Shelley Salamensky is a professor of Performance, European, Eurasian, and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a recent fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies.
Hanukkah commemorates persistence against overwhelming odds, when Jewish rebels in Judea defeated their Greek overlords and oil lamps meant to last a single day miraculously burned eight times as long. Five years ago I heard of what seemed another miracle. Despite having been nearly stamped out by the Nazis six decades earlier, the spirit of Jewish life in Poland had been kindled again in Kraków, near the farmlands where my family had lived for perhaps nine centuries.
Cafés, I was told, served jellied carp with raisins. Klezmer tunes bounced down the cobbled streets. Prewar shop signs had reappeared, flanking a bustling square as if its Jews had never left. The cooks and klezmorim, I later learned, were nearly all non-Jews, the crowds made up of tourists, the façades only that. Auschwitz, a mere hour away, remained a brutal warning against rosy nostalgia or frivolity. Still, I needed to see all this for myself. I went.