Opinion: Krakow’s Jewish community celebrates, mourns

For Krakow’s Jews, this past week has truly been “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.”

On Saturday evening, March 3, about 200 people gathered in the city’s ornate Tempel Synagogue for a Havdallah service that marked the bat mitzvah of 12-year-old Estera Derkowska.

It was a happy milestone for the tiny community — a ceremony believed to be the first ever bat mitzvah for a local Krakow girl.

“This is a special day not only for Estera and her family but also for the entire Jewish community of Krakow,” Jonathan Ornstein, the American-born director of the Krakow Jewish Community Centre, told me. “The bat mitzvah of a local girl demonstrates that our Jewish community is a living, vibrant community with a bright future.”

No one knew it at the time, but while Estera, her family and about 100 guests were celebrating at a reception after the service, a young Jewish activist from Krakow lost her life in the head-on train collision that killed 16 people in southern Poland.

Maja Brand had just turned 30 on Feb. 22. Her death became known only Monday.

“I had gotten to know Maja over the past few years,” Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich wrote in a Facebook post announcing the news. “Maja was full of energy and excitement. She was dedicated to what she was doing and had great integrity in whatever she did. May her memory be for a blessing.”

Maja, her friends said, was active “in all things Jewish” in Krakow.

She was involved with the JCC and the Association for Christian-Jewish Dialogue, and in 2004 she had co-founded Czulent, Krakow’s independent Jewish youth association, which has played a major role in outreach.

In the summers, she worked with the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival, often translating for visiting musicians.

“She was my translator for a number of years, plus she helped me with a Polish song at one point,” veteran American klezmer artist Jeff Warschauer told me. She was a “brilliant, dear friend … truly a likhtike neshome.”

“Saturday night the Jewish community of Krakow celebrated the historic bat mitzvah of a bright young girl,” Jonathan Ornstein posted on his Facebook page, “and a few hours later one of our brightest young women was taken away from us far too soon.”

The simultaneous fact of Estera’s joyful coming of age and Maja’s tragic death highlighted how the Jewish world of Krakow has changed, and is changing.

Over the past 20 years, the city’s old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, has developed from a haunted slum to one of the liveliest neighborhoods in the city.

It’s a place where kitsch and comprehension both collide and coexist.

But it’s also a place where Jewish-themed tourism, retail, entertainment and educational infrastructure provide a unique matrix for the strengthening of the Jewish experience. Where new realities and authenticities create new ways that Jewishness is defined and new ways that Jewish lives are lived.

Maja was studying for her doctoral degree at the new Centre for Holocaust Studies at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, inaugurated in 2008. She was writing her dissertation on the ban of shechitah, or ritual slaughter, in Poland between the two world wars. Friends said she was supposed to have flown to Israel on Monday to continue research.

Estera had attended Sunday School classes at the JCC since it too opened in 2008, and had studied with the local orthodox rabbi, Boaz Pash, for a year to prepare for her bat mitzvah.

Pash, bearded and dressed in a long black capote, and guitar-strumming, red-haired, Reform rabbi Tanya Segal both took part in her bat mitzvah; it was just a few days before Purim, and Estera read from the megillah of her namesake, Esther.

Last summer, Jonathan Ornstein declared to me that it was “never better” to be a Jew in Krakow.

“When we say ‘never better,’ it’s not in terms of numbers, or the amount of things in Jewish life, or the synagogues that are functioning and all that,” he said, but “in terms of the way the Jewish community interacts with the non-Jewish community and the direction that things are going, I think that there’s never been a more optimistic time to be Jewish in Krakow than there is now.”

Last weekend, before he learned of Maja’s death, Ornstein e-mailed me pictures of Estera’s bat mitzvah to prove his point.

The digital snaps of slightly gawky pre-teens demonstrated something quite revealing and perhaps even more important in the context of Jewish revival than the actual fact of the “first bat mitzvah” itself.

What they showed was normalcy.

Estera’s dad found this worthy of note.

Estera’s Jewish identity, he told the congregation, was not very different from that of a girl growing up Jewish anywhere else in the world. Her school friends know she is Jewish, he said, and it is “not a big deal.”

The bat mitzvah, he said, symbolized the “normalcy of Jewish life today in Krakow.”

Until quite recently, “normalcy” was a concept utterly alien to the Jewish experience in post-Holocaust Poland.

Has it really never been better in Krakow for Jews?

I don’t know.  

But to feel “normal” surely marks an important step in that direction.