A Rose on the Crematorium

As bad as I found the situation in Warsaw, it seemed to me even worse in Krakow. The few Jews that are there, as in Warsaw, are in dire need. I had a marvelous dinner with the rabbi and even attended his Shabbat service at the only functioning synagogue, which was situated near the Eden Hotel. The service was Orthodox; however, they had no books, oneg Shabbat or any of the ?perks? that we J

Arlene Peck

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Describe Krakow? That?s easy. It?s a city full of cobblestone streets, interesting yet dismal buildings and a feeling that time stopped in 1955. Walking down the narrow streets, it?s easy to get a feeling of deja vu. Krakow reminds you of the back lot from a Hollywood set, as your mind goes back to all those old movies on the television. The same feelings were felt on the train that I caught from Warsaw to Krakow, where I sat with five others in a private compartment watching the countryside move swiftly by.

My hotel, the Copernicus, was a 15th century building with huge rooms that was truly amazing. President Bush had stayed there recently; my suite was large enough to land a plane in. However, on the last night, I moved to the Eden Hotel, which is located in the heart of the Old Jewish Quarter. It is the only hotel with kosher food in Krakow. What I found interesting about this place is that, while it is a kosher assessable hotel and most of the guests were orthodox from New York, the owner had another side to the hotel, which was absolutely fantastic. In the evenings, in a section of the hotel that he had converted into a Karaoke bar two or three times a week, the local kids congregated.

The owner, Allen Haberberg, was probably the most informative and helpful person, who informed me about the Jewish community, or what's left of it. A community that once consisted of 75,000 Jews has been reduced to a community of only 120 Jews. Sadly enough, from what I can see, there is not much leadership or education, or much of anything from the ones that are left.

At least in Warsaw I saw a slight resemblance to a typical Western Jewish community, although very slight. Not so in Krakow, where I traveled to Casmir, which was once the heart of the Jewish community. I traveled to three out of seven of the synagogues that are still remaining, but they are being used for museums now. Some have been rebuilt, while the others are closed.

I observed some of the Jewish restaurants that were on many of the street corners; deceptively called "Jewish style", but in fact, they were not really Jewish or kosher. They were all filled with Jewish art, mostly depicting Jewish scenes, and I couldn?t help but wonder where they acquired the paintings.

A companion took me to several of these Jewish restaurants. None were owned or operated by anyone slightly Jewish. At one, which was named Noah?s Ark, I spoke with the owner and asked him why he opened up such an establishment and was told that he admired Jewish traditions and food. This was virtually the same answer that I received from nearly all of the owners of the Jewish stores that were catering to the non-Jewish clientele. I had to restrain myself from shouting out to the German group that was eating in there how they sickened me.

But I was totally appalled when I went to the Center for Jewish Culture and, again, there was nobody Jewish present with whom I could speak. The man working there he told me that before the War, one out of every four residents in the town was Jewish. When I asked why they even had such a building he answered, "To protect the Jewish culture."

Too bad they didn?t think of that before their mass slaughters.

Next, I was taken to the Seat of Jewish Community Center and, yet again, the same story.

It was close to lunchtime and I was told about a Jewish ?soup kitchen?, which was supposed to serve the elderly in Krakow. I was hoping to finally meet someone there who was Jewish and spoke English. I was wrong on both counts. Several Polish employees were working there, but none of them were Jewish. In addition, they were incredibly rude. I then began to wonder if the Jewish community paid their salaries, and, if so, why?

These people were starving. Not for soup kitchens or a lack of food, but for assistance from the outside. In fact, where is the aid from the Polish government? When I went to Auschwitz, I was told that they had four guides who spoke English for a fee of $50.00 which included a tour of the camp. This is incredibly expensive for Poland. I stopped for lunch and had a delicious lunch of soup, salad, fish potatoes, vegetables, dessert and tea for a mere $3.00. When I mentioned to the woman working at Auschwitz that the government should supply funding for such things, she seemed truly surprised at my statement. I commented had it not been for many of her countrymen, there wouldn?t have been an Auschwitz.

I spoke with Rabbi Edgar Gluck, who is a member of the Presidents Commission for the Preservation of American Heritage, and I told him that he had his hands full. Starting with Poland. Rabbi Gluck told me, "This is my 19th year of serving the Jewish community of Poland. Most of which were spent in Krakow during the High Holy days. I have also traveled almost the width and length of the former Jewish Poland reconstructing grave sites and ohels, which are small houses built at the site of a grand rabbi?s tomb. Many of these have been burned and desecrated."

