A few years ago I traveled to Poland with a group of educators and teens. We toured the remains of the Warsaw ghetto, mourned at concentration camps, and met contemporary Polish Jews. When I left, I carried with me many deeply moving experiences. Among them, our visit to the Jewish quarter of Krakow – Kazimierz. Our visit had been planned to coincide with the Jewish Culture Festival, a week-long Jewish music and culture celebration, held in Szeroka Street, the Jewish quarter's town square.
While Auschwitz-Birkenau felt null, with whatever had happened there, now existing on a negative space plane, Kazimierz felt freshly evacuated. As though all the Jews who’d lived there had just stepped out for a moment, leaving their shuls mid-prayer, their soup bubbling on the stove, their shops and market stalls. Prewar Hebrew lettering announced the names of shuls, schools, and stores. Empty grooves in doorposts showed where mezuzot belonged. It wasn’t the past there, it was now.
For years I had struggled to understand a quote from the Sages, that G-d vented His anger at the Jewish people on wood and stone, destroying the Temple, so that our nation should live. But in Kazimierz the wood and stone still stood; it was the Jews who were gone. Now I understood.
Friday night we prayed at the tiny Remuh synagogue, the only Friday night minyan in Kazimierz. We walked a few blocks to the Izaaka synagogue, where the JCC of Krakow inhabited a few small rooms at the top of a narrow flight of stairs, to share a communal Shabbat dinner.
By the time we returned to Kazimierz late Shabbat afternoon, the festival was in full swing. Szeroka Street was jammed with revelers from across Poland who’d come to celebrate the memory of a culture that once flourished there. Nostalgia flowed freely as the mostly non-Jewish crowd sang Yiddish lullabies and dance tunes. When the teens in our group broke into dance, cries of "Zydzi!" "Jews!” rang out as camcorders whipped around to capture real-live Jews in action.
I was thoroughly depressed. When our guide told me about the Havdalah ceremony back at the JCC, I fled the square, leaving the ersatz culture behind. Gathered in a circle we listened as the words of Havdalah filled the space. I gazed at the candlelight and mentally united with all Jews across time and space, and especially with these Polish Jews here and now, courageously living Judaism.