Writing is remembering. In the 1920s, ten percent of Poland’s population was Jewish; thirty percent of Warsaw’s residents were Jewish. Compare this with the United States today, where Jews make up between one and a half to two percent of the general population and approximately thirteen percent of the population of New York City. For a Jewish traveler to obtain kosher food, find a place to pray, and keep the Sabbath in 1920s Poland, one can imagine, was relatively simple. What about today? How difficult is it to meet those needs in a country that lost ninety percent of its Jewish population in the Shoah, and many of those who survived to emigration? My wife Beth and I found it inspiring that we were able to get kosher food, locate a synagogue with daily prayer, and keep the Sabbath in today’s Kraków, and it wasn’t difficult.
There is a vibrant Jewish Community Center located at Miodowa 24 in the historic old town area of Kraków. Its staff is enthusiastic about supporting Jewish life in the city. Before our arrival, my wife contacted the JCC’s charismatic rabbi, Rabbi Avi Baumol, who put her in touch with Kasia Suszkiewicz, the JCC’s Visitor Services Manager. Kasia helped us arrange a tour to Auschwitz-Birkenau and reserved seats for us at the Friday night dinner sponsored by the JCC. At the dinner, we joined another forty or fifty people, some tourists, others Jewish residents of Kraków. Seated next to my wife was a young woman, an Israeli film director, writer, and cinematographer named Ariela Alush. She was in Poland by invitation to arrange a showing of her award-winning movie Indie Capped. The following morning, after morning prayer, the JCC provided a Sabbath learning session with Rabbi Baumol. The learning session, to my great relief, was in English and followed by lunch.
Chabad Lubavitch in Kraków, led by Rabbi Eliezer Guray, is housed in a beautiful place in which to pray–the historic Synagoga Izaaka (Isaac Synagogue). The synagogue was founded by Isaac Jakubowicz who received permission to build it from the Polish king in 1638. It opened its doors in 1644. It was a profoundly moving experience for me to pray there, to imagine with my mind’s ears, the voices of the many Jews who had davened there over the years, going on for almost four centuries now. In the administrative area of the synagogue is a small grocery store where we were able to purchase what are for me three essential food items–cheese, chocolate, and bread. Kosher meat and many other things were also available. Rabbi Guray runs a gemach at the synagogue, from which, for a small refundable deposit, we were able to borrow a kumkum for heating water during the week and for keeping water heated on the Sabbath. A Jewish dairy place, Szalom Falafel, is located at the back of the synagogue with entry from Jakuba Street, 21.
We stayed at Aparthotel Miodowa at Miodowa 51, which, like the JCC, is located in the old town area of Kraków. There are three Jewishly significant things about the Aparthotel. First, our room was up only one flight of stairs, convenient for those who, like us, cannot use an elevator on the Sabbath. Second, the doors use a key lock rather than an electronic card lock, especially important since the activation of electricity on the Sabbath is forbidden. Third, the room is furnished with a refrigerator. Beth remembered to unscrew the refrigerator’s light bulb before the beginning of Shabbat. The hotel is within a five-minute walk of the New Jewish Cemetery in Kraków, one of the key places we wanted to visit, as it contains the grave of the brother of Beth’s great-grandfather.
Next time, I want to say a little something about Polish beer. Until then, “do widzenia.”
*The featured image on this page is a photograph by Beth Ben-Avraham of the Aron HaKodesh (the Holy Ark) in the Synagoga Izaaka in Kraków