Interview with Ellen Germain, US Consul General in Krakow
By Justin Kadis
Justin Kadis: Will you tell me a little bit about your role as US Consul General here in Krakow?
Ellen Germain: Sure. I’m the head of the US Consul General here in Krakow and our job here is – 60% of our time is spent on consular affairs, which means visas for Poles who want to study or visit or do business in the US and of course services to American citizens – taking care of US citizens who live in the southern part of Poland. So that’s a little bit more than half of our work. The other half is public diplomacy – outreach to the Polish community in southern Poland and we try to strengthen the ties between the United States and Poland and we’re especially interested in reaching out to the younger generation of Poles to make sure that they know what America is like and that we’re strong allies and we care about Poland, are interested in promoting economic ties with Poland, political ties, social and cultural ties. We do all sorts of cultural exchanges as well as trade promotion and things like that.
What are some other places you’ve worked on behalf of the US government?
My first posting was actually Tel Aviv. There I did a year of consular work and a year as staff assistant to the ambassador. Which was great. And then I served in London, in Moscow, in Washington, in the office of Israel-Palestinian affairs, and in the office of Maghreb affairs, which is North Africa, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. And I also spent three months in Tripoli, Libya where I opened up our liaison office there in April 2004, which eventually became the embassy. This is while Qaddafi was still in power and we reestablished diplomatic relations with Libya. I was also in the office of Russian affairs. And then I went to Baghdad for a year. I was in New York at the US mission to the United Nations, which was great because I’m from New York. So it was wonderful to be home for a few years and the work at the UN was just fascinating; very intense, very fast paced, but really interesting. And then I studied Polish for a year before coming to Krakow.
And how long have you been here now?
As a foodie, I must ask – what’s your favorite restaurant here in Krakow?
Well, as a diplomat probably I shouldn’t be answering this, but I’ll give at least one answer. I love Pizza Garden, which is just over the Debniki Bridge. It’s run by a gentleman who spent 15 years in New York – in New York City – in Brooklyn – working at one of the most famous pizza places there. So it’s great pizza. So I love that.
If you don’t mind, we can move on to a couple of questions about the Jewish community.
What were your expectations of Jewish Krakow before arriving here?
I’m not sure that I really had expectations about Jewish Krakow. I knew that Krakow before the war had been one of the huge centers of Jewish life in Poland. When I got here about two years ago I arrived about a month before the high holidays. One of the first things I wanted to do was find out what kind of Jewish community there was and what the options were for going to synagogue and so I was really thrilled when I found out that there’s this really active, really diverse, and dynamic Jewish community in Krakow. Not only a traditional Jewish community, which is really important, but also the Jewish Community Centre, which is just doing an incredible job of reaching out to all parts of Krakow society. So I was thrilled when I came here and everyone was very welcoming – the rabbis, the community members, the community leaders. I was thrilled. It really helped to make me feel at home here in Poland.
Have you seen things changes at all over the two years you’ve been here?
I would say that generally in Poland I’ve been surprised by the level of interest in Jewish life – because I travel a lot. The consulate is responsible for the six southern provinces in Poland and it feels like in every city or town that I’ve visited there’s a restored Jewish cemetery or synagogue or it’s in the process of being restored. There are people in the local community and local governments who are interested in recovering and retaining the Jewish history, the Jewish presence and I’ve really only seen that increase in the two years I’ve been here. Krakow’s Jewish community itself – I’ve only seen it become more dynamic, more diverse. The impression I have is that the Jewish community here is growing.
You’ve done a fair amount of traveling – what would you say is unique to the Jewish community here compared to some of the places you’ve been?
Here in Poland, in Krakow – so many people are discovering their Jewish roots that they’ve gone, maybe for a generation or two without really knowing that they had a connection to Judaism and today there really seems to be an upsurge in interest among young Poles in rediscovering their connection – a Jewish grandparent, a great grandparent and I think that’s great. I think the Jewish institutions in Krakow, especially the JCC, are doing a really good job of reaching out to those people because it seems important to help foster that interest – encouraging diversity and understanding of the different groups that have traditionally made up Poland is a great thing.
With these people discovering their roots – a lot of people who don’t know about Jewish Poland would think that there’s not much of a future here, would you say that there is?
Certainly from what I’ve observed there seems to be. They seem to be participating in Jewish life and taking a real interest and a real active participation in trying to promote and build Jewish life and it’s very interesting for me to see because my grandmother was born in Poland – although in the northeast, Podlaskie region. She emigrated when she was a very little girl with her parents, my great grandparents. So, my family left here more than one hundred years ago to go America. It’s fascinating to me to see here that there is now this upsurge in Jewish life here.
You’ve mentioned the JCC a couple of times, we’ve spent high holidays there together, what does the center mean to you?
To me, the JCC is a welcoming, very warm place where I’ve met a lot of wonderful people, made a lot of friends, and it’s certainly one of the centers of Jewish life in Krakow. It was a special joy and surprise to discover that the head of the JCC, Jonathan and I went to the same high school in New York City. So who would have thought that we would end up in Krakow together?
This interviewed was conducted in English, but originally published in Polish in the June/July/August 2014 issue of JCC Krakow's magazine, Jesteśmy.