Diana Wichtel, while researching the early life and family of her father, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, visited the Polish city of Kraków. Here she writes about its attempt to recreate the world of its lost Jews.

We went to Kraków first. I thought I recalled my father saying he was brought up in Warsaw but born in Kraków but any documents I've found have him born in Warsaw. Maybe he lived in Kraków for a while.

Standing in the line at the airport there was a feeling of dread. I was stepping on soil where my people were hunted like animals. Going back to Poland: that's how the children of Polish survivors catch themselves describing it, even if we've never been near the place, a place in imagination full of the sepia-tinted lost. To be there is to realise the past is more dynamic and dimensional than you ever thought.

Diana Wichtel, author of Driving to Treblinka, non-fiction winner in the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Photo / Greg Bowker
Diana Wichtel, author of Driving to Treblinka, non-fiction winner in the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Photo / Greg Bowker

In 2010 we breathed it. We stayed in Kazimierz, the district where before the war many of Kraków's over 60,000 Jewish inhabitants lived. Fewer than 6,000 survived the Holocaust. By 1978 the Jewish population could be numbered in the hundreds. Kazimierz was left to squatters, addicts, bohemians.

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By the time we visit, the district has become a sort of Jewish revival theme park. Our hotel featured in the movie Schindler's List. It has the town's only mikveh – ritual Jewish bath – and an apparently therapeutic salt grotto in the cellar. The shops are full of dubious tchotchkes, rows of carved wooden figures of stereotypical Jews. Very popular are zydki, bearded little "lucky" Jews carrying a bag of loot, counting money, or just holding a coin. I read there's a tradition of turning your lucky Jew over on the Sabbath so their money falls out. Some take them along to football games for luck. If your team doesn't win it's the Jew's fault.

Is it nostalgia, as the sales pitch goes, or anti-Semitism? What is disturbing and mesmerising about Kazimierz is that it feels like both: sentimental yearning for a vibrant vanished culture coupled with evasion about what actually happened to all those "lucky" Jews and their money bags.

Kazimierz has Jewish restaurants, klezmer bands: everything but actual Jews. Some Jewish visitors are charmed. Others use words such as "Shtetl chic" and "Jewrassic Park". It's funny. It's grotesque. Polish Jewish journalist Konstanty Gebert put the contemporary experience of Jewish absence in Poland like this: "You cannot have genocide and then have people live as if everything is normal. It's like when you lose a limb. Poland is suffering from Jewish phantom pain."

One night we order cholent, a traditional Jewish stew, in a restaurant on Szeroka Street called, mistily, Once Upon a Time in Kazimierz. Several fashionably distressed old Jewish shops have been knocked together and decorated with evocative memorabilia. It's an example of what I come to think of as the slippage we will find everywhere in Poland. Many things related to Jews and Jewishness are just a little – or a lot – off-key.

Souvenirs in Kazimierz, former Jewish quarter in Krakow, Poland. Photo / Getty Images
Souvenirs in Kazimierz, former Jewish quarter in Krakow, Poland. Photo / Getty Images

The menu promises a "trip down memory lane" to a pre-war idyll when Jews and Gentiles lived happily together. "All barriers between them seemed to just disappear and melt away." The shop sign boards "still proudly announce their owners' names, today with their much-weathered paint and names flaking off": Stanisław Nowak, Benjamin Holcer, Szymon Kac, Chajim Kohan. "Sit down at the original carpenter's workbench," urges the menu, "touch the flywheel of an ancient sewing machine." I turn over the page to read the fate of the owners of the fading names proudly displayed outside, those who built at the bench and worked the sewing machine. Not a word. The truth wouldn't be good for the appetite.

Are the owners of the restaurant Jewish? I ask our waitress. "No," she says. There's the conversation-stopping look I will see a lot in Poland: shutters sliding down. Let's not talk about that.

I'm familiar with this. In 1968, under the guise of anti-Zionism, an anti-Semitic campaign drove thousands of the small number of remaining Jews from the country. A beautiful coffee-table book called Remnants: The Last Jews of Poland came out in the 1980s, when it seemed there would soon be no Polish Jews left. I asked a Polish acquaintance about the dwindling numbers. "Oh," he said airily, "they all wanted to go live somewhere else." The look. We didn't pursue the matter.

Some of the Jewish revival is being led by Jewish organisations and by people finally connecting with their Jewish heritage, suppressed during the communist era. But this renewal runs headlong into Polish nationalism, which thrives on anti-Semitism while denying it exists. There's a sense that Polish Jews are Jews, not Poles. There's a refusal to acknowledge pogroms like those in Jedwabne in 1941 and Kielce in 1946.

While we are in Poland the Kraków Post runs an interview with a Polish academic, Aleksander Skotnicki, whose grandmother was killed for helping to save Jews during the Holocaust. The professor was being honoured for his work on Jewish heritage. He was asked about Fear, the second book by a Polish-born American academic, Jan T. Gross, on the subject of Polish wartime and post-war anti-Semitism. The book addresses the hostility and violence—including massacres like Kielce—experienced by survivors who tried to return home.

"What he says is true," Skotnicki says. But he is concerned about the book. "If it is the only source of information for a reader about Poland and Jews, then of course people will say, 'Ah, everybody was eating Jews for breakfast, lunch and dinner.'"

Gross launched Fear in Warsaw. Time magazine reported cries of "Lie!" and "Slander!" and a police presence. Gross has described his work as "a confrontation with ghosts in the consciousness of Polish society". As I write, he is under investigation by the Polish public prosecutor general, who is deciding whether to try him for damaging Poland's reputation.
In 2010 the Jewish Museum in the Old Synagogue of Kazimierz is busy. It has traces of sixteenth-century murals still visible. The nearby Remuh Synagogue also dates from the sixteenth century. We wander among the broken stones, scanning them for names. They are in Hebrew.

There is an exchange with the caretaker.

"Is there a list of names in English?"

"No."

Some of my father's large religious family would have surely prayed here. In the graveyard and the synagogue, my partner Chris, who has a fractured Jewish heritage, puts on a yarmulke. I cry. Later he tells me that while photographing headstones that had been taken by the Nazis for roads or buildings he felt a powerful connection to something he'd always shrugged off. "If I had been here then," he found himself thinking, "these things would have happened to me."

Extract from Driving to Treblinka: A long search for a lost father by Diana Wichtel (Awa Press, $45). Her book was this week named the best book of non-fiction at the Ockham New Zealand national book awards.