On our recent Eastern Europe trip, Jewish Community Center of the North Shore travelers had fairly low expectations about current Jewish life in Poland. After leaving Warsaw, the group spent a heart-wrenching, somber afternoon at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Seventy-plus years ago, the Nazis’ wiped out 90 percent of all Polish Jews and had destroyed the cultural heart of the country.
One in our group, Ruth Simon from Woburn, whose father was an Auschwitz survivor, had not planned to step foot in Poland, and couldn’t bear to enter the Arbeit Macht Frei (“work sets you free”) gates at the largest of the Nazi extermination camps. But she was far from the only member of our group who was incredibly moved by the experience.
“After coming face to face with the place and apparatus that put an end to so many, I was left with feelings of incredible anger and hopelessness,” reflected Rich Sokolow of Middleton. Little did any of us expect to find a pocket of Jewish revival just a mere hour away from the site of so much tragedy. What our group of 32 experienced next in Krakow, however, was something close to remarkable.
We had arranged a visit to the JCC in Krakow’s Jewish quarter of Kazimierz to meet with Jonathan Ornstein, who has served as the executive director since its opening in 2008. Ornstein explained that in 2002, on a visit to Krakow, Prince Charles of Wales had been moved by the stories of local Holocaust survivors and inspired by the young, re-emerging Jewish community. So he ended up funding a central meeting place – the JCC Krakow – for all generations to enjoy (jcckrakow.org).
Originally from New York City, Ornstein had moved to Israel in 1994, serving for two years as a lone soldier in the Israeli army before moving to Poland in 2001. “We cannot change the number of Jews murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust,” he told us. “We can, however, affect the number of Jews lost to the Jewish world due to the Holocaust. And that, in essence, is our mission at JCC Krakow.”
Located in the heart of the city’s historic Jewish quarter, the JCC is a bustling, bursting-at-the-seams operation, providing Krakow’s Jewish population with a space to meet, learn, and share ideas in a welcoming environment. Over 700 members call the JCC their home away from home, plus well over 50 non-Jewish volunteers. The JCC offers more than 40 religious and cultural programs each week, including Jewish holiday events, weekly Shabbat dinners for local Jews and visitors from around the world, social activities, education for all age groups, and art exhibitions.
On-site is an early childhood center, Sunday school, Hillel student club, and a senior club that includes over 60 Holocaust survivors. There is even a genealogist offering free consultations to members researching their Jewish roots, and to visitors researching their Polish ancestry. Funding for the JCC Krakow is largely gathered by Ornstein in the U.S. and abroad.
Ornstein spoke passionately about a new and growing Jewish community and described how a number of younger Poles were just discovering their Jewish ancestry that was hidden during the war years to protect them from persecution. These new-found Jews are now discovering their faith and culture in one of the most improbable places imaginable. Sokolow, along with those who met Ornstein and heard his compelling story, left the visit optimistic, “with the knowledge that the Krakow JCC is providing a light for Jews in Poland, where there was once only harrowing darkness.”
When Simon – so distraught about being in Poland – heard firsthand from Ornstein about the JCC’s senior club and the inspirational support the center has provided for those who returned after the war, she couldn’t help but act. Visibly touched, she decided on the spot to help support the group in memory of her parents, who were both Holocaust survivors. It was a bright spot in this trip of a lifetime – not just for Simon, but for all of us.