KRAKOW, Poland, (JTA) — The model suburb of Nowa Huta was built here under a Communist philosophy of atheism.
Now it houses a workshop that manufactures menorahs -- popular with both Poles and tourists.
Metalodlew, a private company that was started 10 years ago, rents space from the Nowa Huta steelworks, a factory that is part of a complex established in the 1950s on the outskirts of Krakow.
In the workshop, menorahs are produced alongside plaques for Catholic cemetery plots and life-size bronze figures of Pope John Paul II.
The menorahs were originally designed by an artist; now they’re cast into a mold.
Menorahs are made and sold year round, alongside Metalodlew’s larger business of ship parts, plaques and smaller artistic pieces.
Other Judaica items can be custom-made but requests are rare, according to Pawel Bieniek, export sales manager for Metalodlew.
Waldemar Pietras, who runs the workshop, said all kinds of people buy the menorahs, which are sold in the gift shop located at the factory site.
“They know what they’re buying,” Bieniek says. “People like to have these things. They know about Jewish history.”
All the menorahs made at the factory have seven branches, a departure from the nine-armed versions most American Jews light to celebrate Chanukah.
Karolina Komarowska, a master’s student in Jewish studies at the Jagiellonian University here in Krakow, says most American Jews are largely unfamiliar with their design.
Komarowska, who also works at the Galicia Jewish Museum, says many Eastern European Jews traditionally used the seven-branched menorah.
“When Poles think about symbols of Judaism, they think Magen David and seven-armed menorah,” she says.
The custom is ancient: The Temple contained a seven-branched menorah, although the nine-branched version -- for the eight days of Chanukah, plus the shamash, or “lighting” candle -- is now more popular worldwide.
That the workshop is in Nowa Huta is something of an irony.
Nowa Huta was designed in the 1950 as a garden city, with housing blocs and greenery sharing space in a series of neighborhoods which spun out from a central plaza.
The centerpiece of Nowa Huta was the steelworks, which is located far from any mines or ores but which sought to offset the intellectual atmosphere that pervaded Krakow.
Workers were given jobs in various parts of the steelworks, and were assigned apartments nearby for convenient access to the factory.
Today, the factory languishes, buildings stand empty and many of the former workers and their families are unemployed, Bieniek says.
While communism has fallen, Poland has become infatuated with its Jewish past -- Poland, currently home to fewer than 5,000 Jews, had 3.5 million Jews before World War II.
In Krakow, one can find many examples of Judaica sold on Krakow’s main market square and in museums and specialty shops throughout the city, including Jewish stars, Torah-reading pointers, carved wooden figurines of old-fashioned Jews as well as menorahs.
Komorowska says the menorahs manufactured in Nowa Huta are often bought by Polish merchants who sell souvenirs to tourists and interested Poles.
“When people come to Krakow,” Kazimierz, the city’s historic Jewish district, “is something they all see along with the city center and Wawel Castle,” Komarowska says. “Tourists buy these things because they like Jewish people.”
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