KRAKOW, POLAND February 2006
The southern Polish city of Krakow was once a centre of Jewish culture with a thriving community. For more than seven hundred years 70 per cent of the international Jewish community had some link back to Poland. Then came the Nazis; then the Soviet Union. And now Krakow Jewish community is technically only about 150 – although with Nazi and Soviet pogroms many covered up their true origins, and the real numbers are only just becoming known.
Rabbi Avraham Flaks slid on a bank of frozen snow in the cemetery behind his synagogue and grabbed my arm to steady himself. He’s a bubbly character, 38-years-old, and full of enthusiasm for his new job, particularly as this is where the 16th Century scholar, Rabbi Remuh is buried, a man whose teachings drew students from all over the world and made Kracow a centre of Jewish culture.
Rabbi Flaks has only been in Krakow of a few months. He was born in Moscow, emigrated to Israel and was given the job here because no-one could be found locally. He doesn’t even speak Polish.
‘Are you coming to the meeting tonight?’ I asked as he recovered his balance.
‘Yes. Yes, of course,’ he says. ‘It has really been a shock for some of them. That’s OK, I can help them step by step, but it’s a long and difficult process.’
We drop into silence, our footsteps crunching the snow, and pass a wall of memorial plaques to families killed in the Holocaust.
Unlike Warsaw, Krakow’s architecture has been virtually untouched by war. It remains one of Europe’s beautiful cities.
But anti-Jewish sentiment has ebbed and flowed. As far back as the 15th Century – the Jewish community was not allowed to live anywhere else except the quarter of Kazimierz where we were now.
In 1939, it was a bustling centre, with about 80,000 Jews. But most who survived the Holocaust were expelled by the Polish Communist Party in 1968. Just over 150 officially live there now.
That evening, tramlines glistened in the arc of street lights and light snow fell, as I walked to the meeting. The café’s, tour buses and wireless internet access all contribute to the spring Poland seems to have in its step nowadays, the new big hitting member of the European Union.
Through a paint-peeling door and up four flights of stairs, I heard the Rabbi’s laugh, and there in a rented room he was chatting to a dozen young people on sofas, a coffee table between them with biscuits, cups and a bright yellow book called Judaism for Dummies.
They were talking about the significance of an upcoming Jewish festival, and one woman, slightly older than the rest, nodded thoughtfully, absorbing every detail. Eva Pacult’s in her mid-thirties, with two teenage children. In a pause in the conversation, I asked, ‘What about you Eva, how did you find out?’
‘It was three years ago,’ she said. ‘My grandmother lived in a small village, typically Catholic. She was in her eighties and had fallen sick. I was at her bedside with my mother, and she told us: ‘You are Jews.’ You see my mother was only a year old when she was taken in by the woman I thought was my grandmother. She protected her from the Nazis and then from the Communists.’
Four days later Eva’s grandmother died. ‘My mother was terrified. She said I mustn’t tell anybody because everyone in Poland would want to murder us.’
Eva’s eyes dropped to her lap. A student, Danielle, broke the silence, by asking the Rabbi about Israel and soon the chatter was back; what did being Jewish actually mean; was there a conference in Israel they could go to; how many others were there like them.
Eva’s experience is not uncommon. Everyone in the room had been through something similar. It’s what the meeting was about. The older generation, the last witnesses of the Holocaust, are telling their children and grandchildren who they actually are. No-one knows how many Poles will discover their true roots and what their reaction will be.
In the morning, back in the pretty square in Kazimierz, a school tour of Orthodox Jews from north London was arriving at Rabbi Flaks synagogue, just as a group of sixth form college students from Sunderland was leaving. Two teenagers at the back held hands, giggling, eyes only for each other. They could have been in Blackpool.
Waiters swept snow off the pavement outside restaurants offering Jewish cultural evenings.
I took a tourist leaflet from a rack offering a Mercedes chauffeur service to the Auschwitz and Birkenau Holocaust camps forty five minutes away. I had never been there and had a few hours free in the morning.
‘Go to Birkenau first,’ advised the waiter. ‘But it depends what you want to see. Will you be having lunch there….’ And I stopped listening, realizing that this was not a visit to be rushed.
Back in London, I still couldn’t get my head around Eva’s story. What did it actually mean for her? Did she suddenly become religious? Did she feel different?
I called her mobile phone. ‘In Polish I could say it better,’ she said. ‘But when my grandmother told me, I went outside the room to be alone. I started to cry and I started to feel free.’