For many survivors, religious traditions, customs and education formed the backbone of their personal, familial and communal life, providing its rhythm, cohesion and identity.
For many people first learning about the Holocaust, the victims of the Holocaust are seen only as just that – victims – without knowing who they really were and how they lived. To understand what was attacked, what the Nazis sought to destroy in the Final Solution, engaging with the pre-war religious practices and culture of European Jewry is essential.
Kazimierz, Krakow, before 1939, was a place where Jewish religious rituals and laws flourished for centuries. While it can't represent the entire complexity of Jewish religious life in Europe at the time, Willie Sterner's detailed, nostalgic account of this vibrant community helps connect us with a world that was almost completely destroyed.
Willie recounts Kazimierz's Jewish life with great fondness, but he is also forced to acknowledge the deep-seated social divisions and antisemitism that existed there; this would later be exploited by the Nazis.
Krakow is a historic city on the Vistula River in the south of Poland. For three hundred years, from the beginning of the fourteenth century to the beginning of the seventeenth century, Krakow was the capital of Poland and the Wawel Palace, the home of former Polish kings, is located there. The city has many large parks and gardens such as Błonia, Planty and Krzemionki. It is a city of sports clubs, theatres, restaurants and churches.
By 1931, the Jewish residents of Krakow numbered about 55,000 of the city’s overall population of 215,000. Centred largely in the Kazimierz district, Krakow’s Jewish community was one of the oldest in Europe. Jews worked as professors, doctors, pharmacists, rabbis, cantors, publishers, manufacturers and tradesmen. We lived in the Podgórze district, which was very mixed – Jews and Poles and people from other countries all lived and worked side by side. There were many Jewish communal institutions in Krakow that reflected the variations in the community. Jews read daily newspapers in Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew. Some read the daily Zionist newspaper and attended Zionist conferences; Zionist youth movements, in particular, were very strong in the city. For education, there were cheders, bet hamidrashes and the Hebrew gymnasium (high school). The members of the Jewish community worshipped in both the more liberal or Reform temples, such as the Mizrachi and Kupa synagogues, and in Orthodox shuls such as the Izaak, the Alte and the Remuh. Krakow also had a Jewish, Yiddish-language theatre and a hospital that was organized and run by Jews, although the patients came from all parts of the community.
In the years before 1939, most Jews strictly observed their religion and maintained Jewish traditions – even Jews who weren’t very religious followed tradition. For example, we all kept kosher homes. On Friday afternoons, before the Sabbath, we closed our businesses, cleaned our houses and dressed in our best clothes. Each family put a white tablecloth and a candelabra with candles on the table and the whole family gathered together. Sometimes we had a guest for the Sabbath – that was also a Jewish tradition. Then, on Saturday morning, we all went to the synagogue for Sabbath services. Afterward we came home for a special holiday meal: gefilte fish and delicious cholent.
I attended Sabbath services in the temple at 24 Miodowa Street. Built as a progressive Liberal Reform synagogue (Postepowa synagoga) in 1862, it featured a beautiful choir and geometrical images of plants and animals in thirty-six stained-glass windows. Rabbis delivered weekly sermons in Polish and German. Dr. Ozjasz Yehoshua Thon – one of the organizers of the first Zionist Congress in 1897 and the leader of the Jewish political party who sat in the Polish parliament – delivered sermons there until his death in 1936. I loved to attend the Sabbath services in our temple.
In Krakow – not only in Kazimierz but all over the city – the observance of Jewish holidays and traditions was evident all around us. Hasidim wore their silk black overcoats, and some wore fur hats (called a shtreimel in Yiddish) and white socks. In Jewish religious law, it is forbidden to use electricity or to make a fire in our ovens on holy days, including the Sabbath, so we would ask our Christian-Polish neighbours to light our homes and heat the ovens. We gave each person a piece of challah – the traditional braided egg bread eaten on the Sabbath – and ten groszy (ten cents). Another holiday, Purim, was a joyful and special celebration. We always had a beautiful parade on the streets of Kazimierz, called an Adloyada, with lively Purim shows on the platforms of the large trucks. Everyone, especially families, had a really good time.
Jews had lived in Poland for more than six hundred years, but Polish nationalism, religious differences and general mistrust on both sides meant that life with our Polish neighbours wasn’t always friendly. The majority of Poles were Catholics, and the Church exerted a strong influence in Poland generally. Jewish culture was very different from that of our Polish Catholic neighbours. Jews didn’t often socialize with Poles; but, as I’ve said, we did live together and work together. As I’ve mentioned, we were forbidden to use electricity on holidays such as the Sabbath, so we had to ask our Polish neighbours to help out in return for a piece of challah and a little money. Perhaps when these Poles came into our homes and saw a table set with a white tablecloth and a candelabra, and saw Jews wearing clothes that were nicer than their own weekly clothing, even though the Jewish family of five might be living in a one-room apartment, they thought that all Jews were rich. They might not have realized that many Jewish families didn’t eat any meat all week in order to save money to buy a chicken for the Sabbath or the high holidays. It was a common misconception among ordinary Poles that all Jews were very rich. I remember that some Poles used to say that to Jews, “Polish money is kosher, but the goy [non-Jew] is treif [not kosher].”
For many people, the dislike between Jews and Poles was mutual. Some punks would shout “Jew” at us as if it was a derogatory word, but I had no problem with it – I was a proud Jew. The Hasidic Jews were particular targets because of their pious behaviour and distinctive look – they wore full beards and peyes (long, curled sidelocks). For their part, some Jews called Polish people “goy,” “shegetz” and “shiksa” – all derogatory terms for non-Jews. And if a Polish person disagreed with a Jew over some issue, the Pole was often branded an antisemite by the Jew. But in our home we were more open-minded and friendly with our Polish neighbours. My father’s philosophy was that the most important rule for any person’s behaviour was that he or she should strive to be decent and honest. In general, we tried to be good neighbours. We did work together with the Poles and we did business with them. Still, the atmosphere was often divisive, neither healthy nor friendly.
There was an antisemitic organization in Krakow called the Endeks. They were only mildly threatening – they didn’t take any direct action against us or harm us and they didn’t seem to have any specific goals. We sometimes had little skirmishes with them, but most of the time we proudly stood up to them. When I was growing up, most Jews weren’t brought up to fight or defend themselves. We had a saying that “It’s not nice for a Jewish boy to fight; it’s nice for them (meaning the Poles).” When young Polish punks wanted to have fun, they would stop a Hasidic Jew on the street, call him names and give him a little push. The Jewish man wouldn’t fight back; he would run away as fast as he could. Despite the shame they felt at being taunted, it was considered even more shameful for Jewish men – especially religiously observant Jews – to fight to defend themselves; a lot of Jews walked with their heads down and some of the punks had a really good time. A few young Jewish men who were less traditional were willing to stand up to the punks and fight for their pride and dignity. Those Jews got respect, but there weren’t too many of them. I, for one, was proud of them.