European Times Krakow: Jews return to scene of `Schindler's List'

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The Independent Online
WHEN ALLEN Haberberg first wrote to a contact in the Polish town of Dabrowa Tarnowska to try to trace his family roots, he had no idea he was starting a journey that would end in Eden.

Mr Haberberg, 37, a former metals trader, was born in New York. Like many Jews with roots in Poland, he wanted to discover more about his heritage.

He knew his grandparents had been killed in the Holocaust and were connected to Krakow. Armed with two letters, written by his grandmother in 1942, he travelled to Dabrowa Tarnowska.

There he met his contact, a pharmacist called Jola. She is now his wife. The couple bought three houses in Krakow's old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz and are converting the properties into a kosher hotel, the city's first, the Hotel Eden.

Scheduled to open next summer, the Hotel Eden is the latest project in the revival of Jewish cultural life in Krakow.

"I fell in love with Krakow as soon as I got here. I had a Jewish upbringing in America, but some part of me feels more Jewish living here than I did in New York," Mr Haberberg said. "I go to synagogue twice a week, which I would never have done in the US."

Until the Holocaust, Krakow was home to more than 68,000 Jews, a community made famous in the 1993 Steven Spielberg film Schindler's List.

The factory on the outskirts of the city that was once owned by Oskar Schindler still operates, though the nearby former concentration camp at Plaszow has been demolished. The house of the camp commandant, Amon Goeth, still overlooks the site. Ravens rest on a satellite dish, next to the balcony from where Goeth would take pot-shots at the prisoners.

Jews first settled in Krakow in the 13th century, and their numbers grew after they were expelled from Spain in 1492. By the 19th century Krakow was a centre of Jewish life in Poland, the country with the biggest Jewish community in Europe.

Only a few thousand Krakow Jews survived the war. Most of them left for Israel, Europe or the United States. Polish anti-Semitism and the pogrom of camp survivors in 1946 and a subsequent anti-Jewish campaign in 1968 reduced the community to a few hundred.

Now triggered, in part, by Schindler's List, but more by a slow change in attitude towards Jews among younger Poles and the Polish government, Jewish life is reviving.

Krakow once again has a Rabbi, Sasha Pecaric. Kazimierz's main square, Szeroka, is the site of a synagogue, a kosher restaurant, the Jarden Jewish bookshop and the Ariel Cafe, which hosts nightly concerts of Jewish Klezmer music.

The cafe, which has period furniture from the early part of the century, is modelled on a Jewish salon, the owner, Janusz Benigier, said. "Jews were part of Krakow's atmosphere, and something has gone from Poland with their loss. We lived together for ages and our cultures were cemented together.

"Jewish writers wrote in Polish, our music has Jewish roots, we even share a sense of being martyrs."

Lucyna Les, who runs the Jarden bookshop, said: "This is the last Jewish quarter in Poland that has not changed for hundreds of years. The old days, when Krakow was filled with Jews, can never come back, but we have to preserve as much as we can. Three million Jews lived in Poland and left their influence on almost every aspect of Polish culture, from art and poetry to cooking. They lived here and they were part of Poland."

Like many young non-Jewish Poles, Ms Les thinks the Holocaust created a vacuum in her country. "Many Poles have never met someone Jewish. People are afraid of the unknown but knowledge produces tolerance.

"Now something new is happening in the young generation, who don't look at Jews like their parents did.

"They come here and see how Jews live, what they wrote, what they eat, and how intertwined Jewish and Polish culture is."

This week marked the Day of Atonement, one of the the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. At the recently restored 17th century Isaac synagogue, once the glory of Krakow's Jews, two life-size cardboard cut-outs of Orthodox Jews stand in memory of the former worshippers, killed in the Nazi camps.

A video plays continuously, showing a film of the vibrant life of Jews in Kazimierz during the 1930s. A housewife haggles over the price of a chicken in the market square, young students at yeshiva - religious school - grin at the camera, while their fathers, clad in black hats and coats, gossip on street corners.

It is a vanished world of Polish Jewry, one that can never return.