The fragile rebirth of Polish Jewry

A NY native, Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich guides a surprising Jewish renaissance.

By SUZANNE SELENGUT
December 4, 2006 19:17
The fragile rebirth of Polish Jewry

polish jews. (photo credit: AP)

 
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When Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich was punched and pepper-sprayed on a Warsaw street in May while his attacker shouted "Poland for the Poles," it may have seemed to some that history was repeating itself. Ninety percent of Poland's once thriving, 3.5-million-strong Jewish community died in the Holocaust and an estimated 2,000 more were killed in Polish pogroms after the war's end. Yet Schudrich, a native New Yorker, is surprisingly upbeat about the fate of Polish Jewry. In an interview in Jerusalem with The Jerusalem Post, he said he does not feel fearful in his adopted country and he continues to remain active in its surprising Jewish renaissance, a project he has been working on since 1990. Born in 1955, Schudrich first visited Poland in 1973, decades after his grandparents had left the country to escape World War II. Returning to Poland several times in the 70s and 80s, he spent the summer of 1979 in Krakow studying Polish at Jagellonian University. After serving as a rabbi in Tokyo, he moved to Poland with his family in 1990, where he was employed by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. He has been rabbi of Warsaw and Lodz since 2000 and since 2004 has also served as Poland's chief rabbi. "A person who thinks about living a Jewish life in Poland can now find some of the basic elements of Judaism there. Community life has strengthened," he said. Schudrich reported that in addition to daily prayers at the Warsaw synagogue, other aspects of observant Jewish life are also present. There is the Lauder Morasha School - pre-kindergarten to ninth grade - funded by the Lauder Foundation, youth groups, adult education, a ritual bath and regular Talmud classes. A magazine, Midrash, is published monthly, as is a community newsletter. Jewish life is also experiencing new growth outside Warsaw. Lodz, Krakow, Katowice, Wroclaw and several other cities have services on a regular basis. The Union of Jewish Communities of Poland, an umbrella body of eight Jewish communities, includes all the towns in Poland with considerable Jewish populations, while a second organization, the Cultural and Social Association of Jews, also has a large membership, mostly overlapping with the union. Funding for communal life comes from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Lauder Foundation, the Ted Taube Foundation and the restitution of communal property, which Schudrich called "a slow process." And, he said, kosher slaughter has become very competitive in the country. Since Poland is now part of the European Union, meat slaughtered there can be sent all over Europe, spurring the industry. Yet, he explained, Polish Jewry is not only in the process of renewal, it is also struggling to define itself in an atmosphere dominated by the painful past, in which Jewish identity was for so long a shameful and often hidden part of people's lives. One of the central issues surrounds the question of who is Jewish in Poland today. "The best answer is that it is somebody who considers himself Jewish, or whom others see as such," said Schudrich. As for how many Jews there are, he estimates at least 20,000 but stresses that "it is impossible to tell" for sure. ALTHOUGH SOME survivors tried to restart the Polish-Jewish community after the Holocaust, by 1948 many of them had left. There was another major exodus in 1956 and then a further major wave of emigration in 1968-1969. Thereafter, almost all the Jews remaining in Poland stopped identifying as Jewish, he explained. This began to change in 1989, when communism collapsed and young people began asking questions. Since that time, thousands of Poles have discovered their Jewish roots. Frequently, they start wondering why one of their parents or grandparents has no living relatives and the questions lead them to seek out the rabbi. A hot line exists for people who think they may be Jewish to call and get more information, making it easier on those whose families may not approve. "For outsiders, it is difficult to understand that the demise of communism led not only to economic and political turmoil but also to social upheaval. Suddenly taboo questions could be asked," Schudrich noted. He added that these root-seeking Poles come in two broad categories: those who truly did not know they were Jewish and those who knew but "considered it a subject one does not talk about in polite company." Some in the second category are the offspring of Polish Jews who survived the war with false ID papers or survived the camps and decided to start over with a different religious identity. "What is common to the two categories is that those born after 1938 had no Jewish education whatsoever. It does not matter whether they came from a religious family or not. The only ones having had a Jewish education are some of the older ones," Schudrich said. He is focused on providing that missing education to the many seekers who come his way. "It is my conviction that the young people there deserve our attention. They were denied information by their parents and grandparents and persecuted by their government, while the Jewish world was unaware they existed," he said. He told of one young woman who discovered her heritage in the mid-1990s while preparing for her grandmother's funeral. She found papers with her grandmother's real last name, which sounded very Jewish. Although her mother at first denied their former faith, she eventually admitted that it was true and added, "Don't tell your father, my husband, he does not know." Another case involved a young Polish couple, both anti-Semitic skinheads, who met in high school and fell in love. After they had a child, the woman discovered she was Jewish. Three years later, after a second child, she decided to explore her Judaism and prepared a Shabbat meal. While her husband's parents were very upset over her observance, her husband supported her fully. "Finally [his] parents admitted why they were opposed to doing Jewish things: They were both hidden Jews. The marriage of the young couple was that of two Jews, who