Learning about Polish Jews in Krakow

We all arrived safely and started our journey in Krakow yesterday. The teens and staff are doing well and we are all enjoying getting to know each other.


Krakow was the historic capital of Poland from the 10th to the 16th century, and there were Jews in Krakow from the beginning until World War II. During the Nazi occupation, Krakow became the capital of the Nazi Government. After the Nazis expelled 40,000 Jews, a ghetto was established (1941) in Podgorze, located outside the center of the city. There were up to 18,000 Jews living in 300 houses, as well as storage spaces, attics, rooms under staircases and in basements. It was a time of intense cruelty by the Germans and random killings occurred. Krakow was liberated on January 19, 1945. Today, there are fewer than 200 Jews left in the area, and many of them are elderly. Despite the small population, interest in preserving Jewish history has been rekindled. A new Jewish research institute was established in the University there and aJewish Cultural Center was set up in Kazimierz. Every two years, Kazimierz hosts a Jewish cultural festival that has music, dance, film and theater.

Last night for Shabbat, we participated in services with other groups from Russia and the UK in the Isaac Synagogue, followed by a Shabbat dinner. On Saturday, we conducted our own Shabbat service in the hotel, guided by one of our staff, David Hoffman, and his teen leaders, Sydnie Meshulam (Gold Coast Region)  and Sarah Schepis (Liberty Region).  A meaningful Dvar Torah was presented by Nicci Mowszowski (Rocky Mountain Region) and Jed Golman (North Texas-Oklahoma Region). During the day, we toured the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz (pictured), the symbol of the wealthy and prominent Jews who had lived in Krakow for hundreds of years. In this area, there are numerous synagogues and many old and new Jewish institutions. A vibrant Jewish life existed here for 400 years and it gave us an opportunity to experience and see the culture and strong history of the Polish Jews. Shabbat concluded with our Havdallah service, led by Adam Center (Liberty Region)and Adam Elkin (Northern Region East-Baltimore), with guitar accompaniment from Brianah Caplan (Mountain Region) and David Hoffman (staff). Two Polish staff from the JCC of Krakow met with our teens and talked about their lives here and the work they are doing by bringing more Jewish life to the community, and even starting a BBYO chapter with fifteen Polish Jewish teens here.

Some thoughts from the teens:

“As I wandered the streets of Krakow, Poland, I expected to encounter blatant evidence of the Shoah and Nazi occupation. Although there were several indicators, such as the Empty Chairs Memorial and portions of the walls which surrounded what used to be the Jewish Ghetto, it appeared as though much of the devastation caused by the Germans had been erased from modern-day Krakow. For instance, as we approached the Ghetto, I anticipated old, worn-down buildings and remains of what used to be. Instead, I was met with shops, restaurants, and modern residences. Furthermore, as we toured the synagogues of Kazimierz, most of which are not currently in use, we learned how they had been restored to their former glory after the War. This begs the question: do we continue to modernize and build over what was, or do we prioritize the past in an effort to remember the devastation of the Holocaust, sothat we can prevent it from ever happening again?” – David Ziman (Westchester Region)

“As I stepped off the plane in Krakow, my heart immediately dropped, knowing that I am so close to where millions of people were murdered because they were simply Jewish. As I walk around Krakow, I envision all the people who once lived here before the war, unaware of what was to come. It’s hard to process, but, it must be done. This journey is just beginning.” – Harry Zuckerman (Greater Jersey Hudson River Region)

“While walking around Krakow today, I found myself feeling closer to G-d than I really ever had. There is something about being able to walk to and from where other Jews took their last steps, that gives me a new appreciation for my life and my connections. This is truly an experience like no other and this is only the beginning!” – Dara Molotsky (South Jersey Region)

“Something that really spoke to me about the magnitude was seeing the disparity between Kazimierz and then hearing the local Polish JCC leaders speak tonight. Kraków went from being a community with Jewish stars and Hanukkiot molded into their fences to being a community with only 15 Jewish teens in their new BBYO chapter. The difference in the expression of Judaism and prevalence of the community is saddening but also inspiring in the dedication of the current Jews in Kraków” – Anna Wilson Charlotte, North Carolina

“Tonight, after walking through the ghetto, after learning of and feeling as the thousands felt after being relocated from their homes, We heard two of the staff members from the Krakow JCC share their experience and what they’re doing to revitalize the community. I feel empowered to change, to act, to live and thrive as a Jew, to teach others. For us, to learn about the rich Jewish history of a place before the Holocaust, to bear witness to its effects on the individual and the community, and to see that still, the Jewish spirit perseveres, has proven to each of us our ability to affect change in the world, to be an advocate and a change agent and, ultimately, a light unto nations and people.” – Nicci Mowszowski (Rocky Mountain Region)

“I’ve been waiting this whole time for the ball to drop, but it hasn’t. The past 24 hours have all been about building up the lives of the Jews of Poland in our minds, showing how real and rich their lives were before the war. We’ve learned a bit about the war, but it’s all coming to a headtomorrow. Tomorrow, at Auschwitz. I’m not entirely sure whether to be nervous or ready, but either way, it’s tomorrow.” – Daniel Zackin (Connecticut Valley Region)

Tomorrow, we tour Auschwitz and Birkenau and I will share how we are doing after a full day of learning.

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