A Community Reborn: Jewish Life and Culture in Krakow, Poland | Fox 5 Films

A burst of Jewish life and culture can be found on the streets of Krakow, Poland.

Old traditions have seen a resurgence in Kazimierz, which is the name of Krakow's Jewish quarter and where we found Jonathan Ornstein, a native New Yorker. Born and raised in Queens, Ornstein is now a leading force behind this rebirth in Poland.

"Before the war in Poland, there were 3.5 million Jews. That was about 10 percent of the population," Ornstein said. "So big cities like Warsaw was a third Jewish. Krakow was a quarter Jewish. 60 percent of the lawyers in 1939 on the eve of World War II were Jewish, 40 percent of the doctors."

Kazimierz was the center of Jewish life in Krakow for more than 500 years until the German army stormed the nation. It was Hitler's final solution to eradicate the Jewish people and turn Poland into a subservient country. 90 percent of Poland's pre-war Jewish population was annihilated.

"There were 90,000 Jews in Krakow before the Holocaust," Dr. Michael Berenbaum said. "It was a community that was both interesting and diverse, well-integrated into the community."

Berenbaum is another New York native and one of the world's leading Holocaust scholars. He led me and a group of millennials on an emotional and educational journey through Poland.

Together we witnessed firsthand the revival of Jewish life and legacy in Krakow, with Ornstein paving the way.

"I moved to Krakow to teach Hebrew. I was teaching Hebrew here at the University, in the department of Jewish studies," Ornstein said. "About 150 non-Jewish students that are getting a degree in Jewish studies, which was interesting to me—that all these non-Jews wanted to learn about Jewish subjects."

This interest in Jewish life has been manifesting itself throughout the country. In 2008, a group of international nonprofits decided to build a Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Krakow. Ornstein became the executive director. Ever since, he has seen a steady flow of Polish citizens visit the center to share some of their incredible newly discovered stories.

"You have people walking in here to the JCC almost every day who just found out that they're Jewish," Ornstein said.

Marcjanna Kubala, who now works at the JCC, is one of those people. When she was 13, she searched online for her family tree. That's where she discovered her Jewish roots—all the women on her mother's side.

"Our parents didn't feel comfortable to share this with us because during the Communism time it wasn't safe to say out loud, 'Look, I'm Jewish,' so they were just used to that," Kubala said. "It's something that you should hide."

Ornstein said stories like Kubala's are fascinating but not uncommon.

"We've had people who have come in and told us deathbed confessions from their grandparents who had been hidden as children and given over to non-Jews," Ornstein said. "And the last thing their murdered parents told them was, 'Never tell anyone you're Jewish.'"

The JCC welcomes those who come here with these remarkable stories as well as others who are just interested in learning more about Judaism. The center is a nonprofit that relies heavily on donations.

Every Friday the JCC hosts Shabbat dinner for more than 100 people—a mix of Jewish community members, visitors to Poland and even Holocaust survivors.

Ornstein also led the JCC in starting a kindergarten program, called FRAJDA, which is Polish for "joy." It's the first Jewish kindergarten center to open in Krakow in more than half a century.

"There are some people of whom it can be said they're in the right place at the right time," Berenbaum said.

He believes Ornstein has set forth on a momentous mission that's picking up speed. Daily tours now give visitors a glimpse into what life used to be like in Krakow decades ago. Jewish gift shops, book stores, museums and restaurants once again line Kazimierz's cobblestone streets.

Over in the Old Town of Krakow, the Main Square is also bustling with visitors from all over the world. Krakow is the rare large city in Poland that was virtually undamaged during the war.

"The town also had a very unique history. The Germans used it as the capital of Poland, taking away their political capital, which was Warsaw," Berenbaum said. "And consequently, Krakow emerged from the war relatively unscathed because the Germans did not destroy any of its buildings."

As life continues to flourish in Krakow, more and more Polish Jews proudly put their culture on full display here. Though it's hard to say the exact number of Jewish people living in the country now.

"The stats are very difficult because Jewish life went underground here during Communism. The survivors that stayed in Poland went underground because there was a lot of antisemitism," Ornstein said. "At this point, the JCC, we have 700 Jewish members, but there are many, many more than that in Krakow. I would say if you had perfect knowledge, if you could look at every person walking down the street in Poland and see all four of their grandparents, then I think you'd have probably 100,000 Poles today that have at least one Jewish grandparent." 

In a country like Poland where the Jewish presence is often defined by its absence, watching the reawakening of old traditions has been heartening for those leading this movement. They are optimistic that the increasing tolerance and acceptance will continue to move this country forward.