Krakow - Place of hope for Jewish Renewal

In late October 19 adults from EDRS travelled to Krakow in Poland to visit some of the sites that have become particularly notorious as places where some of the most appalling, inhuman acts were committed against the Jewish people and others during the Second World War. In particular Auschwitz- Birkenau the Nazi’s largest death camps have come to symbolise the attempted genocide of the Jewish people.

Apparently Krakow, which is a really beautiful mediaeval city, is now the Stag Party capital of Europe and one of the options on offer on the Stag Party schedule is a tour of Auschwitz on the Sunday morning.

I imagine that would sober up most individuals pretty quickly because no matter how much you know about the history and details of Auschwitz and the Holocaust no one can prepare you for the reality of actually being there and walking through the gates, into the barracks, the prison cells or gas chambers. You can’t be prepared for seeing the mountain of real human hair or the mountains of suitcases with the names of the owners clearly written on them, or the mountain of children’s shoes, adult’s shoes, the pit of pots and pans and everyday items, brushes and combs, pots of face creams.

All these ordinary, everyday items that the families took with them, believing or hoping that they were going to be starting a new life somewhere else. But for many as we know Auschwitz Birkenau was their final destination. Of the 1.3 million people who went into Auschwitz, approx 1.1 million were murdered or died there, the majority of them were Jews.
Again nothing can prepare you for the sheer size of Birkenau, sometimes known as Auschwitz 2. Most of what remains today of the hundreds of barracks are the brick chimneys that are spread across the landscape literally as far as the eye can see, the camp was massive. It was here that the camp commandant Rudolf Hoess was directed by Himmler to make preparations for the systematic mass murder of European Jewry, the ‘final solution’.

Here was where most Jews died, for many of them; the old and very young, the sick and feeble almost immediately on arrival walked their final steps to their death in the gas chambers. Maureen Kendler our educator poignantly told us about one Polish prisoner who as a non Jew was allowed more freedom and after his release from there recounted how in the time it took him to score two goals in a game of football, three thousand people had descended the steps to the gas chambers underground and been killed.

Christina our Polish guide at Auschwitz was amazing; she has worked at Auschwitz for 39 years. Her father- in-law had been a prisoner there; his crime was to show some humanity by giving bread to a prisoner. On his death bed at the age of 42 he asked her to work at Auschwitz and that is why she does, she asked her grandson to work there too and he does now as well.

Many of the things we saw on our two- day trip left us questioning, disturbed and saddened. It also felt to me that there is almost a Holocaust ‘tourist industry’ in Krakow, tickets are sold and amusement park style buggies zip around the city taking tourists to the many sites of ‘interest’ such as Schindler’s Factory and Heroes Square.

After visiting Auschwitz, one must wonder how Jewish life could ever be re-built in Poland, let alone in Krakow. Why would any Jew want to live within walking distance of the constant reminders of the destruction of three quarters of European Jewry? But our visit to the JCC of Krakow on the last night blew us away. Here is a vibrant, flourishing community of Jews and non Jews, whose open door policy was a shock, absolutely no security, just a welcome for everyone to enter and find out who they are.

We were amazed to find out that Prince Charles was actually instrumental in getting the JCC for the Jews of Krakow. It opened in 2008 and is led by the very charismatic Executive Director Jonathan Ornstein, who along with the young people who are discovering their Judaism, shares with you their hope and vision for the renewal of Jewish life in Poland. One is always careful of what words we can describe after visiting the places we did on this trip but I can say it was a truly worthwhile experience. Thank you to Sheldon Mordsley who so brilliantly organised the trip for us and to Maureen Kendler our educator and a big thanks to the group of EDRS members who went on the trip - you were all a great group of people and I know that we will carry the memories and the pictures of our experiences for a very long time to come.

To visit the JCC Krakow on line please copy this address into your browser: http://www.jcckrakow.org/en/

Marian Cohen, Director of Education

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