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Poland: Krakow's Devastated Jewish Ghetto Undergoing Revival

Once a vibrant center for Jewish culture, the Kazimierz ghetto in the Polish city of Krakow was devastated during World War II. Most of its residents were killed and its buildings razed. The following half century of communism saw the district remain dilapidated and deserted -- and it was often a dangerous place to walk at night. But over the last decade or so, Kazimierz's fortunes have changed. Named after the medieval king who founded it, Kazimierz is undergoing a revival as part of renewed interest in Jewish history and culture in Krakow.

Krakow, Poland; 28 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Was anything -- anything at all -- left of Jewish life in Krakow?

That's a natural question after touring the nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camps, especially after ceremonies this week marking the 60th anniversary of their liberation by Soviet soldiers.

Of the estimated 6 million Jews killed by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, half came from Poland. They included almost all of Krakow's pre-war Jewish population of 68,500.

Many lived in Kazimierz, Krakow's historic ghetto and site of the city's most important synagogues and Jewish cemeteries.

Located not far outside the walls of Krakow's old center, Kazimierz is a maze of narrow, cobblestone streets and low-slung buildings, many of which still bear the physical scars of World War II.
"Thirteen years ago, there were only three restaurants on Szeroka Street -- Jewish restaurants. Now there are a few restaurants -- five [to] seven restaurants, Jewish restaurants, and 50 clubs and pubs and things like that."

During nearly half a century of communism, Kazimierz was left in disrepair. Visitors shied away at night, when the neighborhood turned dark and dangerous.

Magda Brudzinska is a local musician.

"During communism, there was nothing here in Kazimierz, in this part of the city. It was forbidden a little bit, you know, memory and remembering about Jewish [life] -- it was just forbidden," Brudzinska says.

But slowly, things began to improve in Kazimierz, thanks largely to director Stephen Spielberg's 1993 film "Schindler's List."

The film tells the real story of Oskar Schindler, a Sudeten German from Czechoslovakia who saved the lives of his 1,000 Jewish workers by inventing nonexistent jobs for them in his Krakow factory.

The film, hailed as a masterpiece, won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

It also led to a surge in interest in Kazimierz, where Spielberg filmed much of his three-hour epic.

Nearly 13 years later, Kazimierz and its main street have been transformed, says Tomasz Radzik, a waiter in a Jewish restaurant called Ariel.

"Thirteen years ago, there were only three restaurants on Szeroka Street -- Jewish restaurants. Now there are a few restaurants -- five [to] seven restaurants, Jewish restaurants, and 50 clubs and pubs and things like that," Radzik says.

That's Brudzinska and her band, Quartet Klezmer Trio, playing at Ariel this week. The restaurant, packed with foreigners, has been redone in the decor of old Kazimierz and serves traditional Eastern European Jewish fare, such as stuffed goosenecks and herring in cream sauce.

Brudzinska, a young Pole, is not Jewish. But as a classically trained musician, she and her band mates fell in love with Klezmer, the old music born in the Eastern European Jewish "shtetls," or villages.

Her love affair grew so deep, in fact, that Brudzinksa soon found her interest in Jewish culture intensifying. She started studying Yiddish and now performs regularly in the virtually extinct language of Eastern European Jews.

"It [fascination with Jewish culture] starts with music. You know, we are musicians. This is our love, our work. Of course, when we start to do this, and it [starts to go] much deeper inside us, then I start [to become] much more interested in the culture," Brudzinksa says.

As Kazimierz's revival has grown, so too has local interest in Krakow's Jewish heritage.

There are reportedly only about 150 to 180 Polish Jews still living in Kazimierz. But Sylwia Kaczmarska of the local Galicia Jewish Museum says more and more Poles are taking an interest in Judaism. For some, she says, it's just that -- an interest. But others, she says, are becoming more active in the religion.

Brudzinksa, for her part, sees a new era on the horizon for Kazimierz.

"So it's just started to be much more, maybe not popular, but people have started to know the truth about this part of the city and about these people and all this history," Brudzinksa says.

The Galicia Jewish Museum was opened last spring and now holds a central place in the neighborhood's rebirth. Located in the beautifully refurbished Old Synagogue, the museum organizes regular exhibitions on Jewish life and culture, as well as concerts in Yiddish and Hebrew and educational seminars.

"Traces of Memory," a recent exhibition by British photojournalist Chris Schwarz, featured photos of what amounts to the ruins of Jewish life in villages across Poland.

Also to be seen in the neighborhood is another renovated old synagogues as well as the remains of two Jewish historic cemeteries -- evocative, overgrown places with Jewish sepulchral art hard to find anywhere else.

Just like the music.