Poland's 'hidden Jews' reflect on their new lives

Twenty-two young Polish Jews are participating in a three-week Jewish learning seminar in Jerusalem organized by Shavei Israel.

krakow poland jewish 88 (photo credit:)
krakow poland jewish 88
(photo credit: )
Poland's latest generation of Jewish youth face a multitude of questions, choices and challenges as they address their past and plan their futures. Twenty-two of those young people are participating in a three-week Jewish learning seminar in Jerusalem organized by Shavei Israel, a nonprofit organization that aims to strengthen ties between Israel and the descendants of Jews around the world. "My Judaism started about six or seven years ago," said Shimon, 28, from Lodz, a city with a Jewish community of approximately 300. "I didn't know why, I just felt something pushing me in that direction." Shimon grew up in a secular household and had no Jewish education when he decided to become religious. He joined a Jewish choir and began attending synagogue after a friend invited him to a Shabbat dinner. One evening during choir practice Shimon came across an article in a Jewish newspaper with an image of a Leliwa, a Polish coat of arms used by hundreds of families when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth existed. The symbol bears a six pointed start at its center. "I remembered that my father told me that our family has this sign, like a noble family," Shimon recalled. "It was like a green light for me. I thought: 'Okay, you are on a good path.' "It took around four or five years, but I finished my conversion on June 24. If you don't have papers and you want to be a halachic Jew, you have to make the conversion," explained Shimon. "Four or five years is normal." David Gurfinkiel, 20, also from Lodz, was raised by a Jewish father and Christian mother. "Every Friday I went to synagogue for Shabbat and each winter we had a Christmas tree," he said with a chuckle. "I grew up in two cultures, so I know what I chose, and I know that it is good for me." Gurfinkiel also recently converted and now leads an Orthodox lifestyle. "We have a special problem in Poland that doesn't exist here [in Israel]. When you live here you have [access to] everything kosher, but in Lodz it is different. We have to fight for everything: for kosher food, for any Jewish thing. So if you want to really be Jewish you must be a religious Jew. In Poland, there is just one way to be a Jew," he explained. Basia Wieczorek, 23, a student from Warsaw, grew up with a Jewish mother, but did not become observant until high school. "It's the Polish story, no one comes from religious families," said Wieczorek. "Because of World War II, because of the Shoah, because of what happened in '68 [an anti-Zionist campaign that resulted in a major exodus of Jews from Poland], the Jews who stayed in Poland decided that they would rather be Polish than Jewish." Wieczorek's mother chose not to speak with her about her about their Jewish roots, and even encouraged her not to discuss her religion openly as a child. "We don't have a second generation of Jews in Poland, it just doesn't exist," said Wieczorek. "We just have the [elderly] people that decided to raise their grandchildren going to Jewish summer camps. So in the [synagogues] in Poland you don't find any people between the ages of 40 and 50, it is just the [elderly] and the young." While the Polish Jewish youth of today live a different reality from their parent's generation of Communism and blatant anti-Semitism, they still do not feel free to share their identities without restraint. "In Poland I cannot have regular payot [sidecurls]," Shimon said, pointing to his trimmed sideburns. "I mean I can, but I would feel uncomfortable." When outside of his home Shimon wears his kippa under a hat and keeps his tzitzit tucked into his pants. "My rabbi says that if you feel [revealing you are a Jew] might bring danger to you, you can hide it," Shimon said with a shrug. "My close friends know that I am Jewish, but there are some people that I wouldn't like to find out. You need to separate who you can trust and who you cannot trust." When asked if he thinks the next generation of Polish youth will be more tolerant due to awareness programs in schools and a more liberal society, Shimon responded, "Maybe they will have a different point of view, but you never know because bad things are always [taught] from the top - from grandfathers, fathers, and mothers. But hopefully they will."