Snapshots of the Kraków We Lost
It has been said that the Shtetl was created twice. Once hundreds of years ago as a place for Jews to live — usually at the demand of unfriendly governments. And then, they say, the Shtetl was spiritually recreated after World War II to remember a world that was totally annihilated by the Nazis. This second Shtetl is often romanticized, and filled with strong elements of humor, warmth and culture.
There were, of course, Jews living in cities as well. One such city with a major Jewish population was Kraków in Southern Poland. Just before the war, there were some 60,000 Jews living in Kraków — about 30% of the city’s population.
Today, there are a only a few hundred Jews left there. Yet there is a concerted effort to revive the rich Jewish past of the city. The old Jewish quarters of Kazimierz are being renovated, Jewish buildings of importance are being commemorated and traditional “Jewish-themed” restaurants are in abundance.
Furthermore, Kraków’s former Jewish life is gladly being commercialized. The souvenir shops will sell anything and everything — like an unusual mix of small effigies of hassidim next to religious Christian icons.
There is also a marketplace in the Jewish quarters — Plac Nowy — where all kinds of knick-knacks are peddled. What is disturbing here is how Jewish artifacts are sold — by people are profiting from selling items that were stolen from Jews during the war.
Moreover, there are stands at Plac Nowy selling armbands with a Star of David sewn on to them — and supposedly worn by Jews during the war (even though these ones look suspiciously new). These armbands lie mixed with Nazi memorabilia, which is also for sale.
When I took photos at such a stand, all hell broke loose. The stand owner started shouting at me and another person grabbed my arm, and told me that I’d better leave right away. Clearly, these peddlers are aware of the inappropriateness of selling armbands with Stars of David next to Nazi memorabilia. However, seeing them doing so in the Jewish quarters made me feel worse than actually having been kicked out of the market. There are many people trying to make a dime on the Jewish revival in Kraków.
This Jewish renewal in Kraków gives me an ambiguous feeling. On the one hand, I am happy to see that much is being done to commemorate history — and I am also pleased to see how the city authorities participate in events with Jewish organizations. On the other hand, much of the “Jewish life” in these quarters is run by non-Jews simply because there are few Jews left in Kraków.
Even with — or because of — this ambiguity in mind, a walk in the Jewish quarters can be very moving. The constant reminder about the rich, pre-war Jewish life that has almost totally been destroyed, is highly emotional. This feeling is further accentuated when visiting the new Jewish cemetery in Kraków.
The original cemetery was destroyed by the Nazis, but it has since been restored with what can be restored. However, most gravestones were too smashed to be repaired; instead, many of the pieces have been brought together to form a Holocaust remembrance monument at the entrance. They are also used to make up pieces of the wall surrounding the cemetery.
Reading the inscriptions on some of the complete tombstones at the new Jewish cemetery is a heart-breaking reminder about the disappearance of its Jewish life. And while walking among the gravestones, one constantly passes piles of stones lying around. In these piles, there are pieces of smashed tombstones clearly visible. Some bear Hebrew text, and even without visible inscriptions, it is clear that the stones were cut and shaped by man once upon a time.
My overall sentiment about present-day Jewish Kraków is that great work is being done in restoring what can be restored. Yet, there is another sentiment lingering in my mind. Just like we have with the shtetls, I am wondering if we are seeing the second creation of Kraków — i.e. spiritually recreating and romanticizing what does not exist anymore.
This approach to remembrance is not unique when commemorating a history bitterly destroyed. But it also makes Kraków an ambiguous place.