The Auschwitz Synagogue and the Krakow JCC

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After we left the camps at Auscwitz, we went to the nearby Auschwitz synagogue. A note on nomenclature: Auschwitz/Oswiecim is the name of the town in Poland which existed prior to the camps, and continues to exist today. Instead of naming the camps independently, they were assimilated into the name of the town. This has reportedly led to many jokes that the residents of Auschwitz are nettled with when they travel into other parts of Poland: "You live in Auschwitz? I hear the food's terrible, harharhar!"

The synagogue somehow survived the war, although the entire town was evacuated during the time of the camps, the building remained as a munitions storage place for the Nazis. After the War, the building was restored to it's original use. Again, the silver lining of being poor, forgotten Poland became apparent. There was no way that building would have made it through Kristalnacht. 

Our synagogue guide talked about the displacement of the Jews following their liberation from the camps. This is perhaps the most ironic tragedy of the Holocaust, the fact that following the liberation of the camps, the prisoners weren't tended to at all. To survive a death camp and then die of exposure or malnutrition afterwards is so unbelievably sad. 

We heard a brief history of the building from our guide. He is a non-Jewish, Jewish Studies Master's Student, who went to school in the US but is originally Polish. There was a photo exhibit downstairs documenting contemporary life in Auschwitz, with a photo remarkably similar to one I had taken earlier that day:


Apparently, I'm not the only person who takes pictures of people roller-skating through or around Holocaust memorials. We also saw a selection of old mementoes of Jewish life prior to the construction of the camps. I couldn't leave the room because they were playing a woman's first-hand account of those days, dubbed in English, over the speakers. One person of the millions imprisoned, a single voice, a "lucky" one. 

This visit ended in an exit through the gift shop/cafe, which honestly looked like a place where I would love to sit down and work for a few hours. Bizarrely enough, aside from the display of first hand survivor accounts for sale, it looked like a completely cozy and inviting coffee shop like any other. I guess this is the struggle of this place: allowing life to go on while never being allowed to fully forget the past. 

After a quick head count we loaded back onto the bus, where we drove silently back to the Krakow JCC.

When we were ready to go into the JCC, I think it's safe to say the group was fatigued. We filed into the JCC, which immediately lifted my spirits with all of it's bright lights and colors. We were met by the charismatic Jonathan Ornstein, an American living in Poland, and the Executive Director.

Gate of the JCC, totally  unlocked and unguarded.

Gorgeous, contemporary posters!

We ate dinner with Jonathan, another American transplant Justin Kadis, and a very sweet non-Jewish teen volunteer named Agnieszka. The food was prepared by Jonathan's SO, a future contestant for Iron Chef Poland. Judging by the quality of the meal, I think she's got it in the bag!

Coming from Auschwitz, there was no time that a warm meal and smiles could have been better appreciated. The staff had a very positive story to tell about being Jewish in Poland today. There is a huge interest among Polish people in Judaism, some of whom are discovering their Jewish heritage from old photographs and antiques hidden carefully away in attics. 

The JCC offers classes in their facilities, not only Hebrew but also other languages including Japanese! It's a place of community for all Jewish people and gentiles interested in Jewish culture, check out the website here: http://www.jcckrakow.org/en/

There have been no attacks, no threats, and no danger posed to the center. Compared to the US, where JCCs are heavily guarded and often under threat, this was really shocking, and a counter-argument to the idea that Polish people are the most dangerously and deeply anti-Semitic people in Europe. 

Being in this place after Auschwitz, we were all imbued with a sense of hope for the future of the Jewish people. If we could all be as warm and inclusive as they are in this center (I'm talking to YOU, Beit Din!) I think that we would be much more secure as a people. 

  Group pic!

After the JCC, we had drinks at the hotel, and we found out it was Jeff's birthday! What could be a more fun birthday celebration than the day that we had just experienced? We commemorated the occasion with drinks: Jeff and Leslie had Polish flags, a shot of vodka with tabasco and raspberry syrup. I stuck to wine, but they gave it a positive endorsement!

    Leslie and Jeff: 3,2,1...

    ....GO!

We went to bed, where we slept for about one REM cycle/4 hours, before leaving the following morning to Israel!

Marina Gafni

Marina Gafni is a 28-year-old speech pathology student. She lives with her husband in San Jose, CA.

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