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TEDxWarsaw - Jonathan Ornstein - 3/5/10

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So… As Ralph said, I come from a place which for many of you Warszawians is a more foreign land than the story we heard from Papua New Guinea. So bear with me. For most people, when they think of Jewish life in Krakow, they think of something like this, in a good sense. This is a positive way they might think about it. Something like this… People going about their business. Of course, pre-war. These are the images that the world-- that the Jewish world [and] non-Jewish world thinks of Poland, Jewish Poland. And in the majority of cases, in a probably worse sense, like this. When I go to work every day, in Krakow, what I see is something more like this. The road from black-and-white to color will take us a little while. I’ll have to do a little bit of history before, won’t do too much. We won’t go into Jewish history before the War, because it would definitely exceed the 18-minute regulation, as Jews [were] in Poland for 1,000 years, in Krakow for 700 years. So we’ll go after the War. Of course, 3,5 million before the War, 90 percent killed, 90 percent of Jews killed. [Majority of the 10 percent that stayed,] about 200,000, give or take, more than half left between 1945-1948. 1957, a few years after Stalin’s death, you had a loosening-up of things, about half the Jews left, half stayed. 1968, and this for us is a very important time in terms of the Jewish question in Poland, the people that stayed until 1968, they had the opportunity to leave. In other words, Jews, certainly in 1957 or after the War, could have gone, and these people stayed. In 1968 you had, after the Six Day War, and after the student riots -- which, of course, any time that students are rioting, or people [are] doing bad things around the world, obviously it's the fault of the Jews. So, we had, let's say, a forced emigration from Poland in 1968. And this, for us, is very relevant in terms of building a community today, because of not only the people who left, which was the majority of people, the majority of Jews who wanted to live as Jews, but the people who stayed, stayed because they didn't want to-- their Jewish identity wasn’t the most important thing to them, or... It was generally mixed couples. If two people were working in 1968, very often they both lost jobs. So the people who could stay, who even had the opportunity to stay in Poland, who weren’t forced to emigrate, were those with a weaker Jewish identity. Also, one day somebody is a doctor, and the next day they go back to work and they find themselves cleaning the hospital, sweeping the floor. So this is the situation in 1968. People who stayed, stayed because they didn’t want to live openly as Jews. Their Polish identity was much stronger than their Jewish identity, and it was just something that wasn’t at the forefront of their life. In terms of children, and I think this is very relevant, is that they pushed their children underground. If you chose to stay, for whatever reasons, in 1968, you did so and you raised your children not as Jews at all. In other words, not only without a strong Jewish identity, but perhaps, your children don’t know that they’re Jewish. 1989 happens, nobody expected it. Of course, seems like Ronald Regan knew all along, but he might have been the only one. (Laughter) Suddenly people are allowed to, more or less, if any of us are, be what they want to be, explore what they want to explore. And this 50-year war, really, that was in Poland between 1939 and 1989, is now over, and people can talk about whatever they want to talk about. And one of the taboo subjects, one thing that people didn’t talk about, really, before that, was of course, the question of Jews. After 1989, we have some organizations that come into existence. [Looking] at those organizations, we’re essentially talking about a very small amount of people, maybe a few thousand at most, in all of Poland, the majority in Warsaw. In Krakow, you’re talking about an official community, after 1989, maybe 150 people, which is tiny, nothing really. The reason Warsaw-- The reason most of these organizations really came into existence in Warsaw, or are much stronger in Warsaw, I think that... For me, there is a nice quote by a local Cracovian, a Jewish historian who passed away recently. He said that in Warsaw, the Jews became communists, and in Krakow, the Jews became Catholics, and it’s an easier path back from communism than from Catholicism, so... (Laughter) So now, after 1989, we have these small institutions, these older people that are involved, but suddenly, people that are interested, that hear stories from their grandparents, find something in a cupboard, strange photos of people that look like [the people in] photos we saw before. And they’re starting to explore things, starting to look around. Also at this time, we have the Jewish cultural festival which began right before 1989, it’s just now on its 20th year. People come to Krakow, and if you haven’t been, I strongly suggest it. People are celebrating Jewish culture. You have a museum a few years later, the Galicia Jewish Museum that opens, you have a Center for Jewish Culture. Everything Jewish is trendy and interesting, people are exploring the Jewish question, fascinating. The one thing that’s missing from what people call “a Jewish Renaissance” is, of course, the thing that I would say in many ways is, I would say, necessary for a Jewish Renaissance, which is, of course, Jews. (Laughter) So, not