The vibrant Jewish community that nourished his ancestors is now only a few dozen strong. They tend the neglected splendors of the old synagogues with little joy or hope.
But Eric Strom, a 13-year-old American from Stamford, Conn., returned a spark of life to Krakow's surviving Jews today. Watched by his family, a visiting Auschwitz survivor and several dozen mostly aged Poles, he carried out his bar mitzvah in the 130-year-old Templus Synagogue of Krakow, prompting a celebration virtually unknown here since the end of World War II.
"I'd like to thank you all for letting me come here to celebrate my bar mitzvah with my family and the whole Polish country," Strom told the congregation after reading Torah passages in his religious initiation to manhood. He added later: "I think it means a lot to the people here. I hope they never forget it."
Clearly moved by the occasion, Polish men clustered around the blond, blue-eyed boy to toast his health with vodka beneath the elaborately carved and tiled columns.
Roza Jakabovitch, the inspiration of the transplanted ceremony, which stirred some jurisdictional disputes between Orthodox and Reform Jews here and in the United States, cried at the memories it brought back.
Jakabovitch said that during the years of Poland's occupation by Nazi Germany, a nephew returned from the United States to have his bar mitzvah here, but died before the ceremony could take place.
"It happened as I hoped," she said of today's celebration. "We can never see these things now, in Krakow."
Once a community of more than 60,000 with a local history going back centuries, Krakow's Jews were all but annihilated by shootings, starvation and Nazi death camps, including nearby Auschwitz, during the war. Many who survived emigrated after Poland was wrested from the Nazis by Soviet forces intent on installing a communist government.
Now, only about 600 faithful are believed to remain in Krakow, and only 20 or 30 regularly participate in services at the city's synagogues, some of which date to the 15th century.
Traditional ceremonies such as bar mitzvahs and marriages died out among the local community decades ago. So the bar mitzvah of Strom, himself only several generations removed from Polish Jewish ancestors, was taken as a symbol of continuity and hope.
"The people here are old. They are sad. They have nothing to feel strongly about -- every day is the same," said Jerzy Kichler, one of the few young Polish Jews who attended. "So this is very important for us. It brings us to our roots again."
The inspiration for the event came last April, when a group organized by the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies visited Krakow. Jakabovitch told its members how the aging community missed celebrations of bar mitzvahs, and was answered with a pledge that an effort would be made to arrange one.
Strom and his family agreed to make the trip after they were contacted by their own rabbi, Emily Korzenick, who had heard of the plan through a member of the group tour. Korzenick and the Stroms -- Eric, his parents Barry and Margery and his sister, Holly, 9 -- traveled here with funds raised by participants in the April tour.
They were accompanied by three of Eric's grandparents and Edward Blonder, an Auschwitz survivor now living in the United States who grew up near Krakow. Since arriving in Poland, the group also has been shadowed by two independent film makers and a large number of Polish and western journalists as they visited synagogues and cemeteries.
The mix of cultures and varied Jewish traditions has left both Poles and Americans a little dazed.
"The synagogues we saw were just beautiful," Barry Strom said after touring Krakow's old Jewish areas. "But it's sad to see synagogues that 45 years ago were filled with 200 or 300 people, where outside there were Jewish shops on every corner, and now it's all gone.
"Certainly there's a connection between the communities in the sense of carrying on traditions, but really the connection is dead," he added. "Here we had a thriving young community before the war, and now there's no one."
For their part, Krakow's Jews clearly were taken aback by the Strom party, with its television cameras and female rabbi. Under pressure from Orthodox groups in the United States and Israel, who help support the Krakow community financially, local leaders moved today's ceremony from the ancient Remu Synagogue and asked Korzenick and other women to sit separately in the Templus Synagogue's balcony, according to Orthodox practice.
Tension increased when two representatives of Jewish Orthodox groups unexpectedly arrived from New York and sought to conduct today's service. As the Krakow residents looked on, the visiting Americans disputed procedures among themselves during the service. Finally, Korzenick descended from the balcony, blessed Eric Strom, and delivered a short message, ignoring the protests of the Orthodox.
"When you do a thing like this, you don't know what's going to happen," Korzenick, of Scarsdale, N.Y., said later. "But many things came out of this. Some of the people who came felt close. We gave them something to draw close to."
Kichler, 37, an engineer, said the service inspired him in his efforts to rediscover Judaism with a small group of young people here. "It's very hard to be Jewish in Poland," he said. "I'm just beginning to feel proud of being Jewish."