April 20, 2006
The Shadows of Another Time
In Krakow, there's a commerce of Jewish culture -- but not Jewish people.
Before World War II, some 60,000 Jews lived in Krakow, Poland. More than 54,000 perished during the Holocaust and virtually no Jews remain there today. Writer Rachel Kadish, whose family once owned a hotel in the Tatra Mountains, journeyed to Poland in 1998 and again in 2001 to research her family's property claim, and also to understand how the events of the past filter down to today. This piece is adapted from a book-in-progress and from an essay that appeared in the anthology "The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt"(Dutton, 2005).
In Krakow's old Jewish square, a neighborhood my grandparents knew well, loss runs under everything like a low hum: under chipped brick and broken panes and blackened window frames; under bright new facades standing next to burnt-out shells. Half the buildings are still abandoned (abandonment being, of course, exactly the wrong term for what took place there), but in the last few years an odd thing has happened. This neighborhood -- which for decades stood forsaken and infested with addicts and pushers -- is being renovated.
Hammers and drills start at daybreak. Half the buildings lining the square have been converted into "Jewish establishments," their freshly painted signs advertising food, books, mementoes. This renovation was seeded in the early 1990s by a handful of committed locals -- often with thin ties to Judaism, men and women who are one-eighth Jewish or one-16th; possessors of a tallit found in an avowedly Catholic grandmother's attic, or just Poles with a complex affinity for things Jewish. But business has grown steadily, benefiting from the tourist boom that followed the filming of "Schindler's List" on this spot.
Almost no Jews live here. The Jewish Book Store is run by Catholics. The klezmer musicians who perform nightly at the restaurants are -- unbeknownst to the Jewish tourists who flock to hear them -- non-Jewish Ukrainians.
I listen to them anyway; it eases an unspeakable ache I've felt since arriving. I explore the square, wander into tourist shops. Lining the walls of these shops, on shelf after shelf, sit rows of carved wooden Jews. Most of these figurines are Orthodox men with beards, although some are women in traditional dress. Some of the wooden Jews play instruments. All look mournful. The figures, I am told, are bought by tourists eager for a bit of "authentic" Jewish Poland ... and also by Poles, some of whom may buy them out of nostalgia, some because they believe the figurines are good luck for business. The wooden Jews do not represent the actual pre-war Jewish population of Krakow, a large portion of which was cosmopolitan and non-Orthodox. I can't imagine what my grandmother, who loved Chopin, philosophy, modern dance and skiing, would have said of these miniature people who are supposed to represent her lost world. But the figurines sell as quickly as the local carvers can produce them.
Every day I walk -- partly to see the city, partly to combat the loneliness: a leaden mass in my throat that I couldn't dislodge if I tried.
Photo by Erica Lehrer
A few blocks from the Krakow square I encounter samples of a popular graffiti, featuring a Jewish star on a hangman's noose. A Polish acquaintance explains quite earnestly that this has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.
See there? The word Cracovia is spray-painted beneath. This is graffiti about the Cracovia soccer team. It's nothing to do with Jews. Calling Cracovia "Jews" is just a way of insulting the team.
Anti-Semitism is thick here, and largely unexamined. Yes it's true that there's also been a recent surge of philo-Semitism, exemplified by the huge non-Jewish crowds at Krakow's annual Jewish Cultural Festival and a palpable interest in Judaism within Polish intellectual circles. Still, in Poland it can still be physically hazardous to declare oneself Jewish. Among much of the population here, any sympathy for Jews is outweighed by outrage that the plight of non-Jewish Poles has not been redressed. Person after person here will prove, by reciting a litany of conquest, oppression and murder going back centuries, that they have suffered worse than the Jews. Worse than anybody. Poles are the Christ of Europe. It is Poles who are owed.
As for the Jews' former homes? During the war, Poles found these buildings and moved in. The buildings were empty. The Poles have lived in these buildings for decades, leading to another source of resentment.
Now, "Rich Jews from New York" want to take these homes away.
We're poor people who can't afford new homes. We're a struggling nation. Are you trying to bankrupt us? We, who suffered under both Hitler and Stalin?
The day before I'm to leave town, I meet with the director of Krakow's Jewish Cultural Center. At the conclusion of our interview, he invites me to a reception in the center's art gallery. I follow him down the stairs, mulling the fact that neither he nor a single member of the center's staff is Jewish.
In the gallery I flip through the guest book, scanning those entries written in languages I understand.
"Bless you! Bless you for all you have suffered!" read inscriptions signed by tourists with obviously non-Jewish names. It's not clear whom these writers are addressing, as there are no Jews here. The guest book, crammed with a sweaty philo-Semitism, seems shorthand for whatever Poland's imagined Jews represent to these conscientious visitors: Spirituality? Endurance? An opportunity for serious moral reflection? A confessional where one may at last declare guilt, sorrow, a desire for personal amnesty?
These people are playing on our side. Is it ungrateful to find their efforts creepy?
Here at the Krakow Jewish Cultural Center, at a crowded reception, I feel like possibly the only live Jew on the planet. A Polish woman approaches, her eyes shining as though we're long-lost friends. Her husband translating, she gives her name, tells me she's a sculptor, then stands there beaming while her husband begins a peculiar interrogation: Do I know Rafael Stern; Helena Frankel; Avram Rosemann? The list goes on. None of the names means a thing to me. Then I realize he's enumerating the Jews he once knew in pre-war Krakow -- a relentless recitation clearly intended to prove something.
Soon the woman interrupts. She wants to know when I'm leaving Krakow. Tomorrow, I answer. She is disappointed. Her husband translates so softly I barely catch the words -- something about not enough time to sketch me. She stands back and looks at me hard. Her gaze is neither friendly nor unfriendly; she has simply stopped interacting with me as a person.
After a few seconds she smiles: "I won't forget." She taps her temple. "Now I have your face in here."
I am still smiling at this nice Catholic couple in this crowded gallery, although I know something is wrong. I'm smiling because it's what people do. Because it will take a few more heartbeats, a few uncertain steps out the door of the building, to understand the role I've been conscripted into in these strangers' absolution. To imagine it, high on a tourist-shop shelf -- my own face, notched into wood by a blade.
As I stand there, the woman moves alongside and folds my arm under hers. She touches my cheek, then lifts my glasses.
"Beautiful eyes," she says. "Beautiful, dark eyes."
Rachel Kadish is the author of the novel "From a Sealed Room" (Putnam, 1998). Her new novel, "Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story," will be published by Houghton Mifflin in September.