Hanukah in Holocaustland

The community menorah lighting in Kazimierz happened on the fourth night of Hanukah this year.   Kazimierz:  a famous and important Jewish town for five hundred years until its population was decimated in the Holocaust, and today a fashionable neighborhood in Kraków with a remarkable collection of intact Jewish buildings.

It was not obvious to me why the public menorah lighting should be on the fourth night and not on the first night of the holiday.  I found out the reason by accident.  The ultra-orthodox Chabad Lubavitch has its base in the Isaak synagogue, whose interior appears in the picture above.  For a couple of weeks before the holiday, its standard-issue oversized angular chanukiah stood in the corner of the Isaak courtyard.  On the night of the first candle, I made my way there, expecting a public lighting with a little food and a few songs.  As dusk fell, I found the Isaak courtyard empty––except for the figure of a single man smoking a cigarette, who turned out to be Mechel, a quirky Chasid from Brooklyn known for his bacchanalian all-day-and-all-night Shabbat parties held mostly for non-Jews in his tiny apartment.  Mechel told me that ma’ariv services were ending, and the menorah lighting was going on in the synagogue.  And sure enough, when services ended, maybe two dozen Jews shuffled through the courtyard and made their way home.  After awhile the Lubavitch rabbi emerged and set about locking up the building––Eliezer Gurary, formerly or perhaps still presently the Chief Rabbi of Kraków, depending on who you talk to, and one of the central figures of the so-called Breakaway Minyan in the notorious Rosh Hashanah Schism of 2015.  He said that the outdoor community menorah lighting would be on Szeroka Street later in the week.  

I too left the courtyard, and took a slow walk through the neighborhood, a place I have come to know deeply in recent years.  It happened that this year the first candle fell on Christmas eve, and the streets of Kazimierz were strangely deserted.  Between the emptiness and the snowswirl, it seemed to be a night for the angels of Kazimierz to come out and take a look at things.  Some of them seemed to get caught on the droplets of ice that melted on my lens.

Kazimierz has the best preserved Jewish architectural patrimony in eastern Europe.  That patrimony includes seven historical synagogues:  the Old Synagogue (built 1407), the Remuh (opened in 1558), the High (opened 1563), the Popper (opened 1620), the Kupa (opened 1643), the Isaak (opened 1654), and the Tempel (opened 1862).  None of these historic synagogues are more than six or seven minutes’ walk from each other, and three of them––the Old, the Remuh, and the Popper––are all on Szeroka Street, the neighborhood’s main street-cum-plaza, where the Chabad Lubavitch Hanukah menorah would be set up for the community candlelighting.  All of these synagogues have been renovated and reopened in the last two decades as part of the neighborhood’s ongoing gentrification––a paradoxical re-authentification that has accompanied a sometimes ersatz historification of Jewish- and Polish-themed restaurants and businesses. 

Only in Kazimierz would there be an intersection of streets named Meiselsa and Bożego Ciała, shown in the picture immediately above.  The former is for Dow Ber Meisels, chief rabbi of Kraków and then of Warsaw in the mid-nineteenth century, a political activist and outspoken supporter of Polish-Jewish cooperation and Polish independence during the Partition period.  The latter is for the Corpus Christi Basilica in Kazimierz.  On that corner, at no. 18 Meiselsa and shown in the pictures immediately below, is a building that has preoccupied me in the last couple of years––one of the synagogues not on the official list.  It opened in 1896 as Chewra Thilim Prayerhouse, designed by the well-known Polish-Jewish architect Nachman Kopald in the Rundbogenstil (Round-arch style), a variety of Romanesque revival architecture popular in central Europe in the mid-nineteenth century.  The interior contains the most important collection of Jewish religious wall paintings in Kazimierz, including floral scenes, animals, and landscapes of Jerusalem, Rachel’s Tomb and other locations from biblical Israel.  Among the calligraphed texts still visible is a fragment from Proverbs, “The human soul is God’s candle.”

In the decades after the Holocaust, the building housed the “Krakowiacy Singing and Dancing Group,” which remained in the building until 2006, even after its restitution to the Jewish Community of Kraków (known locally as the Gmina) as a religious building.  In 2013, the Gmina rejected a proposal to rent the building and transform it into a synagogue for the progressive religious community of the city, congregation Beit Kraków.  Instead, Gmina President Tadeusz Jakubowicz leased the building to the ill-fated “Mezcal” music club, which installed a smoke machine and a neon-lit bar in front of the Aron Hakodesh, and held punk-themed raves several nights a week beneath the unprotected frescoes, interspersed occasionally with ballroom dancing nights.  In response to protests at the time, Jakubowicz told Gazeta Wyborcza, “...the owners of the club are serious people and we believe that they will run this place with dignity.”

