Thursday, July 14, 2011

Annamaria Orla-Bukowska Leads a Walking Tour of Kazimierz, Krakow's Jewish Neighborhood

Kazimierz before WW II source
On Monday, July 11, 2011, Prof. Annamaria Orla-Bukowska lead her Jagiellonian University summer school students on a two-hour walking tour of Kazimierz, a Jewish neighborhood of Krakow, Poland, dating back to the fourteenth century. Prof. Orla-Bukowska's great beauty, her elegance, her depth and breadth of knowledge, her dedication, compassion, and commitment were like beacons that lit our way and sparks that inspired each student. After the tour I asked random participants what they thought. Irene is a bright and dedicated college student from the US. Her eyes grew wide and sparkled: "It was great! And she and I talked for an hour afterward – she kept showing me new things!" Uel, an gray-haired educator, greatly appreciated Prof. Orla-Bukowska's objectivity on the challenging topic of Polish-Jewish relations. As a Protestant from Belfast, Uel is familiar with sectarian strife.

I am a words person. I tell new acquaintances, "I'm very bad with faces and names, but if you tell me your story, I'll never forget it." My work on Polish-Jewish relations revolves around films, texts, jokes, slurs, and other cultural products constructed, primarily, of words.

There are of course Jews living in Kazimierz, in Krakow, and in Poland today, but the majority of Krakow's pre-World War Two Jewish population was murdered by the Nazis. Material culture remains: private residences in which Jewish families lived, schools, community centers, several synagogues, and cemeteries.

Prof. Orla-Bukowska brought this material culture to life; she drew forth words, ideas, and people from the stones. If you are interested in Polish-Jewish relations, you owe it to yourself to discover the published work of Annamaria Orla-Bukowska.

As "Bieganski" shows, even texts that are meant to represent the highest level of truth – university press, peer-reviewed publications – often tell a false narrative: all Jews in Poland lived always in poverty, fear, and trembling; all Polish Catholics were all-powerful and all-hateful pogromists; given teleology, the Holocaust was inevitable.

The work of Annamaria Orla-Bukowska brings to light a different reality. In fact, as many scholars demonstrate, many Jews were able to feel secure, prosperous, and stable in Poland for a long time. While maintaining their own cultural traditions and religious beliefs, many Polish Catholics and Polish Jews from all strata of society took mutually beneficial and collegial interactions as a normal part of life. The Holocaust was not, as is so often argued – as shown in “Bieganski” – the inevitable climax of the trajectory of Polish-Jewish history. It was, rather, an historic event, brought about by many factors, and it was committed, primarily, by German Nazis, fully in accord with Nazi ideology that was imported into Poland, and that had significant intellectual roots in the US.

No responsible Pole, including Prof. Orla-Bukowska, denies that there was anti-Semitism in Poland, or that some Poles did commit anti-Semitic acts, including in Krakow, including murder, and even in the post-war era. But those atrocities are not the defining acts of Polish-Jewish relations. Rather, for the bulk of Polish Catholics and Polish Jews, for the bulk of history, co-existence was the day-to-day reality and expectation of Catholics and Jews. Prof. Orla-Bukowska pointed out the intersection of Ulica Bozego Ciala and Ulica Meiselsa. The first is “Street of Corpus Christi” or the Body of Christ; the second street is named after Rabbi Meisels, the chief Rabbi of Krakow.

Again and again, Prof. Orla-Bukowska brought our attention to material culture that demonstrated the worldview of Kazimierz's Jews: we are prosperous, we are an important part of the life of this country, we are here more or less permanently, and we are Polish-identified. Kazimierz's Jews' commitment to, and integration into a wider idea of the Polish nation is demonstrated in their material culture.

In her walking tour, Prof. Orla-Bukowska demonstrated a profound knowledge of Judaism, and a real affection and respect for it. She encouraged us to experience Jewish life in Kazimierz through Kazimierz's remaining material culture, and through our three-dimensional experience of it. We touched stones left by visitors on Jewish graves, donned shawls and yarmulkes in order to visit synagogues, noted the mezuzah on the doorway as we entered a fully kosher hotel (no sheets made of mixed fabrics) and sweated a bit as we walked through a hot, humid, and fully functional mikvah.

