In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, instantly murdering about 20,000 Jews and bombing approximately 50,000 Jewish-owned factories, workshops and stores in more than 120 local communities. Several hundred synagogues were also destroyed.
Within a month, all Polish Jews were either confined to ghettos or in hiding.
Then the Nazis began liquidating the ghettos. Within 18 months, almost all of them had been emptied. Following a period of calculated mass murder, Poland’s once-thriving Jewish population of 3.3 million was diminished to 100,000.
Poland, under Soviet rule and a curtain of communism, forced what remained of its Jewish population to emigrate or to go into hiding. Many converted or denied their faith. In 2013, only approximately 3,000 to 4,000 Jews register themselves as Jewish. But it is believed that in Poland there are an estimated 25,000 Jews among a population of 38.5 million people.
And slowly, more and more Jewish faces are starting to appear. Some call it a renaissance. Others call it a resurgence. But a once dark and diminished community, it seems, is slowly — and maybe not as slowly as one would think — starting to emerge.
The Coordinating Committee of Jewish Organizations in the Polish Republic coordinates the activities of the different Jewish organizations in Poland. The Lauder Foundation has established a number of clubs and events for the Jewish youth, as well as a primary school in Warsaw. And through the assistance of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, not only are the survivors and other elderly being cared for, but young Jews also are reconnecting to Judaism and working to secure a new and vibrant future for what was once Europe’s largest Jewish community.
It is inspiring.
“It’s changing,” said Polish-Jewish fashion designer Antonina Samecka in an article published by JDC. “It’s not like you think in Poland anymore.”
It Takes Time
Seven mainstream Orthodox rabbis. Three Chabad rabbis. Three Reform/ progressive rabbis. That is how many clergy are actively working in Poland each day.
Rabbi Michael Schudrich serves as the chief rabbi of Poland. He visited Poland for the first time in the 1970s but moved there beginning in 1990. He was appointed to his post in 2004.
Rabbi Schudrich said the Polish-Jewish resurgence has progressed in three or four stages. In the early 1990s, the question was, “Are there still Jews in Poland?” Then, as they were slowly found, the question became, “Do they want to be Jewish?” Finally, “How can we remake this Jewish community? How can we help Polish Jews?”
“I am not here to tell people what they must do,” said Rabbi Schudrich of when someone comes to him and says he or she might be Jewish. “I am here to teach them what Jewish tradition says, and they have to decide what they want to do with that.”
Many learn Hebrew and attend a synagogue or a lecture. Some have documentation that they are Jewish and others undergo a conversion process. It is all very personal, and it all takes time.
Rabbi Schudrich talks about one woman who 18 years ago approached him and told her that her mother’s grandmother died of typhus in 1842; Jews were more likely to die of the disease back then. She said her mother cooked Jewish foods, such as tzimmes and kept a special pot in which to cook milk (as opposed to meat).
“Am I Jewish?” she asked me, recalled the rabbi. “That is a very hard question. We talked about it. … We talked, and then she left. That same woman came back three months ago and said, ‘Now I am ready to be Jewish.’”
He continued, “It is a progress and a process. We are in the middle of a process. … The key is openness, accepting people where they are and as who they are and letting them make their journey to their Jewish identity in a way that makes sense for them.”
Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis expressed similar sentiments. The rabbi of a small town called Katowice, he said only about 200 Jews live in a population of three million people there. He said his job is about “achdut” [Jewish unity], and he looks at what he does as “an opportunity to galvanize the people, to keep them moving forward.”
Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak oversees the Jewish Renewal or progressive Judaism movement in Poland. He said that as many as 30 people convert to Judaism through his movement per year. The group just completed its first progressive prayer book, which is Hebrew translated and transliterated into Polish.
There was a massively successful Limmud program this past year as well.
“A lot of people are coming forward now,” said Rabbi Beliak. “No one has papers. No one can prove their Jewish identity. They might have a siddur they found in the attic. … We are not in control of everything the way we would like to think we are. There is a migration of Jewish souls back [to Judaism], and I cannot explain why people are coming back in rational terms.”
Rabbi Schudrich equated the resurgence of Judaism to the Marranos or “Secret Jews” of the Iberian Peninsula, who maintained a private religious identity behind a façade of Catholicism. However, said Jonathan Ornstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Krakow, “We are not waiting 500 years to see who has Jewish roots.”
To be fair, anti-Semitism does still exist in Poland, though according to those on the ground it is not on the upswing as we are seeing in many European and Eastern European countries. Joanna Auron-Górska, who works with the progressive Beit Polska, said the younger generation harbors less prejudice and less fear than their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. She countered that while many surveys paint young Poles as racist and anti-Semitics, her personal experience is different.
“People in their 20s and 30s are the most tolerant people. … They are curious, but they are willing to help,” she said.
On the day that she spoke with the JT, she had come from the police department. There she had been reporting a website that listed Jewish people participating in her programs as targets for anti-Semitic attacks. There has been nothing physical directly pointed at Jews, she said, but in the smaller towns — outside of Krakow and Warsaw — she said there is more curiosity.
Rabbi Ellis said similarly that there are certain routes he thinks twice before taking and that whereas African-Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, in Poland he has seen very few. And Jews are almost as scarce — so people notice.
The call to action, said Lucia Goodhart, one Polish activist in an interview provided to the JT by Auron-Górska, is for the Diaspora Jewish community to be supportive.
She said, “If we have Jewish people who are making a life now in Poland, it behooves us, as our brothers’ keepers, to be involved positively.
Ornstein said this involvement is important for Diaspora Jews, too. He told the JT that the story of Polish Jewry is an important story of revival.
“It is not just for the Polish community, but for all of us, as a people. We are able to thrive despite the Holocaust,” he said. “We can connect to the loss, but also must connect to the growing and the thriving of Jewish community. We need to know about this as North American Jews.”
Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief — [email protected]