As bad as I found the situation in Warsaw, it seemed to me even worse in Krakow. The few Jews that are there, as in Warsaw, are in dire need. I had a marvelous dinner with the rabbi and even attended his Shabbat service at the only functioning synagogue, which was situated near the Eden Hotel. The service was Orthodox; however, they had no books, oneg Shabbat or any of the ?perks? that we Jews typically take for granted. And, despite my liking of the man, we still differ in our attitude as to what should be the fate of the Jews of Poland. He is against conversion and feels most of the people who are looking to find their Jewish roots are not ?really Jewish?. Perhaps he is right. However, in a situation like the present one in Krakow, or even all of Poland, this is not the time for "us vs. them." Those encouraging the fledgling resurgence of Jewish civilization should be helped in their efforts.

The rabbi is proud that he just spent his 19th year serving the Krakow Jewish community. He is getting assistance and he told me how Lot airlines had helped him so much by cooperating in bringing kosher food to the entire community for the Jewish holidays. However, there is so much more that is needed. We discussed how he must get on the case of the Polish governments and work with the American Embassy in rebuilding the desecrated synagogues and cemeteries on Polish ground.

So much more needs to be done.

The Jews of Warsaw and Krakow are Jews who should be salvaged. Mostly, I found a mixed crowd, with many who were young and had the desire to be Jewish. Sevyron Askonizy in Warsaw has taken over an enormous job of rebuilding the Jewish community of Warsaw. However, it cannot be a one-man show.

Where is the outside help in giving them the organization that they need? The Progressive synagogue has no rabbi. The Orthodox, rabbi, from what I gathered, travels to New York twice a year and raises funds for his salary. It would be a better situation if there were a combined effort to help the Jewish community as a whole. Both communities appeared to be in dire need of books, and many more of the necessities that we in the States take for granted.

The community, in my opinion, should be run as a business. There should be a governing board with outside checks on where the money ultimately ends up. Under this, their duties should be delegated. These duties should include education, membership and fund raising, directors assigned with committees under them, such as classes in Jewish history, political heritage, Hebrew language, Israeli dance, etc. This should include anything that comes under the realm of education. And that includes the badly needed books in both English and Hebrew that are now missing. The same sort of committees should come under the director of membership, the director of fund-raising, etc. And finally, the rabbi and cantor should be paid a salary, along with the outside employees who have been brought in to operate and manage the synagogue and surrounding grounds. Fund-raising for salaries has no place in the responsibilities of the representative of a group.

At this point in time, the issue should be to realize that the Jews of Poland haven?t left as a whole and probably will not. Theses are for the most part young people who are looking for leadership, managerial skills and education. Thank G-d for the Ronald Lauders and Sevyron Askonizys, but that?s not enough. Who is going to send the rabbis who not only make them feel accepted, but also have personalities and knowledge to keep them interested and within the fold?

If there are going to be Jewish restaurants, clubs, cultural committees, bookstores, synagogues and Jewish community centers, better they should be manned by Jews and not Polish employees, as is the case now. Money must be raised to pay their salaries. I wanted to buy a kiddush cup, Shabbat candlesticks, anything in the synagogue in Krakow and found absolutely nothing available to purchase. Worse, nobody working there even knew what I was talking about.

At Auschwitz I was appaled to learn that there were only four guides who spoke English and there was not one on the premises who spoke Hebrew. Why is the Polish government not picking up the slack in simple remedies like this? When I mentioned this to the guide I had arranged, she responded, "Why should the Polish government pay anything? They had nothing to do with it." I answered, "Maybe they should take some of the billions of dollars that they stole from the homes they confiscated?" She seemed truly surprised and said, "Oh no, that was the Communists. The Poles had no choice. They were assigned where to live."

The Germans in their maniacal efficacy were so devious in the building of these death camps that I remember thinking while traveling through Majandak Concentration Camp in Lublin a few days earlier how, in another place or another time, those peaceful looking wooden barracks could have been Camp Barney Meditz, where I went to summer camp outside of Atlanta, Georgia as a child. Driving into the camp, I passed lovely scenery and picturesque houses. I couldn?t help wonder what memories, or better yet, nightmares, the residents living in them have. Nothing can prepare one for the rare barbarism and cruelty these people have done. I will never be able to look at a German or even some Poles without feelings of contempt and disgust.

And finally, speaking of Auschwitz - I can describe Krakow, but Auschwitz is beyond description. As much as the mind can envision, the life under these animals, the Nazis, was unspeakable. However, after traveling to Prague and Lublin and also visiting places such as Thereseinstadt, Birkenau, Majdanek and Treblinka, by the time I got to Auschwitz I thought I had become desensitized. That is, until I walked inside a lone barracks building, locked in the semi-darkness, and looked down the long rows of shelves where theses poor souls slept and saw one long-stem red rose lying there. Shortly after, I walked down the path to the crematorium and saw two more of the long-stem roses placed gently on top of the oven. That?s about the time I lost it.