We visited what had been a community center that was decorated with a bas relief frieze depicting a key event in Polish-Jewish history. Prof. Orla-Bukowska pointed out that this relief had been erected in the early twentieth century, when in fact, politically, there was no political entity called Poland. In geo-political reality, Krakow was located in the Austrian Empire. Even so, Kazimierz's Jews identified with Polish history and culture through their bas relief.

We ended our tour with a plaque dedicated to a local paper bag magnate who strongly self-identified as a *Polish* Jew.

We visited the site of Kazimierz's Sunday market. Why Sunday? The Jewish Sabbath would be over, and the Catholics would congregate nearby in order to attend mass, and, after mass, would have time for marketing. We saw many buildings that had been the childhood homes of Prof. Orla-Bukowska's many Jewish friends, located in Israel and the US. We also saw the childhood home of Helena Rubenstein, the woman who made a fortune with cosmetics. We saw a playground that was carved out of the site of several properties now in dispute because of post-war property claims. Kazimierz, before its recent revival, in the postwar years, had become a place with a reputation for street crime. Local women tried to use this empty lot to build a playground. Because of property claims, they were granted permission to restore only a chunk of the lot. Children play on a small area; the surrounding lot is overgrown weeds.

We saw buildings with beautiful, ancient facades crumbling into dust; one way to get around UNESCO's high demands on how one can renovate a building in an historic district like Kazimierz. If the building is not kept up, it becomes unsafe, and it is allowed to be torn down, and a new building may be put in its place. The new buildings stick out like sore thumbs in ancient Kazimierz. One renovator faced a big struggle over whether or not he could install plastic, not glass, windows, as plastic made for better insulation. Some renovators resorted to bribes to get buildings built their way.

Prof. Orla-Bukowska was graceful in her persistence efforts to communicate to her students: Jewish life was a vital aspect of Polish history and culture. It was a bit different from non-Jewish life – non-Jews bring flowers to graveyards; Jews bring little stones to place atop the grave – but the differences in Jewish culture make it no less worthy. Prof. Orla-Bukowska accomplished so much in her talk, and one constant theme was this: we must understand various cultures. Understanding is a key pathway to mutual co-existence.

Prof. Orla-Bukowska was born in the US. I can only imagine the sacrifices she made when she came to Communist Poland to live in 1985. She has spoken of contacting her friends, monks, in those days to acquire literature about Polish Jewish relations that Poland’s Soviet leaders had banned. Her commitment to Polish-Jewish relations is highly admirable, and exceptional.

Poles are buried all over the world: Siberia, were they were exiled, Brazil, where they built roads, Haiti, where they first fought against, and then with, rebelling slaves, Missouri, as poet Christina Pacosz describes, site of a riot that drove Poles out of town, Monte Cassino. Anyone who would dedicate him or herself to the memory of the Poles who lived in these various locations with the dedication of Annamaria Orla-Bukowska would truly be an admirable person.

For more on co-existence of Poles and Jews, please see this post.


  1. Danusha, thank you so much for that. Professor Annamaria Orla Bukowska sounds like a really special person. With my own background it is particularly relevant and for me a very positive outlook for the future of Polish Catholics and Polish Jews.

  2. Krystyna, so glad you liked the blog post. :-)

  3. Brought back memories of seeing the remnants of Jewish culture when I was taking a course on Polish-Jewish Relations at the Jagiellonian U. myself. We toured the same locales. Poles have tried to honor the culture of the murdered Jewsish population in many tangible ways since my journey to Poland in 1986. Professor Annamaria Orla Bukowska has accomplished much to assist in these matters. I am glad to know of her and her efforts. Christina Pacosz

  4. Christina, I'm so glad you had the opportunity to participate and to meet Prof. OB.

  5. I was an Erasmus student last year in Krakow, and I had the honour of being the student of Prof. Annamaria. She is the lady at the very much sense of this word, and I have to admitt that it was her who woke up the interest of Holocaust and Jews in me.
    I have never seen a University teacher more open to the students as Annamaria, and the knowledge she has and passes to students is trully amazing!
    I ll never forget my Erasmus stay!!!!


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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