This winter, I found the building reopened as an upscale bar called the “Hevre Cafe” in a nod to its original name.  The new bar was created by the owners of the popular Alchemia bar on Plac Nowy, a fabled drinking hole in Kazimierz, closely connected to the Jewish Culture Festival for the all-night jam sessions that renowned musicians who play the Festival also hold there.  The décor of the new Hevre Cafe is fancier than Mezcal but the commercial use of the space is just as crass.  The frescoes remain as vulnerable as ever.  What really shocked me was a new door to the street, and above it a new window, made quite literally by smashing through the Aron Hakodesh.  Convinced that they needed a door on the Bożego Ciała side of the intersection, the Alchemia people obtained permission for the remodeling from the Gmina and from the Cultural Heritage Department of the city of Kraków, deliberately ignoring appeals by independent Kraków Jews to respect the building’s religious history.  Now, in its current form, it is a place where locals and tourists can sip expensive drinks beneath Jewish ruins.  It seems fair to say it is the most egregious example of exploitation of the neighborhood's Jewish heritage, created in a dirty handshake between the official Jewish community and a local business that has been a partner to (and profited significantly from) the neighborhood’s revival.



This is not the only example of a forgotten synagogue in this highly self-consciously Jewish place.  Prewar Kazimierz had at least nineteen prayerhouses apart from the seven main synagogues, only one of which is now publicly marked, the Bnei Emunah Prayerhouse on the corner of Meiselsa Street and Plac Nowy (now nicely restored, and since the early 1990s the home of the so-called Centre for Jewish Culture, a strange organization with virtually no programming).  The map below shows the locations of the buildings in religious use in pre-Holocaust Kazimierz.  I have put blue dots at the sites of the seven historic synagogues, and red dots at the sites of other prayerhouses.



The unmarked prayerhouse that has been preoccupying me is in the interior courtyard of the building at no. 8 Mostowa, on the corner of Mostowa and Trynitarska––the bottommost red dot on my map.  The building stands out from every other building around it for its dilapidation.  It still resembles the Kazimierz I first photographed during my first visit in the late 1990s, with a crumbling, exposed brick exterior, and a dank interior fitted with bare incandescent bulbs that seem constantly to struggle to illuminate anything.  I first discovered the existence of the courtyard prayerhouse six years ago, and still know next to nothing about its history.  I do know it was not restored to the Gmina along with other Jewish communal property in 1997, probably because it was privately owned.  My guess is that the whole building was once heavily if not entirely Jewish, and the courtyard shul was built for the convenience of its residents.  

I managed to see the inside of it on the day of the third candle, after my Polish teacher Piotr Słomian managed to call someone who knew someone who had the keys.  Since the 1980s, it has functioned as a small glassblowing factory, making small tubes and vials for chemical and pharmaceutical use, still in use but irregularly so.  Its interior seemed pickled in time, a perfect specimen of the communist era now grown dingy from neglect.  No major changes to the space happened:  wooden frames partitioned the space, whose high ceilings still seemed capable of a little majesty when encountered from the right angle.  Lime-green soundproofing panels covered the walls, which might well contain synagogue paintings.  The glass fittings for the original rounded windows were still in storage in the attic.  The owners were patient with my curiosity, and curious themselves about the building’s Jewish origins, about which they knew nothing.  Quite often I have encountered this attitude in talking to Poles about Jewish remnants in their lifeworlds.  For many, the Jewish seems a little like ancient history, if a strangely recent variant of ancient history––a history that both fascinates and frightens them, a traumatic history both joined to and distinct from their own national trauma.  A certain taboo-ridden mix of desire and aversion is a prominent legacy of the Holocaust in Poland.



