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Last Updated: Friday, 25 November 2005, 09:33 GMT
Krakow rabbi spurs Jewish revival
By Adam Easton
BBC News, Krakow, Poland

Galicia Jewish Museum buffet
Yiddish classes are given at the Galicia Jewish Museum
Poland was home to one of the largest and most important Jewish communities in the world before World War II.

Ninety percent of that community was wiped out by the Nazis in the Holocaust.

Later, the communist authorities suppressed Jewish culture and most of the remaining survivors emigrated during party-led anti-Semitic campaigns.

But since communism collapsed in 1989, people have felt free to talk about their own Jewish past. Thousands of Poles have recently discovered they have Jewish roots.

Now, for the first time in decades, a rabbi has been appointed for the Jewish community in Krakow.

"There is huge potential here," Rabbi Avraham Flaks told the BBC. "There are old people who need care and attention. There are young people with Jewish roots.

"They're interested and want to rediscover their roots. A major part of my work will be with them."

There are just 157 registered members of the Jewish community left in Krakow. Not enough to provide a Polish rabbi.

Family surprise

That is why Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, himself an American, had to turn to the Shavei Israel foundation in Jerusalem to provide the Russian-born Mr Flaks.

"The vast majority of survivors following the Holocaust opted out of Poland after the war. The smaller group that did opt to remain often didn't tell their children and grandchildren they were once Jewish," said Rabbi Schudrich.

Rabbi Avraham Flaks
They're interested and want to rediscover their roots
Rabbi Avraham Flaks

"In 1989 the world changes, communism falls and now people start telling their children and grandchildren they were once Jewish. In the last 15 years, thousands, maybe its tens of thousands of Poles have discovered that they are Jewish.

"And the number of 157 reflects those people who have decided to become a member of the community. It doesn't reflect at all the number of Jews."

Daniela Malec is one of the young people who discovered she is Jewish.

"I found out from my mother when I was a young teenager. It was quite a shock really. It wasn't like bad or anything but it was quite strange. I just didn't know what to think about it or what it meant to me," she said.

Later, she realised there were more people like herself. So she started up the support group Czulent.

"We celebrate all the Jewish holidays together. We do a Sabbath dinner once a month. We actually kosher the kitchen of our friend so we now use it as a kosher kitchen," she said.

Remuh Synagogue
The old Remuh synagogue is the only one regularly used in Krakow

Krakow's old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz survived the war and now it is the spiritual home of the country's Jewish revival. Beside its synagogues there are now dozens of Jewish-style restaurants, museums and cultural centres.

At the Galicia Jewish Museum there are klezmer music concerts, film shows, and even Hebrew and Yiddish classes on offer.

Most of the language students are Poles.

"Up until the fall of communism Jewish culture was marginalised in society. Now the young people are trying to discover that which has been lost, trying to come to terms with their own history, which of course is closely tied in with Jewish history," said Chris Schwarz, a British photographer who runs the museum.

But support groups and Yiddish classes are no guarantee more people will become practising Jews.

"You know that the Krakow Jewish community is a very small community. There are older people who are dying. There are younger people who, most of them are not really Jewish," says Henryk Halkowski, one of the older members of the city's Jewish community.

"I wonder what will be the function of the new rabbi. To bury all those older people, to convert to Judaism those younger people, to bring some people from abroad? I don't know. If we still want a continuation of this community it needs some co-operation between Poles and Jews," he said.

High hopes

Many Jews around the world are able to trace their roots to Poland. And some feel there is a moral duty to preserve its 800-year-old community.

It is clear the growing interest in the country's rich Jewish past among young Poles means it will not be forgotten. There are an estimated 25,000 people with Jewish ancestry in Poland.

I asked Konstanty Gebert, who publishes the monthly magazine Midrasz, if the small community has a future.

"Yes I'm worried," he said. "We still have not reached the critical numbers beyond which it is safe to say we are self-replicating. There obviously is a Jewish future in Poland. Does that future include a self-sustaining and functioning Jewish community?

"The jury's still out on that one. But we've seen miracles galore, so basically I take the realistic view, I expect another one."

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