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Yaakov Tamarkin, a Ukrainian refugee from Vasilkov, at center, and members of his family attend a Passover Seder at the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, 2022Chuck Fishman/JCC Krakow/Getty Images
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Holocaust Survivors Welcome Ukrainian Refugees to Poland

The few remnants of Krakow’s Jewish past are at the heart of its efforts to welcome those fleeing a new European war

Armin Rosen
June 16, 2022
Chuck Fishman/JCC Krakow/Getty Images
Yaakov Tamarkin, a Ukrainian refugee from Vasilkov, at center, and members of his family attend a Passover Seder at the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, 2022Chuck Fishman/JCC Krakow/Getty Images

In the best of times, Krakow is a clash of civilization with its antithesis—or maybe of civilization with one of its inevitable outcomes. At Auschwitz, an hour and a half west, a visitor can see a display case filled with hair harvested from arriving prisoners, a small portion of the 15,000 pounds of stockpiled human hair discovered when the Red Army liberated the death camp in January of 1945. Like the intact concrete posts stringing the barbed wire at nearby Birkenau, this still-existing physical remnant of victims of the Holocaust testifies to how recently the Nazis brought Jews from Warsaw and Berlin and Salonika to eastern Poland for extermination. Auschwitz having been absorbed, though never quite processed, a visitor’s day might end with borscht and fried sheep’s cheese under the mismatched towers of the 750-year-old Gothic church hulking over the tourist-glutted center of one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval cities, a few blocks away from the Czartoryski Museum, which is home to a Leonardo da Vinci painting.

These are not the best of times in Central Europe. Today, someone arriving to Krakow by train in the evening might be greeted with the smell of cup noodles being distributed to crowds of refugees fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the least fortunate of whom haven’t strayed far from the city’s railway station, where much of the emergency assistance effort is still clustered. It is some of Ukraine’s poorest who are arriving now, even if the mass migration of February and March has largely ended. The newest of Krakow’s refugees tend to be from more outlying or rural areas where much of the actual fighting is now taking place.

Poland’s right-wing government has shocked its many detractors by treating the refugees as decently as it has. History suggests that the Poles wouldn’t automatically be open to helping Ukrainians, especially in light of the country’s supposed turn away from liberalism. Poles and Ukrainians fought a war in the late 1910s, and ethnically cleansed one another as the German hold on the region collapsed in the closing days of World War II. I was given at least a half-dozen explanations for the welcome the Ukrainians have received in Poland less than 80 years later. Perhaps it was because of a common experience of Russian oppression, which for Poland spans much of the modern era, dating from the 18th-century partition right up to the fall of the Soviet-supported communist regime in 1989. Perhaps it was a result of 1939, a shared ancestral memory, and for some a direct memory, of standing alone against the Nazis.

More cynically, the Ukrainians solved the country’s emerging labor shortage, serving as a boost to an inflation-strapped economy. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the ruling Law and Justice party, suspects his twin brother was murdered on Vladimir Putin’s orders when a plane of Polish dignitaries crashed outside of Smolensk in 2010. The European Union had been feuding with Warsaw over the application of EU law in Poland and pressuring the country to curtail its coal mining industry; the worldwide energy pinch caused by the war, along with Poland’s critical role in managing the refugee crisis, suddenly turned Kaczynski from a pariah into one of the more indispensable figures in Europe. Perhaps most pertinently, the vast majority of refugees, nearly 95% according to Polish government figures, are women and children. The young men, who might drift into drunkenness or violence if left idle in a foreign land for long enough, are back in Ukraine, fighting the war. As Krakow Jewish Community Center (JCC) Executive Director Jonathan Ornstein observed, three months into his unexpected career as coordinator of what’s turned into a refugee center, “You don’t always fully understand how individuals act during a crisis, and you don’t fully understand how more complicated things like a society and a government react during a crisis.”

Ukrainian refugees queue outside the Jewish Community Center of Krakow, April 14, 2022
Ukrainian refugees queue outside the Jewish Community Center of Krakow, April 14, 2022Chuck Fishman/JCC Krakow/Getty Images

Every evening, and sometimes twice a day, Ukrainians gather at the statue of the 19th-century poet Adam Mickiewicz in the middle of the city’s main square to sing and wave flags, providing a frisson of picturesque, real-time historical tragedy for the stampede of visitors from Manchester or New York, which continues in spite of everything. By some accounts, Krakow, which is four hours from Lviv in peacetime, is hosting 150,000 refugees, making Poland’s second-largest city close to 20% Ukrainian.

