Raised on stories about Mama’s magical homeland of Poland, I visited for the first time in 1986. This was before the fall of communism, when the country was still in the grips of a state socialist government. But although I went in search of my roots, I didn’t think about my heritage as being Jewish. I knew nothing about Polish Jews, and I didn’t identify as Jewish. Nor did I mention it to anyone; there would not have been much to tell since I didn’t know anything about this aspect of my family history. Moreover, and perhaps primarily, I had somehow internalized the unspoken understanding that Poles are Catholic, and Jewish heritage wasn’t supposed to be talked about.
I review the memories in my mind, searching for clues about how I thought about Polish Jews. Again, I am reminded that I didn’t think about my own Jewish heritage during my first visits to Poland, except perhaps to repress it. I preferred the family narrative about our Polish Catholic background to the reality of our more complex past. From time to time, I saw anti-Semitic graffiti, or heard prejudicial remarks about Jews. But mostly, neither I nor the Poles I met paid much attention to the past lives of Polish Jews.
But not entirely. For instance, during the summer school I attended in Krakow, a fieldtrip was organized to Kazimierz, the former Jewish quarter of the city. Jews settled there near the end of the 15th century when faced with restrictions against living in the city center. By the 1930s the population of Kazimierz reached about 60,000 Jews. Most died in the Holocaust, leaving the district abandoned. After the war, it was not a popular place to live and those who moved in did little to maintain or update the historic buildings. By the 1980s, most of Kazimierz was in disrepair. Some buildings had fallen down completely while others had cracked, grey, and dirty walls. In fact, much of the Old City of Krakow looked run down. But Kazimierz was worse, even on Szeroka Street, the historic center of the Jewish district.
It’s hard for me to distinguish memories from my first visit to Poland and subsequent ones in the early 1990s, but I think I went to the Remuh Synagogue already in 1986. That’s where a small group of older Jews continued to congregate. I also visited the walled cemetery next to the synagogue, where at least some of the gravestones and arched grave coverings were maintained and, judging by the small stones left on them, visited regularly. I think it was in the 1990s I was told that many of these older Jews were not in fact Polish, but rather came from the former Soviet Union. Such talk left me with the impression they weren’t real Polish Jews, but rather opportunists exploiting the growing interest in Jewish heritage tourism.
Some of the historic buildings started to be renovated already in the early 1990s. The first Jewish-themed business I remember was Ariel, a restaurant and café on Szeroka Street. It featured Jewish food and displayed Jewish memorabilia and artwork. I took some of my friends from Bieszczady, my rural fieldsite in the southeast of the country, to Ariel. I wanted to impress them with the cultural diversity of Krakow. Looking back at my fieldnotes from that time, I was surprised to see I noted that my friends were fascinated by this former Jewish district. They asked me if the café was in a Jewish style, and if the people around us were Jewish. So perhaps even then, Poles were more interested in Jewish culture than I realized.
Over the years, Kazimierz has become more and more popular. The first to come were artists and students seeking an edgier, cheaper part of the city to live in, as well as tourists seeking traces of Poland’s Jewish past. I have read that a turning point came after Steven Spielberg filmed Schindler’s List in the district. This was in early 1993, while I was still living in Krakow. A fake wall was built to enclose Szeroka Street near Starowiślna Street, and movie-set facades resembling World War II era businesses were painted on abandoned buildings. In effect, Spielberg turned the area into the Jewish ghetto, even though the actual ghetto was a few miles away in the district of Płaszów. I watched filming one day. An actor dressed as a Nazi officer (I now realize it was Ralph Fiennes playing Amon Goeth) strode to the top of a pile of suitcases over and over again. Mostly, everyone was just standing around. I was able to pick Spielberg himself out; he was wearing one of his signature ball caps. Some of his kids were there, and I think I saw his wife as well.
After witnessing the filming of Schindler’s List, I couldn’t suspend my disbelief and become absorbed into the story when I watched the movie in the theatre. It didn’t help that one of my friends, a swarthy Brazilian whose father’s family was Polish, appeared larger than life in the first “Jewish” crowd scene.
Today, so many parts of Kazimierz have been reconstructed or renovated that it can be easy to forget how derelict it used to be. In addition to the many cafes and restaurants, the synagogues, prayer houses, and other Jewish institutions have been restored. Even more significantly, eclectic forms of Jewish life have returned to the district, most visibly at the Jewish Community Center, which holds Shabbat dinners and Jewish cultural events, and functions as both a gathering point and an information center for Jewish residents of Krakow and visitors from around the world.