Krakow: A Bright Spot In Jewish Europe, Just an Hour’s Drive From Auschwitz

Krakow Jewish Festival
Krakow Jewish Festival

By Jonathan Ornstein

As the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Centre of Krakow, I’m a very rare species of Jewish communal leader in Europe today: one who can say it’s easier, safer and better every day to be Jewish in his community. Our situation in Poland seems to be the polar opposite of that in France. French Jews must carefully weigh whether it is safe to go to synagogue or to wear a kippah in public while we feel none of those safety concerns in Krakow. Every day young people stand up to be counted and reconnect to the Jewish community – excited by the prospect of learning more about their family history, the potential to start their own Jewish journey and also to become part of a revitalized and dynamic community.

The level of anti-Semitism in Poland today is debatable (in my experience it’s on the decline), but what has become clear since last summer is that Western Europe is becoming alarmingly anti-Semitic and this is quickly becoming the norm. The incidents in Paris were harrowing for me – both as a human being and, more relevantly, a Jew living in Europe. Combine this with the increasingly anti-Semitic attitudes in France, Belgium and the Scandinavian countries – often considered a haven of liberal thought and government, anti-Semitism is reaching a critical mass in Western Europe that has not been seen since WWII.

Meanwhile each day in Krakow, people walk into our JCC having recently discovered their Jewish roots and ask us to help them learn more. We have over five hundred Jewish members at the JCC. Over fifty non-Jewish volunteers commit their time and energy, working side by side with our staff to create this warm and welcoming space. The JCC has over a hundred Holocaust survivors who are active members and serve as role models for this younger generation emerging from the shadows. I’m proud to say that in the nearly seven years we’ve been open, we have never had one anti-Semitic occurrence, one threat, or one incident of graffiti being sprayed.

The idea that there is a renewal in the Jewish community in Krakow less than an hour’s drive from Auschwitz has, I believe, a deep meaning that resonates throughout the world. If a community such as ours can reemerge after the Holocaust and then from forty-five years of communist oppression, then no community, no matter the circumstances, is beyond hope.

Thousands of visitors pass through our doors each month and are blown away by what they find. There are many out there who feel that Jews should not live in a place with a history like ours. And yet, we are one of the bright spots and success stories of Jewish life in Europe today. There is a place in Europe where Jews are being welcomed with open arms, which hosts the largest Jewish culture festival in Europe, where there are people every day discovering they are Jewish and connecting with Judaism.

In writing this I am also asking something of the Jewish world: do not pass judgment on Poland based solely on its difficult past. There should no longer be any debate over whether Jews should be living here: Jews are living here and they are living well. The wider Jewish community needs to welcome today’s Jewish Poles into the fold and accept us with open arms. And to the French Jews we say that no matter how difficult things get, there is always a brighter tomorrow.

Jonathan Ornstein is Executive Director of the Jewish Community Centre of Krakow.