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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Kraków, Poland, March 2017

My last post was a look at evil and the past. Here, I want to write about Poland's present, of which my first impression was a good one, and future, about which there is reason to be hopeful.

We've been to two UNESCO World Heritage sites in as many days. One was the memorial and museum, and the other is Kraków's Old Town. One thing I forgot to say about the former is that it must be the last place on earth where adults behave with true respect. No one visits that place who doesn't want to go. No one was acting inappropriately or taking selfies, and yet there were busloads of people there. Agniewska told us it is like this every single day.

That gives me hope: that every day, many, many people, too young to have lived through World War II, remember, and are willing to do the hard work of keeping memory alive. 
Like the English couple, now resident in Spain, who started chatting to us over dinner (kielbasa, pickle & potato casserole--can't remember the Polish name!) They'd been on the tour the same day. Sue used to nurse an Auschwitz survivor, a woman who lived to be 96; Neil used to work as a firefighter with a man whose father was a survivor. Always had a smile on his face, Neil said.

When we look at the past, we remember six million, but think about eleven million. For that is how many Jews were living in Europe before the war, and most of them were in Poland. We in the West are accustomed to thinking of Poland as Eastern Europe, but if you look at a map of Europe spreading out to Russia, Poland is right in the center of it. Poland was the heart of a great civilization that had been part of Europe for 800 years.

In Kraków we chanced upon a free walking tour being given in English. This thirtysomething man was as knowledgeable and passionate as Agniewska, about his country and its history. He wanted to show us all around Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of Kraków, where both Christians and Jews lived for much of Polish history. This is the key point: Most of the Jews lived in Poland because for most of that history, this was the only country where they were citizens, like their Christian neighbors. They spoke Polish and paid taxes (and collected them, a profession that earned Jews peasant enmity but stemmed directly from their tendency to educate all of their sons). Look at the wall next to this synagogue, the oldest in Poland: Jews participated in building the defense of their city, because they belonged to that city. 

(The history of the Jews and anti-Semitism in Poland is a huge subject and I am not trying to elide it here.)
There is a saying that occurs more than once in the Talmud, that whoever takes a life takes an entire world--the world that would have come from that person, had that person lived. Our guide referred to the Talmud too: that whoever saves a life saves the world entire. A little more than a kilometer from the Old Synagogue was the ghetto, where the Jews of Kraków were initially forced to move by the Nazis. (Jews were then a quarter of the Polish population.) Before their final deportation, over a thousand of them worked in a nearby enamel factory, run by German entrepreneur Oskar Schindler. If you saw Schindler's List, you know that Schindler, at cost to himself, went against his country's government in order to save the lives of his Jewish employees.

Everywhere there are "righteous among the nations": Gentiles who took risks to save Jews. In Poland, the only penalty for this, if you were caught, was death. Why were Poles who helped Jews treated especially harshly? Because Poland was different. Jews and Gentiles knew each other; the Nazis hated Poles too. They imposed an especially high price on Poles who treated their neighbors in a Christian way.

Jan Karski with The Discreet Traveler, wondering about the great unanswered question of the last century, Photo by T.

So what about Christian Kraków? 

This is Wawel Cathedral, where centuries of coronations and burials took place. In those days, Kraków was the royal capital of all Poland. It's still full of reminders of some of Poland's favorite native sons and daughters: Copernicus; Marie Curie, née Skłodowska; and of course the Polish pope, St. John Paul II. 

Going along the wall of Wawel Castle,

there's an equestrian statue of Tadeusz Kościuszko, who was a Polish-Lithuanian war hero and later was made brigadier general by the Continental Congress during the American Revolution. (After immigrating to the United States, Kościuszko had the vision to will his American assets to the freedom and education of slaves; unfortunately his wishes were never carried out.)*

Hmm, first Tadeusz (Polish and American), later Marie (born Polish, naturalized French). Poland has a history of accomplished dual nationals. If you want more examples, look at the early leadership of Israel; despite the Hebrew names they were later known by, Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion were both born in parts of the Russian Empire that were once Poland. 

But back to the Old Town. Our first trip, disconcertingly, was not to St. Mary's Basilica but next door to the Hard Rock Cafe (a brand now owned by the Seminole nation of Florida!) This was at least a sign of how far Poland has moved towards the West since the fall of communism in 1989. It being International Women's Day, there was a protest in full swing around Plac Mariacki; Poland is currently under a right-wing government and a lot of women are not happy about the direction it's taking the country (sound familiar?) T. pointed out one man at the demonstration wrapped in a rainbow flag. My heart warmed.

I mentioned before the guide who shared with us the history of Kazimierz. Poles have only been free to speak the truth of their history since 1989, and young storytellers like this man and Agniewska seem to be on a mission. He told us of the variety of groups he's shown around his city, like "Faith and Rainbow" which comprised fifteen gay couples. He'd never known before that LGBT people could be Christian.

He told us this story outside the Isaac Synagogue, a seventeenth-century house of prayer. Today it is used by a Hasidic community. We couldn't go in on Friday afternoon, as it was almost Shabbat and they were getting ready for services.

Sometimes he shows school groups their own history, and there is always one young Polish kid with a shaved head who thinks he's a "nationalist." "Though how any Pole can have any sympathy with National Socialism is beyond me." The guide tells these boys what made Poland great: "It was a melting pot!" And by the standards of the sixteenth century, it was. 

Today the population of Poland is 1% Jewish. Yet Kazimierz is full of restaurants serving gefilte fish and playing live klezmer music. We heard "Hava Nagila" played on a fiddle and accordion in view of the Old Synagogue. It may be a museum today, but there is a living community.
Yes, there are Jewish Community Centers in Poland.

In the airport line, there were two Orthodox Jewish men standing behind me. For all I know, they were coming to Poland to start a business. But they were here.


*The tallest mountain on the Australian mainland, one of the original Seven Summits, is also named after Kościuszko.

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