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Artykuł opublikowany przez "The Times": Krakow is telling us 'one of the best stories in the Jewish world'

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2 listopada 2013 roku The Times opublikował artykuł Simona Rockera "Krakow is telling us 'one of the best stories in the Jewish world'."

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Krakow is telling us ‘one of the best stories in the Jewish world’
Young Poles are rediscovering Jewish culture as part of their European identity

Simon Rocker
Published at 12:01AM, November 2 2013

One Sunday this summer an old steam train, hired for the day, set off from Tarnow in southeast Poland to Bobowa. As it chugged through the countryside, spectators waved at the picturesque passengers — a young Chasidic man and the entourage accompanying him to his wedding.

From the thousands who had gathered in Bobowa to celebrate, you might have thought him a celebrity. He and his bride were married in the courtyard of the restored 18th-century synagogue: and the ceremony was replayed in the town square so that larger audiences could enjoy it. The mayor laid on a kosher buffet, klezmer-led dancing continued well into the evening.

But the nuptials were not real. The event was a historical reconstruction, based on records of a famous wedding in the town in 1931. In the history of Chasidism, the revivalist movement which swept Eastern Europe in the 18th century and still claims hundreds of thousands of followers, Bobowa is renowned: it was home to Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam (1847-1905), who founded one of the largest Chasidic sects, the Bobov. The rabbi was considered a “wonder-worker” and respected among local Catholics too, says the town’s mayor, Waclaw Ligeza. The rabbi’s tomb, in the hilltop Jewish cemetery, is now a place of Jewish pilgrimage.

For Ligeza the festivities were “a recollection of the Jewish history so closely related to our own”. But what happened in his town was not an isolated event: it is part of a new chapter of rapprochement between Poles and Jews ushered in by the fall of communism. Poland is the graveyard of what had been Europe’s largest Jewish community; of the three and a quarter million Jews prewar, barely a quarter of a million survived the Holocaust and most of those emigrated. In the late 1960s the anti-Semitic campaign instigated by the communist government forced more than 20,000 Jews out of the country, leaving just a few thousand behind.

As Poland emerged from the Stalinist shadows, a renewed interest in Jewish culture began to take root, inspired by liberal-minded Polish non-Jews and by the remnants of Polish Jewry. Some Poles, finding that they had Jewish ancestry, started to explore their heritage; a few have even converted and joined a growing Jewish community. Krakow now holds one of the world’s largest ­festivals of Jewish culture, attracting 30,000 participants this summer.

The most visible symbol of this cultural reclamation is the monumental new Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, opened in Warsaw this year on the site of the ghetto. Opposite the ­memorial to the ghetto fighters who died in the 1943 uprising, it is a homage to a 1,000-year history — a story, which despite the terrible events of the 20th century, has not come to an end.

Jonathan Ornstein, the dir­ector of the Jewish Community Centre in Krakow, which was opened by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall in 2008, says, “Jewish life in Poland is thriving. It is a little known story but it’s becoming more known. It’s one of the best stories in the Jewish world.”

The Polish parliament’s recent ban on kosher and halal methods of animal slaughter — a decision now under legal challenge — might seem an unfortunate reversal. But according to Professor Jonathan Webber, a British expert on Polish-Jewish relations, the ban was more to do with internal politics and a protest against the Prime Minister than motivated by anti-Jewish reaction.

Professor Webber, founding chairman of the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, has been teaching in the city for more than two and a half years at the Jagiellonian University. The take-up of Jewish studies is indicative of the wider interest in Jewish culture. “There are more people doing Jewish studies at the university in Krakow than there are in London,” he said. “All over the country, there are departments of Jewish studies opening up.”

Young people, he argues, are rejecting the anti-Semitism of past generations, whether nationalist or Communist. “They want to be ordinary, normal Europeans — and one of the things that characterises ordinary, normal Europeans is to have national minorities and especially the Jewish minority.”

The Catholic Church has also played an important positive role, not least because of Pope John Paul II, whose legacy remains strong in his native country.

“He said time and time again that anti-Semitism is a sin and you cannot be a Christian if you are anti-Semitic,” Webber says. “It has had an incalculable effect on people. They feel that if their Pope said that, then they have a duty to take it on board. Now you have event after event promoted by churches in support of Jews.”

He can think of no more moving ­instance than a concert at Auschwitz ­attended by thousands of Catholics. They heard a symphony, The Suffering of the Innocents, performed by orchestra and 100-person choir; one movement was one based on Shema Yisrael, “Hear O Israel”, the most important prayer in Judaism.

For many Jews there was often no reason to go to Poland other than to recite the memorial prayer over the victims of the Nazis at Auschwitz or at another death camp site. But Krakow and other places are encouraging a different kind of visit. Bobowa is not alone in seeing pilgrims’ progress. On the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Elimelech Weisblum (in 1787), thousands of Jews gather in the little town of Lezajsk to pay their respects to the early Chasidic master. But the pious come throughout the year to pray at his tomb, lighting candles and leaving scraps of paper, which carry personal petitions for the soul of the saintly mystic to put in a good word on their behalf in heaven.

Simon Rocker is a journalist with the Jewish Chronicle