KRAKOW, Poland – Greetings from Krakow.
I’m here teaching for the semester as visiting professor in studies in Central and Eastern Europe, a special English-language program in the Institute of History at Jagiellonian University.
I was first here in the early 1990s, just before I started my graduate study in East European Jewish history. I was here on a Fulbright grant from 1996 to 1997. I’ve done my best to return as often as I can. I’ve seen the city’s Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, transform from a quiet, run-down neighborhood into a lively, bustling center of Jewish heritage tourism.
When a colleague asked me to teach in the program last year, I was thrilled at the prospect of returning. It’s a charming city with a castle on the river, one of the most impressive market squares in Europe, and a ring of trees encircling the old town. And the Germans spared the city during World War II, since they were using it as the administrative headquarters for occupied Poland. The town’s spectacular architectural treasures survived the war, including the synagogues of Kazimierz. I’m fortunate the Western Reserve Historical Society granted me the leave from my work in the Cleveland Jewish Archives to take advantage of the teaching opportunity. I’ve been here since February and will return to the Jewish Archives in late July.
The studies in Central and Eastern Europe program attracts students from all over the world. I have students from Bangladesh, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Slovakia, Turkey, Ethiopia, and even Canada and the United States. I’m teaching three survey courses on the history of Central and Eastern Europe and Russia and an academic writing course. The survey courses are my opportunity to teach others about the diversity of the region, most especially the area’s Jewish history.
Even before classes started, I participated in a field trip with students through some of Poland’s smaller towns, including Kazimierz Dolny, where the Yiddish films "The Dybbuk" and "Yidl mitn fidl" were filmed in the 1930s. We also went to the killing center of Bełżec, now transformed into a moving memorial with an impressive museum and educational center.
I also had the chance to participate in the March of Remembrance commemorating the March 1943 liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. The commemoration is held every year. Participants march from the Place of the Heroes of the Ghetto to the Plaszow camp, less than 2 miles away. Several of my students came with me.
In addition to the teaching, I’m giving some talks related to my academic research, on the history of Jews in interwar Krakow and Jewish orphanages in pre-war Poland. I’m also doing my best to meet those who are working in and for the local Jewish community, including staff members of the Jewish Community Center and the Galicia Jewish Museum. I also met recently with a local genealogist, Jakub Czuprynski, who often works with families searching for their roots in Poland.
And I’m trying to get some travel in, too. I’ll be going to Kiev for several days, doing some research in Warsaw and giving a talk in Lodz. I look forward to sharing some of my travels with you.
Sean Martin is associate curator for Jewish history at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland.