Jewish Heritage Europe

Jewish Krakow and a Reflection on Jewish Places

Gateway to the Remuh synagogue, Krakow. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber


The British magazine Jewish Renaissance publishes a lengthy section of its current issue on Jews, Jewish places, Jewish history and Jewish revival in Krakow, Poland.

Two of the articles — which we link to here — are of particular interest to this web site. One is by the British scholar Dr. Jonathan Webber, who has followed Jewish developments in Krakow and elsewhere in Poland for decades and currently lives in Krakow, where he teaches at the Jagiellonian University. The other is by the literary historian Dr. Karen Underhill, who has also lived in Krakow and continues to spend time there, and also leads guided tours of Krakow and elsewhere in Poland.

Webber enumerates many of the works of physical restoration and marking of Jewish sites since the fall of communism: synagogue and cemetery restorations, signage, etc — as well as the opening of Jewish communal, religious life, cultural and educational opportunities and individual identification.

Underhill’s provocative essay, “Jewish Place as a Living Phenomenon,” is perhaps more interesting on a deeper level. It is drawn from a presentation she made at the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival last summer, during a panel discussion on “How to Speak and Write about Jewish Places in Europe.” (JHE Coordinator Ruth Ellen Gruber was also on the panel.)

The Jewish places of Central and Eastern Europe collectively constitute a massive and centuries-long text, written into the landscape; a text whose very letters and words and phrases are the buildings, the streets, towns, fields and forests of Eastern Europe – and such a text cannot have enough readers, commentators and interpreters.

What is a Jewish place? I propose that we think of Jewish places as living phenomena – not as objects, but as dynamic moments of engagement between three separate elements: a visitor or a resident; the space or piece of material heritage that the individual encounters, and the web of narratives that the individual receives from his or her own past, as well as from the guide who introduces them to that place.

Every Jewish place presents opportunities: an opportunity to engage each Ashkenazi Jewish visitor in caring about and feeling ownership of his or her own heritage and culture; an opportunity to challenge existing narratives about the Jewish past of Poland, about Jewish life in Europe and about Polish-Jewish relations; and, above all, an opportunity to allow the visitor to reach across the chasm of destruction and forgetting that tore living Jewish and Polish communities from their own pasts. In this sense a Jewish place is an opportunity for healing – and also tikkun (repairing the world). Through engaging with a Jewish place, one establishes a living connection with one’s own forbears, whether genealogical, spiritual, ideological, or cultural. 


I suggest that Jewish places do not have an existence in and of themselves. They only come into existence in the moment that someone engages with them, and incorporates them into a Jewish story – be it their own, or one that someone is telling them. Thus one object or one place, be it a restored synagogue, a shtetl, a city street, or a country road, represents an infinite number of potential Jewish places, waiting to emerge. If no one should come, they will continue to wait – as so many potential Jewish places have waited for over half a century.


Read Underhill’s full essay — and let us know what you think about her ideas by commenting on this post!







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