In Kazimierz, the neighborhood southeast of the old city that was home to Krakow’s Jews for over 600 years, lines of refugees form each morning on Miodowa Street, in front of the JCC and across from a row of restaurants serving “traditional Jewish cuisine” to tourists. It’s a bright four-story building, opened in 2008 on the initiative of Prince Charles, facing an alleyway behind the minimally functioning but splendidly restored 19th-century Temple Synagogue. A large room on the JCC’s ground is now gridded with shelves of Similac, toys, diapers, baby carriers, clothing, and shoes organized by size. On the walls of the distribution center, cloaked behind the rows of shelves, are colorful prints from a Polish-language graphic novel about the life of Sarah Schenirer, the Krakowian founder of the Bais Yaakov educational movement in the early 20th century—an exhibit left over from a time before Feb. 24, when the war in neighboring Ukraine began and the JCC reoriented its entire mission. A calendar in Ornstein’s office lists the JCC’s pre-COVID schedule of classes in Hebrew, Yiddish, basic Judaism, Israeli geography, yoga, and other areas of local Judaic interest, a relic of at least two crises ago.

The JCC is the leading institution of a Jewish community that numbered 60,000 in 1939, accounting for a quarter of Krakow’s population. Today the JCC has 800 members in a city of 750,000, eligibility being limited to Krakowians who have one or more Jewish grandparent. The day Putin’s army began its assault on Ukraine, Ornstein instructed that a banner be hoisted over the entry gate, reading “Welcome” in Ukrainian. It is still there. Ornstein says the downstairs distribution center sprang up overnight on the 24th. It now serves an average of 500-600 refugees a day.

In the early days of the conflict, as waves of Ukrainians poured into Poland, volunteers in neon yellow vests with the JCC’s Magen David logo waited at the train station, directing newcomers of all faiths to a place where they could find food, shelter, and other help. The JCC has organized aid shipments deep into Ukraine, reaching as close as Lviv and as far away as the Donbas, in the especially war-affected East. The JCC is feeding 85 Ukrainian Roma, and housing 80 people in the Paszkowka Palace, a 19th-century Gothic revival mansion just outside of town. Unlikely as it seemed, there was in fact a spare palace in the Krakow area available for housing refugees. “I could look on its Wikipedia page,” said Ornstein. “A guy reached out to us from Colorado and said he’d found an underused palace on Airbnb.”

In the past three months, the JCC has tripled its budget and doubled its staff. It now spends an average of $25,000 a day assisting Ukrainians. Because the JCC gets 95% of its funding from outside of Poland, the aid operation is a kind of global Jewish project, a sign that Jews still have a presence, and a sense of moral responsibility, in a former Jewish heartland that is now more widely known as a site of genocide.

“We’re very mindful of where we are,” explained Ornstein, who was born in New York and served in the IDF before dating a Polish woman and relocating with her to Krakow in 2001. “This isn’t a Jewish community somewhere in the world. This is a Jewish community next to Auschwitz … We’re in a part of the world where Jews have seen so much suffering, and we’re in a position to help.”

As with so much else in Poland, there is an added dimension to anything the Krakow JCC does, connected to an unavoidable and painful past, one whose contradictions are difficult or perhaps impossible to resolve in the abstract, but manageable—maybe even surmountable—out in the real world, where the pressures and realities of 2022 can make something positive out of the ever-present nightmares of the 1940s and after. “Even a community decimated by the Holocaust and which suffered under communism still can show empathy,” Ornstein said.  “It’s good to be able to help … You can feel a little powerless, given the history here.”

JCC Executive Director Jonathan Ornstein speaks with members of a U.S. congressional delegation outside of the center’s building in Krakow on April 19, 2022
JCC Executive Director Jonathan Ornstein speaks with members of a U.S. congressional delegation outside of the center’s building in Krakow on April 19, 2022Chuck Fishman/JCC Krakow/Getty Images

“You quickly realize for us, the past is important—the past is far more important than the future,” said Jakub Nowakowski, director of the Galicia Jewish Museum. “If you talk about Polish-Israeli relations, it’s all about the Holocaust. It’s all about the past.” We met for dinner in the Rynek, medieval Krakow’s frenetic main square. As if to prove Nowakowski’s point, a trumpeter emerged from the star-shaped upper turret of the 14th-century Saint Mary’s Basilica to announce the hour, a tradition dating back to the Mongol invasions of the 1200s. The call rang out as a pro-Ukraine demonstrator at the Mickiewicz statue played “Zombie,” the Cranberries’ 1994 antiwar anthem, on an acoustic guitar.