have two Jewish children and are now active Orthodox members of the Warsaw Jewish community," Schudrich recounted. Yet this same story - which he calls "from skinhead to covered head" - also illustrates the problematic element in Polish-Jewish identity, as the young Orthodox man has several brothers who remained skinheads. Schudrich recalled when one of the brothers came to the synagogue to find the young man and ended up participating in the minyan. "Does that make him Jewish?" Schudrich mused. Pressure from family members and friends not to reveal one's Jewishness remains a fact of life in Poland. The granddaughter of the president of the country's senate had her bat mitzva a few years ago, despite pressure from her grandfather not to reveal that his wife was Jewish. Another such instance took place during the second intifada, when a pro-Israel demonstration being televised instilled fear in the young people participating. Many of their parents were still concealing their Jewish identity and pressured their children not to do anything publicly Jewish. Such fears underline the unique blend of past and present that Polish Jews must negotiate as they move forward. WHILE JEWISH education is a constant focus, Schudrich said it must be combined with the task of preserving the Jewish history of the area, including the issue of Jewish cemeteries - there are at least 1,400 in Poland. "In our tradition, they maintain their holiness. Even though we do our best, preserving them is a task beyond our capabilities," Schudrich said. In addition to known cemeteries, there are mass graves, many of which are unmarked and unknown. He explained that on the way to death camps, the Germans would often murder the sick, and it is difficult to identify where the murders took place because there are no surviving Jewish witnesses and those who committed the crimes certainly didn't talk about them. "[But] there is often an anecdotal source. Young children often watched murders from a distance. They were not as smart as adults, who stayed away. We regularly get information from people who tell us that before they die, they want us to know that Jews are buried in a certain place. We have not dealt with this in a systematic way, but I want to give more attention to it in the future. We can then pay some tribute to those who were murdered during the war and make sure that their physical remains are properly protected," Schudrich said. Polish citizens also call him when they find bones while digging on their properties. Such discoveries, he said, must have occurred during the communist regime, too, but people were afraid to tell. Finding bones is a tangible reminder of the collective responsibility for the Holocaust not only of the Nazis who occupied Poland, but also of Poles themselves, many of whom still deny culpability. "For a long time the Poles had been told that they were solely victims. It has only become widely known in recent years that during the war there were horrible murders of Jews initiated and executed by Poles," Schudrich said. The most publicized case is the mass murder of perhaps as many as 1,500 Jews in Jedwabne, a small northeastern village, on July, 10, 1941. Described in the book Neighbors by American historian Jan Gross, Jews there were killed not only by Germans but also by dozens if not hundreds of their Polish neighbors, who knew them well. The hundreds of Jews initially surviving were burned alive in a barn by Poles. While many still deny these parts of history, there has been a move since 1989 in Poland to reexamine its relations with Jews, Schudrich said. He explained that the teachings of Pope John Paul II against anti-Semitism had a part in this new movement, as did Poland's admiration of the US where anti-Semitism is politically incorrect. "A third reason is more speculative. Among the younger generation there is a rejection of everything their parents and grandparents stood for. They believe the opposite of the older generation, which was communist and anti-Semitic. Besides being a fad, there is a growing understanding that the Jews were part of the Polish landscape and that the Germans killed them, to some extent with Polish collaboration. This also leads to a feeling of obligation to perpetuate Jewish memory," he said. YET DESPITE the trend toward Jewish renewal, some anti-Semites have become empowered in Poland's political system recently, he said. The 2005 parliamentary elections were won by the right-of-center Law and Justice Party, which while not anti-Semitic in its platform did grant exclusive interviews to Radio Maria, a Catholic and virulently anti-Semitic radio station, according to Schudrich. At the same time, the party's candidates were pro-Israel and helpful on Jewish issues, he says. "The situation got worse in May 2006. The Law and Justice Party wanted to end their minority government status. They entered into a coalition with an extreme-left party, as well as an extreme-right party called the Polish Families League, which is the same name as a pre-war anti-Semitic party. They were proud that their predecessors had instigated a numerus clausus [quota] for Jews at Polish universities and that Jews who were admitted had to sit in the back of the lecture hall," Schudrich said. He added that "to make matters worse," Roman Giertych, the party's leader, became deputy prime minister and minister of education, thus empowering the anti-Semitic element. While he believes many Poles want the party out of government and added that large numbers of high-school students have signed a petition to that effect, he confirmed that as a leader of a small Jewish community, he preferred to stay out of internal political debates. However, when Israeli Ambassador David Peleg said on television that Israel would boycott Giertych, Schudrich supported him, "because he was right." Still, although the country's anti-Semitic element touched him personally, Schudrich maintained that "if Polish politics don't deteriorate too much, and the economy keeps up, the community will grow both in quantity and quality." And even if there are some departures to Israel, the rabbi sees a future for Polish Jewry. "There is a younger generation now that is learning," he said, "and so are the adults." Manfred Gerstenfeld is head of the Jerusalem Center for Pubic Affairs.

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