JCC Krakow 2017

Hornstein Seminar to Poland 2017
Day Six, Krakow

Black, white, or gray? 

By Leo Fuhrman

Starting off the sixth day of the trip to Poland, it was a Shabbat morning, so we did our best to sleep in late. The first meeting we had was at 12:30 pm, a lunch at the Jewish Community Center of Krakow. Even though this was our third meal at the JCC, I still got excited and moved by the atmosphere as if it were the first time.

While eating chulent, challah, and humus, we had a meaningful conversation with Jonathan Ornstein, the Executive Director of the JCC. Jonathan was eager to share his unique story with us. He grew up in an orthodox family in New York City, made aliyah and volunteered in Kibbutz Yotvata in the South of Israel. After serving in the IDF, he fell in love with a young Polish woman, and followed her to the city of Lodz. He ended up moving to Krakow to teach Hebrew in the University of Krakow, before applying to the position he is currently holding.

A lot of the conversation revolved around what the Krakow JCC represents in the current Jewish landscape in Poland. Jonathan explained that from an early stage of his position, he quickly realized that people associate Krakow with tragedy and destruction, so he dedicated his effort to changing people’s perception of the city. Krakow was once a place of grief and sorrow, he said, but today represents the Jewish revival in Poland, just 50 miles from Auschwitz. That conscious decision to change perceptions about Krakow was supported by his selection of the color green for the JCC in Krakow, the color of life.

To us it was obvious that something good is happening in Krakow, however, Jonathan emphasized the difficulty of changing people’s long-held positions. Jonathan believes North Americans are slowly starting to accept the new Jewish reality in Krakow. However, he said that “some ships are harder to turn.” Surprisingly, Israel is significantly harder to convince of this change. He thinks this is due to the fact that a "good Krakow" clashes with the Israeli narrative. It is much easier to understand a dichotomy of good versus evil. For most people, it is more convenient to think in black or white, than to digest the complexities and subtleties of the Polish narrative.

After saying our goodbyes to the wonderful people that hosted us, we went on a tour to the old city of Krakow. Our tour guide, Jakob, gave us his take on the history of the city, and made sure to add a couple of jokes about U.S. President Donald Trump in the process.

The diverse colorful architecture of Krakow tells a story of a city that has survived a number of foreign occupiers, and still remained intact. After all of the Nazi bombing, Jakob told us, Krakow was spared because Hitler was convinced that the city used to have German occupants in the past, so it should belong to Germany. We also got to see the house of Oscar Shcindler, and the beautiful main square.

The tour concluded in the Galicia Jewish Museum, where we met Anna Wencel, the Education Manager, for a conversation about the educational experience of the museum.

Galicia Jewish Museum by Jorge Lascar at Flickr

Exhibit at the Galicia Jewish Museum, Krakow. The label reads, in English: The significance of the circular window. Entrance to the synagogue in the village of Vielkie Oczy. The circular window high above the entry door is a common architectural feature of synagogues in Galicia. Part of the purpose of a synagogue is to facilitate the worshippers' search for God. But according to Jewish mystical traditions, it is a two-way process. God is also in search of people. So a special hole, high in the wall, symbolically permits God to peer through, as if to catch sight of his worshipers yearning for him. The circular window, then, is not intended for people to look out; it is for God to look in.

One of the main themes that came up again on Saturday, and at least a half of dozen times this week, was the complexity of the historic narratives in the history of Poland. The Poles commonly refer to themselves as the victims of the story. Poland was occupied by the Nazis, and then by the communists, so in their mind, any deed that was done to the Jews was never the Poles’ fault. We now know that some Poles were just as much to blame as their occupiers. Some villagers led the pogroms, and others told the Nazis where Jews were hiding.

I asked about this dark time in the history of Poland, and if this creates any educational challenges when leading groups in the museum. Anna answered by giving an example from her work. She told us about a tour guide training session she was running not long ago. She got into an argument with two of the participants over this narrative. During the training session, the group reacted to a picture showing Polish citizens who tortured their Jewish neighbors. The picture sparked controversy when the two participants felt that this picture should not be the main focus of the tour, and it should be either “explained” as an exceptional case, or just skipped all together.

Anna insisted that this picture was as much a part of Polish history as the Nazi occupation, but the two participants could not accept that. Once again, the complexity of the historic narrative came up. Most people find it comfortable to see black or white, but in reality, there is a lot more grey, and that is hard to digest. As an Israeli, I couldn’t help but think about the complexities of the Israeli narrative. The entire exchange was truly thought provoking, and I know that the conversations I had today will stay with me long after this trip is over. 

In February 2017, the Hornstein Class of 2017 traveled to Poland with Professor Leonard Saxe for an eight-day seminar to study contemporary Jewish life in that country. This is a blog post from that seminar written by a student or pair of students.

This year's seminar was supported, in part, by the Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry and the Center for German and European Studies, both at Brandeis University.

For more photos, see our photo album at our Facebook page.