The dark obverse of being obsessed with the past is forgetting or distorting the past, a problem the Galicia Jewish Museum, founded by two British Jews in the mid-2000s, now attempts to rectify. Poles, Nowakowski explained, are often not aware that they dwell in “post-Jewish spaces”—they don’t know that the furniture store in the middle of their town used to be a synagogue, or that half of the surrounding houses belonged to Jews before the killing and displacement of a minority group which accounted for most of the country’s lawyers, as well as most of its shoemakers, along with 10% of the total prewar population. Like Morocco, another former center of a vanished Jewish world, Poland is a country where non-Jews are now the keepers of Jewish culture and memory—which will inevitably be sustained in a way that reflects the current, almost Jew-less society’s hopes and needs, for better and worse. Unlike in Morocco, the Jews in Poland were slaughtered, often with either the tacit or active cooperation of many of their neighbors.

The fall of communism created a new opportunity to reckon with a recent past in which Poles had been, as Nowakowski put it, “a victim and perpetrator at the same time.” In the first two decades after Poland democratized, Nowakowski said, “we went from not discussing the Jewish past to the point where you could spend every weekend going from one Jewish culture festival to another.” The rupture in Polish existence brought on by the Holocaust, and then by the Communist Party’s anti-Jewish purges in 1968—the Jewish population’s rapid plunge from 3.4 million to just a few thousand—is incomprehensible, including to modern-day Jews and Poles of all backgrounds. But there is a Polish movement to try to comprehend it, in ways even more substantive than the occasional klezmer concert: In 2019, 40% of the museum’s 74,000 visitors were from Poland. Nowakowski, who is in his late 30s, isn’t Jewish.

The Ukraine war became an opportunity for the Galicia Jewish Museum to make its own contribution in combating the latest outburst of tragedy in Poland’s neighborhood. The museum had several Ukrainian employees before the war, and like many in Krakow, Nowakowski wondered what he could do to help the waves of newcomers. “As a museum, as a human being, where does the responsibility end?” he said he asked himself. Nowakowski realized that refugee children had little to do during the day, and that the museum, which is built around a spacious former industrial mill across from the 15th-century Old Synagogue in the Kazimierz district, had a large room free. The museum hired teachers from among the refugees and set up a preschool.

On a Friday afternoon, a group of 12 girls and three boys were split between a table of art supplies and a corner filled with toys—the walls were covered with drawings of hearts patterned in Ukrainian and Polish national colors amid frequent depictions of busses, tanks, and dragons, a symbol of Krakow. “I don’t think they feel like they’re at home,” their teacher, a lanky and effortlessly focused woman named Valentina Merzhyievska told me. “Most of them have fathers that are still in Ukraine.” A young girl came over to show Merzhyievska a colorful drawing of a rabbit.

Before the war, Merzhyievska lived with her husband and two children in Hostomel, where Russia attempted to land special forces for an inevitably thwarted attack on Kyiv, kicking off the war. “We listened to the first explosions,” she said, speaking in English. “We can’t believe it’s so close to Kyiv. For hours I feel weakness, I can’t stand on my legs. I have wet hands. All of your fears, they happen.” Merzhyievska, who taught math, physics, and philosophy at an experimental private school in Kyiv, had the resources to get out quickly. She took her children to Berdychiv to stay with relatives. Then they tried to flee to Lviv. But their driver accidentally wound up at the Polish border, since most of the road signs had already been taken down to confuse the invading Russians. Her husband, a video game designer, now runs communications systems for a bomb disposal team in Kharkiv, focal point of a brutal Russian assault.

