Ph.D. Octopus

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A Different Cracow

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by David

Cracow I remembered. My memories of Warsaw from 12 years ago were much dimmer, but Cracow stood out in my mind. I remembered the old synagogues, the oldest built into the ground so as to avoid being taller than churches. I remembered hassidim scurrying about. I remember standing by the Wawel Castle, though all our guide told us was that Nazis set up their Polish General Government there and placed a swastika flag atop one of its towers.

A lot has changed in 12 years. Despite the old buildings, Cracow feels like a new city, the economy revitalized, tourists heading from shop to shop. The place is almost painfully charming, and pardon the pun, you get the feeling that hanging out in city’s medieval central square never gets old.

Of course, I’ve changed a lot too. When I came to Cracow in 1999, I was a boy of 16. I didn’t know any history at all, especially non-Jewish history. Since then, I’ve been privileged to attend Dawson College’s Liberal Arts program, where I received a steady grounding in European history, reinforced by my bachelor’s degree at Harvard. At NYU, my focus shifted to the United States, but I took a couple of courses, in eastern European history and eastern European Jewish history, that gave me the knowledge, if not the languages, to understand the region. Frankly, I think both me and the city have changed for the better.

This time around, I made a point of not limiting myself to the Jewish sites. I actually entered Wawel Castle, explored its state rooms, and stood in awe of its beautiful cathedral. I hit all the major churches listed in Cracow’s In Your Pocket guide. I don’t think I went to a single church in 1999, and what a shame that was. But I doubt I would have appreciated them then anyway. I’d have been amazed by their beauty, but without any understanding of the role Catholicism has played in Polish history. Wawel Castle was so much more meaningful now that I know something about the Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth, and about the three partions of the battered nation in the late 18th century.

I know more Polish Jewish history now too. I understand the role that antisemitism played in revitalizing Polish nationalism, particularly in Galicia, in the late 19th century. From David Engel, I learned that Jews had been invited into the Polish kingdom, but the population expected them to behave like guests, not citizens, placing them a good distant apart even when citizenship was finally granted to them. I’m no expert, but apart from knowing whether to spell Cracow with a “c” or a “k,” I think I have a decent handle on the place.

And this time around, going to those synagogues was more meaningful. Instead of focusing on the death and destruction, I imagined that my grandfather and great aunt may have prayed at any one of them while they attended the Jagiellonian University in the 1920s.

Walking around the Jewish neighbourhood of Kazimierz, I saw life rather than death. The place had certainly changed since 1999. It was somber then. Now, tourists, Polish and foreign, populate the streets. The hassids are still there, but they seem more comfortable. And the kitsch has exploded. One Jewish history professor I know compared it to Disneyland. I see it more like Colonial Williamsburg, except without the tacky costumes and with a death camp an hour away.

This didn’t entirely bother me though. Sure, tour go-courts whizzed past us advertising trips to Schindler’s Factory (unopened in 1999) and visits to nearby Auschwitz. Norman Finkelstein’s book The Holocaust Industry comes to mind, except I see no need for that degree of cynicism. Tourists should see the death camps. And seeing death camps costs money. And that money is lining some businessman’s pockets, not advancing the Zionist cause. If capitalism helps people learn, in the most vivid way possible, about the defining tragedy of the 20th century, then so be it.

Of course, I already know enough about the Holocaust. Enough to know, at least, that I didn’t need to go back to the camps. I’d already been, and once is plenty. My father has no interest in going: he’s a sociologist, not a historian, and cares about today, not yesterday. He’s more interested in seeing who is visiting the camps, but not enough to shlep out there. I don’t blame him.

Both of us were interested in visiting the Cracow JCC. I’ll say it again: Cracow has a JCC. We spoke to the director briefly, a New York Jew who’d been living there for nine years. He told us that his JCC, located near the Temple Synagogue in Kazimierz, is more of a cultural institution than a fitness center. He also told us the Prince Charles helped fund it, and in fact its full name is the Prince of Wales JCC. You can’t make this shit up.

According to him, Cracow is rife with philosemitism. Elsewhere in Europe, synagogues and JCC’s are manned with armed guards. In Cracow, they stay unguarded. Some Poles with strained ties to their Jewish past emerged from the shadows, re-embracing their identity. Tourism brought money, but money helped build, or rebuild, a community. “The rest of the European Jewish community is moving one way, but Cracow is moving the other,” he told us.

It sounded nice. And I’m sure there’s a lot of truth to it. But like a good post-modern historian, I know there are at least two (if not infinite) sides to any story. The other night, we dined with a lovely professor from a Polish university, probably in her 60s. The restaurant was special, having been founded in 1364 (at least according to the guide book). I ate a traditional Polish Hunter’s Stew, a blend of meat and cabbage served in a bread bowl, and ate up every word our new friend told us.

She acted as a wonderful guide to the city, but eventually, as it always does, the conversation turned to Yiddishkeit. And it turned out that she too, was Jewish. Or at least her mother was. She only learned of her heritage at 14, when her mother revealed it to her. She always suspected something: the way her mother would cover her eyes when lighting candles on Friday night for seemingly no reason. Or the fact that the day before Christmas, when fish is traditionally served in Catholic households, her mother served her the gefilte variety. Gefilte fish the night before Christmas. You can’t make this shit up.

In sharing her stories, including her mother’s harrowing tale of surviving the war, she shared a good deal more than she we expected, and apparently a good deal more than she shared with most of her friends. She told us that apart from the two other closeted Jews that worked with her, non of her colleagues knew anything of her Jewish heritage. And it seemed clear that she hoped to keep it that way.

Meanwhile, a student we spoke to gave us a similar story. His grandmother was Jewish, but her parents converted to Catholicism and baptized her and her brother. They still faced antisemitism from local Poles, despite their insistence that they were no longer Jewish. After the war, though, they registered themselves as Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. While his grandmother did not become a very devout Catholic, her brother, his great uncle, born a Jew, became a priest. So it goes.

I’m not quite sure what to make of these stories, apart from them reminding me of the old adage I’d heard some time ago: “Scratch a Hungarian intellectual, and you’ll find some Jewish blood.” Maybe it’s not so different for Poles: we were two for two on the trip. The student, much younger than the professor, didn’t seem as fearful about his Jewish roots. Perhaps this was because they were more tenuous. But perhaps this was a sign that Gentile-Jewish relations are finally improving in Poland. It’s been a long time coming, but never too late.


Written by David Weinfeld

September 12, 2011 at 17:26

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