so easy. Now, people that came of age after 1989, students and what have you, these are people not so-- they weren’t as burdened by the past. In other words, they weren’t pushed away from the whole question of their identity, Jewish identity, by their parents. So you have people that were older, people who are Jewish, too old not to be Jewish, let’s say, and you have students who are curious and into finding out about their identity, and [who] were able to explore their Jewishness. But in the middle, there’s really something lacking. And this is the situation we find ourselves in. Or we found ourselves in, I should say. Now, how do we get from this, to a Jewish community center in Krakow? Prince Charles! Obviously. (Laughter) The photo is not necessary, you knew the answer already. What is Prince Charles doing? What is his motivation to get involved in a Jewish community center in Krakow? If any of you know, than you know better than I do, because I have no idea. (Laughter) What I do know is the story, though. In 2002, His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, was in Krakow, as part of an official visit. He met with some older Jews from the community, was moved by their story, which we just went through a little bit, and wanted to do something to help. He went back to England, got in touch with a charity called the World Jewish Relief, who during the War did the Kindertransport, under a different name, got a lot of Jewish children out of Europe, saved them. And he presented his idea. Well, you don’t really say no to Prince Charles, of course... Well, not many people do. But they did say: "Why not do something a bit more forward-looking. Instead of a retirement home, or a center for these older people, which is the community at this point, let's build a community center and do something more forward-looking." Prince Charles agreed, fair enough, and… There we go. I should tell you this is not a horrible act of antisemitism. (Laughter) He was only showing the hammer to the Chief Rabbi of Galicia, Edgar Gluck. So we fast-forward to this nice day, April 29th, 2008, a year and a half ago, almost two years. Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, which is the official title of Camilla, came and opened the Center. Now, we have the Center, somehow, which, to be honest, was only built because of Prince Charles’s involvement. Nobody else, certainly not in the Jewish world, really had much faith in the future of Krakow. People in Warsaw, of course -- "Why isn’t it in Warsaw?” -- Not everything has to be in Warsaw. (Laughter) So, we have this Center, there is a lot of good feeling, you know, in terms of the local population. Everybody is interested in Jewish life. I should say there’s a strong Jewish Studies department in Krakow, you have 200 students getting a Master’s degree at any time in Jewish Studies, almost none of whom are Jewish. So all the elements are there. Again, we need Jews. There’s the building. Very nice. By the way, Prince Charles’s architect had to go over all the plans and agree, it’s probably why it took 5 years to build it. So what do we do with the Center? How do we find the Jews that we know are out there? It’s not possible there were 3.5 million Jews before the War, and there are 5,000 in Poland, it’s just not possible. And again, for us, when we say “Jews,” we’re not talking about necessarily somebody who, according to Jewish tradition, has a Jewish mother. For us, any kind of background, maybe not background all the way to Adam, which would make all of you Jewish as well... (Laughter) But going back a little bit. So we try to be a very open, very warm, welcoming, non-scary place. Again, when most people have-- most Poles have this image of Jews in their head, that’s before the War, this very strong pre-War image. And a place like a synagogue is not the first entry for them. So we try to be very colorful with everything. These are shots from the opening. In other words, not only the idea of not only being a place where people, who are already comfortable and feel OK with being Jewish, but a place for everybody. Internally, we have a problem, demographically, which I talked a little bit about. You have older people, who have a very active senior club, the older people who have always been Jewish, and they’re Jewish, and they’re in the building every day. To be honest, it’s not a bad thing to be a senior, at least in Jewish Krakow, because they sit there and drink all day. It’s not a very bad life. (Laughter) And we have students, an active student program. In the middle is the difficult thing, because the people now that are -- I don’t know, a lot of you are young, but for me, I’ll also put myself in the young set, but no -- 40-50, these are people that were pushed away by their parents from Judaism. So those are the people now with families and children, and it’s difficult for us to attract them. So from a community-building point of view, there is a bit of a break. And this, for us, is really a problem, and we’re trying to have a nursery, we have a Sunday school. I should mention a few other things -- belly dance -- we have, Shabbat Dinner every week. But the elements are there, in Krakow, internally, for a real Jewish revival. Not a Jewish revival, a “Jewish Jewish revival”. So not only interested people, 10,000 people at the Jewish festival, listening to klezmer music, but actual Jews, which-- or, people that have some Jewish roots, and want to find their way back in. Internally, everything is there, in Krakow. We have all this, we have a very secure situation, we