Auschwitz: Museum of Martyrology
ul. Findera 11
When one ponders Poland's Jewry, the obvious (Auschwitz) comes quickly to mind, and is occassionally seconded by the apparently obvious (Poles are anti-Semitic). As any target of oversimplified stereotyping can appreciate, purely black and white pictures utterly fail to render what is in actuality grey.
For instance, most who visit Auschwitz seldom take the trouble to visit nearby Birkenau. On the grounds of Auschwitz, they see a crematorium and they conclude the obvious: this is the death site of nearly 2 million murdered. But Auschwitz was a holding pen; Birkenau was the death camp. 2 km down the road, it originally contained over 300 buildings covering over 400 acres, and even today the 67 remaining leave a more realistic sense of the scale of this operation. Said camp was added on in 1941 when Himmler upped the ideological ante, by 1942 Jews from across Europe were dying here, and in 1944 Birkenau warranted a rail line of its own. Efficiency, after all, was horribly paramount.
A second patch of grey on this landscape is the role Poles played before, during, and after the war. Such a complex subject is thoroughly covered elsewhere, but a brief point may prove illuminating. In a recent discussion of Spielberg's movie, a Pole remarked, "God knows Poles were not always blameless, but I fear that this movie leaves the impression that we helped Nazis kill the Jews." To counter that idea, consider that when you look for Schindler's name on the list of the righteous, spare a moment for those listed from Poland. It contains more names than those from other countries despite the fact that aiding Jews was officially punishable by death.
Some part of that anti-semitic stereotype originates in the recent past. After WWII ended, Soviet Russia propagandized the whole affair to great effect. One method involved obligatory visits to the camps to underscore the point that communist Russia saved Poland from fascist Germany. Hence, the propaganda claimed that the enemies of fascism died in these camps, not Jews or gypsies or homosexuals, but simply Poles. Strengthening this truth is the fact that a communist-free Poland has revised its Auschwitz material to incorporate the actual breakdown: close to 90% of the victims were Jewish.
roughly bordered by: ul. Krakowska, Miodowa, Starowislna and Podgorska
But a majority of them were also Polish, and their ancestors had been for some 700 plus years. Auschwitz sits uncomfortably close to one of the historical centers of Polish Jewry in Kazimierz. Named for the enlightened king of Poland who originally invited the Jews here in the 1300's, the town was chartered in 1335 but only began to grow when the Jewish population of Krakow settled here in 1495. That move, unfortunately induced by competitive jealousies threatening to erupt into conflict, proved the making of Kazimierz which went on to foster a vibrant community with a strong foothold in the governing of Polish Jews (administered by a separate body, the Council of Four Lands).
But living apart failed to solve the basic problem, and squabbling amongst the businessmen continued. Unlike most of Poland, the Partitions actually came to the rescue of Kazimierz Jews; Austria incorporated it into Krakow, legally obliterating its separate status. Physically, it remained enclosed behind the requisite ghetto walls, but those came down in the 1800's when Krakow enjoyed a brief respite as a 'Free City'.
Walls down, the question arose: to blend or not to blend? One Jewish camp argued for assimilation, a second argued against. Those against won the day, as it were, when anti-semitic acts increased in the early 1900's and several Zionist groups formed. Had it not been for WWI, many Jews might have emigrated in the face of such obvious hatred, but the end of the war brought the rebeginning of an independent Poland. It also revived the Kazimierz community, which increased its population to more than 60,000 in the interwar period.
When the war ended, only 6000 Jews returned.
Today, Kazimierz sees a growing number of tourists every year, partly due to Schindler's List which was shot here, and partly due to the greater tourist flow into the formerly closed Soviet bloc countries. Another, deeper sign of interest, is the renovation of those buildings which remain, the almost overabundance of traditional carved figures, and the expanding Jewish Festival of Culture held here every June. From this, one draws hope.