The children played around us. A boy and a girl whacked a styrofoam ball with a plastic racquet set, chasing it around the room. Merzhyievska showed me clay models the kids had made of floorplans of houses, crowded with tiny pieces of furniture—records of places they’d left behind, or maybe of places where they would like to live. Many refugees are being hosted by Polish families, or live under cramped conditions. The preschoolers enjoyed stringing blankets between furniture, Merzhyievska said. “For them it’s like therapy, to make those forts,” she explained. “The ones that lost their houses, they can build, and they feel good in this khalabuda.” An American museum curator, a longtime collaborator with the Galicia Jewish Museum, chimed in from nearby. “In Ukrainian khalabuda is a kid fort, not a brick fort,” she clarified.

Merzhyievska says she wants to return to Kyiv in August, regardless of whether the war is still going on, to ensure that her school reopens. Maybe in a few years, she said, she would launch an organization committed to preserving memory of the war in Ukraine. Ukrainian adults born during the Soviet era, she said, were aware of how Russia and other powers “destroyed national identity for a long period.” For people the age of her preschool students, Ukrainian identity was much more of a given. “Kids who were born in Ukraine, they can’t understand how Ukraine can disappear. No—it’s impossible.” Ukraine would have to move forward with a mentality of national assertion and permanence. “Now we have many discussions about culture,” she said. For instance: “Why are so many Russians learned about in schools?”

It was late afternoon and raining as the preschool let out. I sipped tea with Merzhyievska and the American curator in the hallway near the museum’s courtyard, which is decorated with a mural of Marek Edelman, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising hero who stayed in Poland through the antisemitic purges of the 1960s and became both a pioneering heart surgeon and a leader of the movement against the communist regime. A serious-looking young girl in a bright blue pea coat walked by with her mother—many of the refugees in Krakow had fled in February and arrived with little more than heavy pants and winter jackets; the Krakowians and the aid community ensured they received new clothes. The girl was from the Donbas, site of some of the most intense fighting of the war. At a glance she could have been any young girl from just about any country at peace. “That one was crying the first day she was here—remember?” the curator recalled.

Kids who were born in Ukraine, they can’t understand how Ukraine can disappear. No—it’s impossible.

The generosity of the JCC and the Galicia Jewish Museum is hardly unique. Poland as a country has been remarkably welcoming to Ukrainian refugees. Those escaping Putin’s onslaught could get an identity number upon arrival in Poland, entitling them to medical care and the opportunity to work. They could ride Krakow’s public transit system and visit the da Vinci at the Czartoryski free of charge. Signs in the Krakow train station still indicate where Ukrainians fleeing with their pets can get help. Only 10,000 of the Ukrainian refugees in Krakow are in public housing. The other 140,000 are being hosted in private homes, or put up in hotels or apartments by aid groups like the JCC.

There are people within the JCC community whose lives have been affected by the full slate of crises in modern Poland—the JCC members include 50 survivors of World War II, many of whom stayed in Poland through the upheavals of the communist era. Anna Bielecka, a mentally sharp and matronly 80-year-old, began volunteering at the JCC because she had the language skills needed to interview incoming refugees, screening them for their most immediate needs. She had learned Russian in school, back when it was mandatory under the communist regime, and described the language, through an interpreter, as “melodic, like French,” which she also speaks. “There weren’t many people who would be able to communicate with Ukrainians,” Bielecka said.

In the early days of the war she helped arrange housing and travel to Israel for those who wanted to move to the Jewish state. She didn’t learn much about what the refugees had seen, though she mentioned hearing stories of multiday train journeys where nights were spent in total darkness to avoid attracting a Russian attack. Of Bielecka’s story, the refugees heard nothing.

Bielecka was born in Krakow in 1942, the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father who was a prominent Warsaw lawyer. Bielecka’s mother was Vienna-educated and highly assimilated. Her blond hair and native-level German—along with, Bielecka speculated, a well-placed bribe or two—enabled her to escape the Warsaw Ghetto during the summer of 1941 and reunite with her husband in Krakow, just months before deportations to the death camps began. She passed as non-Jewish, but life in wartime Poland was hard for nearly everyone. “My mother was just 44 kilograms [97 pounds] when I was born,” Bielecka said. “It’s difficult to even imagine it.” She survived giving birth with the help of Japanese medical students, who were in Poland on an academic exchange with Nazi Germany to study the effects of famine on women and children.