have an intact city -- Ha-ha, Warsaw! (Laughter) An intact Jewish community, an intact Jewish neighborhood. We have seven synagogues, a Jewish Community Center, Jewish Cultural Center, Jewish Museum. And we have no security issues. In other words, these days more and more in the world, when there's metal detectors in any Jewish building. Those of you, people who are here from Berlin -- there are armed soldiers in front of most [buildings] in Germany. Actually, all over Europe you have a situation now with security. In Krakow, we don’t feel any of those things, so we feel very lucky and very safe there. The problem though is, not only in Poland do people see these black-and-white photos as what the Jewish situation in Poland is like. This is how the outside world sees it as well, and certainly the Jewish world. You have a lot of Jewish tourism that comes through Krakow, and they call it "heritage tours." Which is an interesting word to me, the euphemism. A certain euphemism when we look at the word, “heritage,” is that they come to Poland, go from Majdanek to Treblinka, to Auschwitz, maybe a few minutes at Schindler’s factory, a little bit of the ghetto, and fly back. And to me, this is a very difficult thing. I make a point sometimes and think about the idea of a second-generation Japanese American, who would want to go on a heritage tour of Japan. His father was a first-generation, born and lived in San Francisco, let’s say, a large Japanese population. The father decides to take him back to see the Old Country, to explore the heritage. They land in Tokyo, take a bus to Hiroshima, back to Nagasaki, from Nagasaki to the airport, and they get on the flight back. The idea that that’s “heritage” would be obscene to us. Yet in the Jewish world, the idea that going from camp to camp, to ghetto, to camp, to cemetery, is “heritage,” is accepted, or has been accepted, and we're very much trying to change that. And that, for us, is really one of our largest-- an important mission, one of our largest missions, and most difficult, because most of the elements are there now in Krakow, for a strong, resurgent, vibrant Jewish community, but we’re still small enough that we need to connect to the outside world. And this is really something, for us, that’s important. I will say that people questioned, certainly after building the Center -- “You have no Jews there, what are they doing, building a Center? Ha-ha, Prince Charles, build it in Warsaw, who cares” -- all these things, we heard. But I think that we, in Krakow, have a special mission, not only in the Jewish world, but in the larger world, which is: Because it’s near Auschwitz, and because of the special difficulties, and because so many tourists come through Krakow, and so many of them are going to Auschwitz. And I think that the idea that somebody can spend the day, spend the morning, in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and feel what they feel, not only from the Jewish point of view, because for me it’s larger than a Jewish question, I think what’s happened there is, on a level, we question humanity itself. And I think the idea that you can go and see what happened there, and go see the crematoria, and then, later in the afternoon, walk past a Jewish community center, in this community that had been so completely destroyed and decimated by the War, and see Sunday school, Jewish weddings... Or, one Jewish wedding. (Laughter) To be able to go to Krakow and to see this, I think, makes you understand-- Oh, there we go. Some more of the parties. It makes you understand that not only does Jewish life go on after a tragedy like the Holocaust, but -- in general -- life goes on. Thank you. (Applause) Ralph Talmont: Mazel tov! Jonathan Ornstein: Toda. R.T.: All I can say is, the response in this room is possibly an indication of just how important the subject, a conversation like this, is. Now, you’re going to have to spend time with Michal here and talk about stories, because it seems to me that there are a lot of stories that need to be transferred from generation to generation. Interestingly, though, very often the generation in the middle gets skipped, because it’s the grandparent telling the stories to the young ones. How does that work at the Center? J.O.: I think the main challenge is that these stories, whilst it's a good thing that these stories are being told from grandparents to grandchildren, that the children are excluded. So, interestingly, at the Center we have a very strong senior program, we have Sunday school and a nursery. Last year on Grandparents Day we wanted to do something, and have grandparents go to the cinema with the grandchildren. So we did this. The only problem was that grandchildren-- grandparents went with grandchildren, just with someone else’s grandchildren, because these people’s families weren’t really involved. So the necessity of telling these stories-- To build a community, you need really every generation involved, and if you skip a generation, it breaks the chain, so we’re trying to rebuild the missing links in that chain. R.T.: Thank you. J.O.: Thank you. (Applause)

Video Details

Duration: 17 minutes and 22 seconds
Country: Poland
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDxWarsaw
Director: TEDxWarsaw
Views: 124
Posted by: tedxwarsaw on Mar 16, 2010

Jonathan Ornstein hails from New York City but has made his home in Kraków where he is the director of the Jewish Community Centre an organisation conceived of and opened by HRH, the Prince of Wales.

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