A week ago, 2,400 kilometers from where I normally spend Shabbat these days, I found myself in Krakow’s progressive shul for Kabbalat Shabbat. I was spending the week in the Czech Republic and Poland as part of my training to be an Educator/Tour Guide this summer, and had just spent the entire day at Auschwitz and Birkenau. Needless to say, the arrival of Shabbat was a welcome respite from the downtrodden atmosphere of the morning and afternoon.
Beit Krakow meets in the Galicia Jewish Museum, which houses a collection of stunning photos of Krakow’s Jewish past and present. Singing the psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, we were surrounded by pictures of the former glory of this city, and of the destruction that took place there.
When most Jews conjure up an image of Poland in their head, I would imagine that it is dark, grey, and grainy, and looks something like this:
This is certainly the image that I had long had inside my own head. That is, until I travelled to Poland for the first time two years ago. The fact is, Poland – Krakow in particular – is experiencing a Jewish cultural revival, where the country is re-embracing its heritage as a center of modern Jewish vibrancy. In truth, when we think of Poland, the image in our minds should look something more like this:
On Shabbat last week, as I prayed, surrounded by members of the Krakow Jewish community, mere steps away from where the mass genocide of Jews once took place, the image of Poland as a sad, grey place was further pushed from my mind.
As the rabbi chanted Shema and arrived at the paragraph about tzitzit, she walked over to a young boy – maybe two years old – who was sitting on his mother’s lap. She handed him her tzitzit. He gathered them in his hands, brought them up to his lips, and kissed the fringes.
I nearly lost it. Inside my head, a voice called out, “WE WON! You tried to kill us, but we are still here, vibrantly celebrating Judaism on the very spot where you tried to exterminate us. WE WON!”
Having spent a considerable amount of time at Auschwitz, at Birkenau, at Terezin; seeing the remains of Judaism in Europe, I don’t minimize the importance of remembering the dark, grey history of our past there. But I don’t believe that memory of the Holocaust needs to be based solely on a dark, melancholy view of the past.
We must also look to the present and the future. Survivalism is not a compelling framework for Judaism – we have to offer meaning in the here and now. Young Jews should travel to Poland to see the death camps. But they should also see the Jews who bring their children to shul on Friday night. The should see Krakow’s Jewish Cultural Festival. They should see the JCC there, with its young, new rabbi. Doing this, it becomes more difficult to keep that grainy, grey image in our head.
And that’s a good thing. If we’re going to have an identity based on the Holocaust, it should be one where at the end, we get to rejoice and shout out for all to hear… They tried to end us. But we f*cking won!