbi, to a young couple who are building a progressive Jewish community and use their home as a meeting space, to a number of expats, long-term visitors, and tourists, a few folks who have moved back or were visiting after years living abroad and hearing their own insights. All gave me answers and more questions about how they see Krakow, it’s complexity, it's future, and the various challenges, opportunities, and passions they have for creating Jewish life in Poland.
And some more thoughts...
Added to these questions is this, as a tourist, a visitor, what does it mean to have someone else tell your story? What do they get right, how much do they get wrong? As someone said, we have paleontologists because none of us have ever met a dinosaur, if dinosaurs showed back up, would we continue telling their story for them? I'm not saying Jews are dinosaurs, but there is a comparison to be seen, in what happens to these stories over time.
In the Jewish quarter in Krakow you see golf carts carting tourists all over to visit the multiple still standing synagogues, and other sites. All through the Jewish quarter you find Jewish restaurants that play Klezmar music and serve “Jewish” foods, which is sometimes Israeli food. Do these things speak to the diversity of what Jews today look like? Or do the stories these businesses tell tend to speak to the Jewish community that once was? Additionally, to walk down the street and see a visit to Auschwitz advertised as "come see Auschwitz-Birkenau!" is just a little odd. Just my own opinion.
But, and there is another layer here. Education is important. In today’s world we should want people to learn and visit so that people are educated about what can happen. Isn’t it a good thing that people want to learn and engage in Jewish culture? Clearly this entire week has been additional education for me. We need to learn tolerance, we need to have these lessons so that history doesn’t repeat itself. But to what end?
To be honest this doesn’t cover all of my thoughts on Krakow, stay tuned for my Warsaw post for likely more musings on my experience in Poland, and the layers that get added to all of these in a larger city which was basically destroyed by the war.
I'll also say, because if you read until here, it's a pretty reflective piece, that I actually enjoy and appreciate Krakow as a city. I ran on the river, went on a free tour of old town, enjoyed it's many coffee shops, and some amazing vegan Indian food. It's a college town pretty walkable, and despite the potentially heavy experience, it has it's own charm, that I actually really enjoy.
I was going to make a connection back to babka or seven layer cake, but I can't make it happen. Thanks for reading, more pics to come on social media and future posts!