But to return to my walk through Kazimierz on the night of the first candle, eventually I returned to the Isaak synagogue, where I was surprised to find the courtyard filling with people, scores of Jews who had emerged seemingly from nowhere.  They were, it turns out, mostly American university students at the end of a weeklong tour of Poland led by the UK organization JRoots, an organization I had not encountered before.  I talked to several participants.  They had arrived in Warsaw, and had visited a string of death camps and other Holocaust sites, before landing in the courtyard of the Isaak synagogue.  For all of them, it was their first time in Poland.  For all of them, the experience was grueling and despiriting.  “I never want to come back here,” one said.  “The sun never shines here,” said another.  Soon the group’s leader, a British-Israeli Jew, stood up to give a speech next to the Chabad menorah, which had been prepared with a shammes and a first candle.  “What we are about to do,” he declared, “is the very essence of our trip here, the most important thing.  You have spent a week in the land of darkness and death, and in that land of darkness, you are bringing the light––you young Jews are the light in this land of darkness.”  A cheer arose from the group, and he made the blessings and lit the menorah.  Then Gurary rose to speak, and in his high-pitched voice delivered a rote Hanukah homily about Jews “never giving up.”  The crowd solemnly sang “Maoz Tzur” and then broke into “I Have a Little Dreidel” with a distinctly asinine exuberance.   

I have heard versions of this speech before.  It is, in fact, standard fare for tours of Jewish youth to Poland, or more precisely, what could be called Holocaustland––a tacitly if not rabidly anti-Semitic country of Jewish death, neatly contrasted to contemporary Israel as a place of Jewish survival.  Although JRoots writes on its website, “...[w]e are not just about visiting and photographing places from a distance, JRoots journeys are designed to engage with Jewish history and to get to know the places, the people and their lives,” participants confirmed to me that there had been no meaningful meetings with locals.  It goes without saying that the exclusion of locals, non-Jewish Poles and Jewish Poles alike, is essential to the construction of Holocaustland, a place populated mostly by dead Jews and hostile, scheming Poles, with evil Germans marching somewhere behind it all.  To reduce Poland to Holocaustland is wrong intellectually and wrong ethically, and greatly damages the long and slow process of healing for Jews and Poles alike.  Progressive Poles young and old who have dedicated their hearts and minds, and sometimes their professional lives to remembering and renewing Jewish culture,  Poles young and old who are curious about Jewish life then and now but are ignorant of it for complex but not anti-semitic reasons, or local Jews who have very divergent ideas about what Jewish life in contemporary Poland is and means––these people do not appear or appear only dimly to Jewish visitors of the JRoots variety.  All of these locals live in contemporary Poland, a place indelibly marked by the Holocaust, but not Holocaustland.  None are easy conversationalists.  Few are useful for instrumentalizing the Holocaust for reductionist Jewish education and Zionist political agendas.  And so this was the deal:  the local rabbi of Kazimierz held a private menorah lighting for an off-season group of impressionable young Jews whose leaders had arranged for them to spend Hanukah in Holocaustland.  Maybe the deal involved some money, and maybe it didn’t.  It was clear enough what the rabbi did not want:  a single public candlelighting for locals and for the Jews who needed Hanukah in Holocaustland.

The public community candlelighting, when it came on the fourth night, was sparsely attended.  The only community leaders there were Jonathan Ornstein, the American-born director of the Jewish Community Center, and Jakub Nowakowski, the young Polish-Catholic director of the Galicia Jewish Museum.  Tadeusz Jakubowicz was absent; his conflicts with Ornstein and Gurary are well known.  Likewise no representative from the annual Jewish Culture Festival attended, for reasons I don't know.  No one was present from the progressive Jewish religious community, Beit Kraków, which is to say the two Beit Krakóws, the community having recently undergone an acrimonious split.  A few members of the Breakaway Minyan shuffled around.  Mechel worked the crowd with greetings in several languages.  Most of the attendees were Israeli tourists, who bought balloons and danced a little in front of the menorah, set up in front of Babelstein’s fake-but-sincere Jewish restaurant on Szeroka Street.  Rabbi Gurary made the blessings and began his remarks in his heavily Hebrew-accented broken Polish, before switching to slightly less broken English and finally to Hebrew itself.  Someone brought a few boxes of pączki, the Polish jelly donuts associated with pre-Lenten festivities, and close enough to Israeli sufganiyot.  In the historic synagogue-laden square ringed by satellite pubs and unredeemed corners of Jewish remembrance, a few souls of God’s own candles stood together with the menorah.  Hanukah in what other Jews consider Holocaustland lasted about an hour, or maybe less.   

31 December 2016, Kraków