Yom Hashoah: Filling the Empty Spaces

Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of Krakow, once echoed with the comings and goings of nearly 70,000 Jews, but now only 300 remain. The streets still bear a resemblance to their pre-World War II days, with synagogues and carved signs in Hebrew for shops and restaurants. But now the quarter is most famous as the site of the filming of "Schindler's List." Tourists come for the food, the recognition of a movie set, the outdoor cafes and -- occasionally -- to hear about all that was lost. As an American Jew, I find the place suffused with sadness. The worn four story buildings overlooking the cafe where my family dines must once have housed families like my own. I can't enjoy the warm sunshine and the beet soup without reflecting on the misery that once took hold of this place. So much is gone now.

This week people the world over will observe Yom Hashoah (Days of Remembrance) for the millions of Jews who perished during the Holocaust. The date -- April 21 this year -- actually commemorates the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

In Krakow, two weeks before Yom Hashoah, the Jews of Krakow are mostly ghosts. At Remuh Synagogue -- one of only two that remain open -- the cemetery is ill-tended. Like much of Krakow, cigarette butts and trash litter the ground. Where is the national pride, or shame? My father -- eighty years old and hale still -- wanders among the tombs wearing a kippah. He weeps on the shoulder of my teenage daughter, unable to say more than that one of the graves may be his great-grandfather's.

I wander among the graves, placing stones on those that are bare. Each of these Jews long gone was once loved, and I want to leave a reminder of that. But these are the lucky ones who died of natural causes or disease. They died believing in the future of their families and their people. They had a place to be buried, even though the cemetery was desecrated by the Nazis. There is still a place for them in Krakow. Kazimierz is now filled with trendy new restaurants with names like Avocado. On a Saturday night, it is packed with young Poles -- impossibly thin and dressed in Euro-chic -- looking for excitement. The people who once inhabited these streets are long gone and their descendents who survived have not returned.

But Jewish tourists come, and congregate at the traditional Jewish restaurants that remain. We eat one evening in the Klezmer Hois, in a small dining room seating about 30 people. We are Americans, British, Canadians and Germans. I'm guessing most of the others are also Jewish. The food is nostalgic and filling -- kreplach, chopped liver, borscht, hamantaschen.

Later a Klezmer group begins to play Hava Nagilah as we nod and sway and try to fill the empty spaces.