Hope in the shadow of Auschwitz

A new rabbi has been appointed to rebuild the Jewish community in the Polish city of Krakow, just a short distance from the site of the Nazis' most infamous death camp. Ruth Elkins reports

Avraham Flaks, at the age of 38, has become Krakow's first rabbi since the Holocaust. It should be the dream posting. The southern Polish city has been a centre of Jewish scholarship for more than 700 years. On the eve of the Second World War, it was a thriving home to some 60,000 Jews - a quarter of the city's population.

Jewish literature bubbles over with stories from Krakow: the fabled golems, the wisdom of the rabbis, the match-making, market day and colourful holidays, like Sukkot, Passover and Hanukkah. But to be the rabbi of Krakow carries the terrifying responsibility for the world's largest Jewish cemetery: Auschwitz is a short, desolate drive away. Somehow Rabbi Flaks has to bring back the light to the living Jewish community - and address the terrible shadows thrown by the nearby concentration camp.

"The challenge is immense," says the rabbi, speaking partly in English, partly in Russian. Born in Moscow, he emigrated to Israel in 1992. No Polish Jew could be found for the Krakow job. The Holocaust left only 2,000 Jews there. A further anti-Semitic government campaign in 1968 forced many more to leave.

Today, there are just 157 Jews registered as living in Krakow. Most of them are old and infirm. Though there has been criticism about the new rabbi's inability to speak Polish, where in Krakow could one possibly have found a suitable candidate? Even the chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, is an American.

This is the modern paradox of the eastern cradle of Judaism in Europe. Jews are recognised now, only by their absence. The new rabbi of Krakow and I are in the old Jewish district of Kazimierz, in the cosy, red-painted Klezmer Hois restaurant. Outside, 100 years ago, the cobbled main square - the Szeroca - would have been full of noise and bustle: barrow boys calling out their wares, gossiping merchants, arguments and laughter. It survived its post-war years as a down-and-out slum, occupied only by thieves and prostitutes. It was void of Jews. Now Kazimierz is being brought back to life, although many here say that it is more an urban renewal project than an attempt to revive Jewishness.

The brightly coloured "Jewish Style" restaurants and cafés dotted along its maze of streets and courtyards are about "as Jewish as a bacon sandwich at a Hassidic wedding", according to Chris Schwarz, the British-born founder and director of the district's slick new Gallicia Jewish museum. Rabbi Flaks is caught between a small, dwindling congregation of believers and a massive attempt to market the city to American-Jewish and Israeli tourists. There is the Ghetto Tour and the Oscar Schindler Tour. There are the Klezmer music nights. The Jewish bars and cafés, all decked out in 1930s Polish-Jewish kitsch with mismatched wooden chairs and tables, and crocheted white table cloths all offer the same traditional Jewish fare: turkey with almonds, Jewish caviar (chopped liver), cholent (stew), stuffed goosenecks and a selection of kosher wines.

It is all a bit of a performance, I say. The rabbi nods cautiously. He is coming to realise that he has to go beyond the Disneyland Judaism and build a working coalition between the ageing Jews and the hope of the future: a new generation of Poles who are only just discovering their Jewishness.

"It is a tragic, yet fascinating phenomenon," says Michael Freund, chairman of "Shavei Israel", an Israel-based organisation which dispatched Rabbi Flaks to Krakow and sponsors his work there. "First you have the Jews who survived the Holocaust but hid their Jewishness from the Communist authorities. With Communism dead and gone, more and more are feeling freer to assert their Jewish identity. Then you have the many cases of Jewish children adopted by Catholic families and institutes during the Holocaust. The Catholics hid their real identity from them. Now, though, we're getting more and more death-bed confessions, where adoptive parents will, perhaps out of guilt or out of a need to put the record straight, finally say: 'Oh, by the way, you're actually Jewish'."

Kasia Czerwonogora was 13 years old when she and her sister found some old documents in her father's desk which revealed she was Jewish. "I couldn't believe it," she said. "But my parents weren't so happy we'd found out. My mother had been baptised a Catholic and my father had lost a lot of friends who were forced to leave during the 1968 campaign. He was worried about what having Jewish identity in Poland might bring for us."

Ms Czerwonogora, now 20, and a sociology student at Krakow University, was not to be put off. "I got really interested in my roots," she says. She started to attend synagogue and took an Israeli government-sponsored "Birth Right" trip to Israel.

When she returned, she formed Czulent, a support group for young Krakowians, who, like her, had discovered, or were in the process of discovering, they weren't who they thought they were. "At first we were like 'Jews Anonymous'," she says. "The meetings were like therapy sessions, standing up and talking about how we felt. The shock of discovering that we weren't who we thought we were raised so many questions."

The group, which meets weekly in a converted one-room apartment in Kazimierz, now has 30 members, aged between 18 and 40. As well as hosting lectures and Torah readings, Czulent members take Hebrew lessons, watch Jewish movies, and practice "Krav Maga", the Israeli-form of self-defence. They also cook shabbat suppers, kosher, Ms Czerwonogora says, "out of respect" for the five or so members of the group who have become practising Jews. "Yeah, they're the full-time ones," laughs Ms Czerwonogora's fellow Czulent member, Piotr Radwiski.

The 25-year-old linguistics student discovered he was Jewish 10 years ago when his grandfather decided to "fess up". "I had been brought up as a Catholic and attended church, so it was a bit of a shock," he says. "Do I think I'm Jewish? I don't know. Maybe." He shrugs. "I'm a mixture of my experiences."

Ms Czerwonogora and Mr Radwiski are the norm for Krakow's "new Jewish community", which is estimated to number a few thousand, whether they know it yet, or not.

"Put it this way," says Ms Czerwonogora. "We're really interested in the Jewish culture and the religion and exploring our heritage, but we like to celebrate Christmas as well."

The sentiment is doubtless shared by many who attend Krakow's blossoming Jewish Cultural Festival. A fringe affair when it started in 1988, the annual summer music event now attracts 30,000, Jewish and non-Jewish visitors to Krakow. Kasimierz has a brand new Jewish cultural centre and the city's Jagiellonian University recently opened a new Jewish Research Institute. Not surprisingly, none of its 200 students are practising Jews.

"It's become almost quite trendy here to be able to say you're a Krakow Jew, especially among young people," says Ms Czerwonogora. "People think it's really exotic. And I don't really worry too much about anti-Semitism any more."

But is the future of Jewish life here just a fashion statement? "Of course, it'd be great if the community was revived here," says Ms Czerwonogora. "But I can't really see it. I'm not going to be the one who leads it."

Rabbi Flaks says that he is "a post-modern rabbi". He claims he will not force a wholesale revival. "I am orthodox, of course," he says, "but tolerant. And, while I am not going to force anyone to do anything, it is of great importance, for those who are interested in returning to their Jewish faith that I am here."

Rabbi Flaks, himself an outsider, might find the revival also comes from further afield. "Poland has had such negative connotations for Jews for such a long time," says Wojtek Ornat, a 41-year-old Krakowian, whose small publishing house Austeria does good business selling books solely on Polish Jewish life. "But now that's changing."

Some 70 per cent of the world's Jews can trace their ancestry back to Poland. Many are returning. "I know personally of 10 Israelis who are buying up apartments in Krakow," Mr Ornat says.

"They're not scared of coming here any more. The focus on death in Poland is past. It's more about Jewish life these days."

"It is a huge step forward that the community feels self confident enough to have a full time rabbi," he says. "Who knows what's going to happen in the future. But without a rabbi, without that structure, we don't even have a chance."

Piotr Radwiski isn't so sure. "I'm not sure we will ever be able to fully revive the central and eastern European Jewry," he says. "They're gone for ever. What the Nazis did, the Holocaust, is irreversible." The Holocaust survivors, he says, kept the flame alive but his parents' generation hid it. There has been a generation gap and that, he says, is hard to fill. "Of course keeping memory alive is incredibly important. But history has moved on." He admits the interest in his own Jewish roots is strengthened by his grandfather's faith. "I think we both know," he says, "that once he's gone, that'll be it." Seconds later, he reconsiders. "But perhaps I'll feel differently when he's dead."

Rabbi Flaks, though, remains hopeful. In town for six days now, it is too early to be making snap judgements. His first move will be to hold regular Shabbat suppers to strengthen the Jewish community ties and provide pastoral care for the elderly. "Come back in a year," he says, slowly. "And I hope I can tell you more about what I have achieved here."

Outside the Klezmer Hois, the fifth tour group of the day is gathered around the entrance. "A final word on the food, here," booms the tour guide. "It's definitely not kosher." The group appears interested, but not particularly surprised. They shuffle on to the next point of interest. A few seconds later, Rabbi Flaks comes out into the autumn sunshine and, slips, almost unnoticed, across the leafy, cobbled square to the synagogue.