17 April 2015

Returning to Auschwitz Again, and Leaving with Hope

Motzei Yom haShoah 5755

    It is dark now in Krakow.  The sun set while we ate our dinner after hearing the trumpeter blow the traditional peal at 7pm.  Yesterday, erev Yom haShoah, the five students in our Confirmation class, a congregant chaperone, and I held an early evening service in Birkenau - praying and reading El Malei Rachamim by Crematorium Number Two.  I have been leading this trip for sixteen years.  It is my fifteenth time taking fifteen and sixteen year olds away from their comfortable suburban New Jersey homes and dragging them on a whirlwind tour through Central Europe with three pedagogic goals - to learn about the long Jewish history of this part of Europe, to find out about the destruction of that community, and to discover the living Jewish communities of today.  To accomplish that difficult task, we tour the Jewish sites of each of our stops, some of the regular tourist sites, the Holocaust sites and memorials, and, if possible, meet with local youth to learn about their lives.  Over the years, we have traveled to Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, Bratislava, Berlin and Budapest.   In Budapest, we have built a sister congregation relationship with Szim Salom, one of the Progressive Jewish congregations there.  

    Today, encouraged by the sign outside the JCC in Krakow reading, "Stop in and say hi", we did.  We were also amused by the sign that said, "Hey, March of the Living! Come inside and see Jewish LIFE."  The sign is a tongue in cheek prod to the thousand of Jews traveling this week through Poland, visiting all the sites of the Holocaust, on their way through a mandatory march from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Yom haShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), to culminate in celebrating Yom haAtzma'ut (Israeli Independence Day) together in Israel.  We met with the American born director of the JCC, Jonathan Ornstein, who told us that there is some frustration on the part of the Jews of Poland that March of the Living focusses on former Jewish life to the exclusion of present Jewish life.

    He was also quite proud to tell us that, in his eyes,  Krakow is the safest place to be Jewish in all of Europe.  The JCC of Krakow has no guards.  There is no password.  No membership card is required.  The door is wide open to anyone who wants to walk in.  There is no other Jewish institution, he told us, that is as open and free to enter as this one, which he called the JCC next door to Auschwitz.  The JCC is the most open in another important way as well - anyone who wants to affiliate is welcome, no matter how tenuous their status.  In Poland, like in Hungary and the Czech Republic a few decades before, young Poles are discovering that they have Jewish connections - a grandparent who was Jewish.  All the Jews of Poland - ALL the Jews of Poland - are survivors, or the children or grandchildren of survivors of the Holocaust and, on top of that, survivors of the secularization of Communism.  

    The main square of Kazimierz, the Jewish section of Krakow near where the JCC is located, is filled with Jewish themed restaurants.  In these locations, not run by Jews, not kosher, you can get "Jewish-style" food, surrounded, sometimes, by pictures of Jewish families and Judaica (or in one odd case, by the stuffed heads of game animals).  The entertainment is always Klezmer music, which is hugely popular in Krakow.  There are many Klezmer groups, but most are not Jews.  A few years ago, I decided to stop patronizing such restaurants, appalled by imagining where the photos and Judaica had come from; haunted by thoughts of what might have happened to former owners.  I asked Jonathan about the restaurants.  He said, that yes, they are like Epcot Judaism and that they might be tragic, if they were not surrounded by a revival of actual Jewish life, and of how they often served as a gateway for the large Krakow student population beginning to explore the possibility of a Jewish connection.  Two blocks away, with bright paint, inviting posters of hip events, and a sign that says, "Stop in and say hi" is the JCC of Krakow.

    Jonathan said that the way that the JCC commemorates Yom haShoah is to remain open and run their regular programming.  The best answer the Jews of Krakow have to the Holocaust is to live Jewish lives, and to make that as growingly ordinary a phenomenom in Poland as they can.

    Kol hakavod.  We were touched to have been welcomed inside, for the director to have come down and shared his vision with us, to have met the staff.  What, then, could we do but join ourselves?  Temple Sholom is now an overseas member of the JCC of Krakow.  We joined right there, in the lobby, on Yom haShoah, and helped to mark this day of mourning by lighting not a yahrzeit candle, but another flame of hope. What a gift, to be able to leave this evening, not only in sadness, but with hope as well.  We will be back again - and, whether with adults next year or Confirmation students the year after.  We will say the Kaddish at Birkenau, and we will rekindle our hope with a stop at the JCC in Krakow.

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