A bisl Yiddish: Jewish presence in Poland

As Jews look more and more to modern Israel to inform their sense of Jewishness, young Poles learn about Yiddishkayt to inform their sense of Polishness.

July 21, 2013 14:16
2 minute read.
Haredi man leaves the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw

Haredi man leaves the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Most Israelis, and diaspora Jews for that matter, have difficultly understanding why Jews would want to study Yiddish, so when they hear about Polish goy immersing themselves in the rich culture, history and language of the Ashkenaz their puzzled looks tell all. Many fail to grasp how inextricably linked is the history of Jews in Poland with the history of Poland itself. As Jews look more and more to modern Israel to inform their sense of Jewishness, young Poles learn about Yiddishkayt to inform their sense of Polishness.

"There is the memory of the Jewish people even in the language," Warsaw resident Agnieszka explains of her native Polish. She was reminded of this throughout her childhood, being often told that she did things in a Jewish way, unaware of what exactly that meant. She began to learn Yiddish, in her hometown of Warsaw, to better understand the culture that informed  these comments.

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Not only in the language, but the memory of the Jewish people is also visibly present in Poland, often in the form of misused Jewish structures or objects. The remaining synagogue in Poznan was until recently used as a swimming pool, and storefronts bearing mezuzot no longer house Jewish businesses but cellphone shops and supermarkets.

The visual reminder of the Jewish life that once inhabited those structures inspires young people to dig deeper says Aleksandra who is from Wroclaw. People have begun to realize that Yiddish culture is connected with their familiar Polish history and are starting to take action.

Malgorzata (Gosia) from Kalisz says that many young Poles whose grandparents came from cities that had a Jewish majority, like her grandmother, may have had some Jewish or Yiddish language influence without being aware of it. Her grandmother still uses some Yiddish words.

"Yidish iz a shlisl tsu dem yidisher kultur (yiddish is the key to yiddish culture) and therefore a key to understanding an important piece of Polish history. The culture of our grandparents was connected to this Yiddish culture even if they weren't Jewish," says Gosia.

What is now one of the most homogenous countries in Europe, was once a place where multiculturalism and  coexistence abounded. Poles, Lithuanians, Ukranians, Belorussians, Germans and Jews called Poland home before the Second World War.

"My generation has lost this sense of multiculturalism," she continues, "We are all Polish, Catholic, unlike before when there were so many cultures living together in Poland. It is vital that we realize this and remember it. I’m trying to spread Yiddish around me as much as I can, because I think that it’s my sense of life."

The multicultural Poland that once was has begun to open itself to the possibility of regaining it's sense of diversity and cultural variation. This generation of Poles will certainly be a catalyst in continuing the tradition of Yiddish in Poland.

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