Like many Polish Jews who stayed after the war, Bielecka had an awareness of her identity but did not engage in any real religious practice. She was a graduate student in Warsaw in 1968, when the Polish communist party began expelling most of its Jewish members, disqualifying them from the bulk of the country’s social and professional life and driving most of them to emigrate. A close friend of hers was denounced by regime leadership when protests erupted on campus; Bielecka was subjected to an all-day police interrogation when it turned out that a campus typewriter repairman was a regime spy. She was asked to sign an affidavit, but noted to her inquisitors that she couldn’t possibly have done any of what the document described because she had been in the hospital giving birth to her son at the exact same time. “And that’s a little advice for us,” she said. “The police were the weak link.”

Bielecka and her husband moved to France during Poland’s 1980s state of emergency, declared by the communists as the Solidarity-led movement against the regime gained momentum. In France she earned a Ph.D. in history. The family returned to Poland when the country democratized. Both she and her mother came to know Marek Edelman, who died in Warsaw in 2009. “He was a very direct, very straight person,” Bielecka recalled. “And this is why he survived.”

Bielecka said that her parents were married in a Warsaw church in June of 1941 by a priest who was a friend of her father’s family. At the wedding, a friend of her mother’s came to the church in a dress uniform of the vanquished Polish army. “He could be killed for wearing that. This is very Polish. This is one of our things, we like to risk.” Of her parents, she added: “Fortunately they were very lucky.”

Ukrainian children play at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow on April 1, 2022
Ukrainian children play at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow on April 1, 2022Omar Marques/Getty Image

The Ukraine war has the potential to change the demographics and overall character of Krakow for years and even decades to come. The same goes for the city’s Jewish community, and Poland’s in general. Sebastian Rudol, the JCC’s deputy director, said the official number of Jews in all of Poland is 6,000, “which is nonsense.” At least once a week, Rudol says, a Krakowian contacts the JCC, trying to make sense of documents or other hints that might indicate a rediscovered Jewish ancestry. The real number of Jews living in Krakow is now known only to HaShem. But it is sure to increase if the war drags on—as the children of refugees learn Polish, and as their home country becomes an unattractive or untenable place in comparison. There are now 60 Ukrainian refugees who are JCC members, said Ornstein. “If this continues, we’ll reach equal levels of Ukrainian and Polish Jews.”

Anastasia Lasna lived in Israel before moving to the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv with her husband. She is an English, Russian, and Hebrew speaker in her mid-20s who looks like she could credibly front a punk rock band. Back in Mykolaiv, she had been one of only two professional vegan chefs in the entire city, specializing in a shawarma made of falafel and meat substitute. “There was another boy,” she said of her competition, “but he wasn’t working constantly.”

Today, Mykolaiv is the last major city before the frontline. Lasna’s husband is now in Odessa. Their apartment back in Mykolaiv is in a building recently hit by a cluster bomb, and she has no idea how badly their home was damaged. She arrived in Krakow with the couple’s young daughter in March, during the second week of the war. She saw the JCC volunteers at the train station, and being Jewish herself she came to the center in search of “food, socks, and underwear.” A few days later, she also found employment at the JCC as a translator.

Lasna said she expects the war to go on for a while, and feels no particular urgency to return to a country in chaos. This, she admits, is not the mentality of many other Ukrainians in the city. “Already if there’s five hours in Kharkiv without bombing they say, we should go back,” she said. “Oh, there are no mines on our streets. In Kyiv there are mines. We should go home!” Not her: Lasna had sheltered underground with her daughter in Mykolaiv during Russian bombardments. “It’s not for kids,” she said.

In recent weeks, the Ukrainians have lost ground to the invaders, and are experiencing critical shortages of artillery and ammunition. With the failure of his initial move against Kyiv, Putin’s most plausible route toward battlefield victory might be a scorched-earth assault toward the blockaded port city of Odessa, which would effectively landlock the rest of Ukraine and join Russian forces to an existing outpost of so-called “peacekeepers” in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria. A volunteer at the JCC likened the nearest Polish-Ukrainian border crossing, three hours east of Krakow, to a “living organism”—it is quiet at the moment, but the aid apparatus is still there, in the awareness that an attack on Odessa or any other escalation will bring new waves of displacement.

For the refugees already in Krakow, each day spent away from home is its own expansion of the tragedy. Lasna said that on video calls, her husband often expresses surprise at how quickly their daughter is growing up. These calls, she said, can be a bitter reminder that “a piece of time was taken from us, by crazy people.” Even in a place as comfortable and welcoming as Krakow, “you’re frozen in time, but life is going on.”

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.