'It's impossible to be Jewish alone'

Poland's 'hidden Jews' convene in Krakow to regain a lost legacy.

October 28, 2007 01:06
4 minute read.
'It's impossible to be Jewish alone'

Krakow 248.88. (photo credit: )


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Just a half an hour from Auschwitz, in Krakow's former Jewish ghetto, a group of men in kippot hold hands and repeatedly sing in Hebrew, "Next year in Jerusalem." More than 150 "hidden Jews" have gathered this weekend in Krakow's historic Kazimierz district, where the city's Jewish quarter stood for centuries, to rediscover the Judaism that they "lost" two generations ago to escape Nazi persecution. Each story is different and yet the same: Only after their formative years did these individuals discover their religious identity, and often by chance. Most are not considered halachic Jews, and therefore undergo a five-year conversion process in Poland. The younger ones only have a single Jewish grandparent to tie them to the religion, but as they say here - that Jewish grandparent would have been enough to get them killed 60 years ago. "At first I had a big problem with being Jewish," says Ian Krasniewski, 20, of learning he was Jewish at age 14. "It's a problem for many Jews in Poland... I thought my twin brother and myself were the last Jews in Wroclaw." The gathering, the first of its kind, is the work of Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based organization that travels the world, helping Jews to grapple with their identity in places where they are among the smallest minority and culturally isolated from the rest of the Jewish world. The weekend conference aims to help Jewish youth understand their newfound roles as Jews, and show them that they are not alone in a country where 90 percent of the three million Jews for whom Poland was home prior to World War II were killed during the Holocaust. Among the events are panel discussions, lectures and talks, as well as a traditional Shabbat experience. At the Friday night service, the scene is a familiar one. A blue-eyed woman brings two little boys - blonde hair eclipsed by large kippot slipping off their heads - to light Shabbat candles. They squeal with delight and run away from the flames. The actual prayers begin late. It appears that the stereotype is true: No matter where, at a Jewish gathering it's impossible to bring the chatting to a stop and get to business. With a bird's-eye view from the women's section, the only colors visible amid the black three-piece suits are the splashes of turquoise satin, scarlet velvet and even a psychedelic swirl on the kippot below. After lunch, the youth break away to attend a seminar entitled "Why Being Jewish is Cool." Heads of youth movement groups across the country stand and describe their efforts to create Jewish communities in their respective cities. "I think it's impossible to be Jewish alone. Especially in Poland," says Krasniewski. "Some people live where theirs is the only Jewish family in the city." When Daniella, another participant, first moved to Krakow from Warsaw, there were little more than weekly Shabbat dinners to satisfy her need for a Jewish community, to say nothing of a forum to unite with Jews of her own age, so she decided to begin a youth group. At first, the fledgling group consisted of just 10 people meeting in Daniella's apartment. Today, there are more than 40 members and they even have their own rabbi to lead them. "Now there is much more possibility in Krakow," Daniella says. "And many people are doing Jewish things outside the organization... [But] the most interesting thing is meeting other Jews." Anna Mezga, who runs a Reform Jewish youth organization in Warsaw, says that "some people are stuck in the middle [but] they want to be Jewish and be around other Jews." But there are also integration issues with the creation of this new community - so new, in fact, that the first bat mitzva in Poland was only 10 years ago, for which, the honoree herself says, she is "very famous." The gathering represents the many ways of practicing Judaism and yet the event itself is strictly Orthodox. The young Jews, some of whom are still coming to grips with their newfound religious identity, are already divided on just how Shabbat should be kept. A heated argument breaks out on the street outside the seminar between Asia, a petite blonde girl in fashionable jeans, and Shimon, a young man in a dark suit and kippa. They disagree over the treatment a fellow Jew received for trying to photograph some impromptu dancing that took place during Shabbat lunch. Asia argues that the man was treated much too aggressively, which was an embarrassment to the community. Shimon, who is in his final year of conversion, believes that if a Jew wants to take photographs alone in his room on Shabbat, that's his business, but that he must be stopped if it is among a gathering of Jews who practice differently. Back at the youth seminar, when Krakow Chief Rabbi Boaz Pash hears that the youth group in Warsaw is Reform, he asks why. "In Poland, there are so few Jews that what we can do together, we should. It makes us stronger," explains Mezga. David, the head of another Jewish student organization, gives a speech at the end of the seminar. Barely having begun, his father, sitting in the audience, calls out in Polish for his son to speak up. David blushes and begins to speak louder. "Jewish life has always been communal," he says. "We want something new, but we want to rebuild the Jewish life that was here before World War II."

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