On a recent Friday evening in Warsaw, Rabbi Stas Wojciechowicz entered Ec Chaim synagogue and exclaimed, “It looks like Yom Kippur.” For the 30 Polish Jews who usually attend Shabbat services at this Reform shul on the fourth floor of an office building, the 70 American Jews who filled out the room and actively participated were a welcome addition.
They were part of a larger group of 130 coming from across the US for a series of meetings and encounters over the weekend, leading up to a gala event that officially launched AJC Central Europe, the newest office of the global Jewish advocacy organization. From its base in Warsaw, AJC Central Europe is engaging governments, civil society organizations and Jewish communities in the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia.
But inspiration first came from Ec Chaim congregants.
Sitting next to me was Anna Chipczynska, president of Warsaw’s Jewish community. She is a prime example of the rejuvenation of Polish Jewry more than 70 years after the Holocaust and decades of repressive communism which ended in 1989 with the Soviet Union’s collapse and the liberation of Central European countries.
The events of 1989 set in motion the emergence of democratic rule and engagement with the West, factors key to assuring the security and well-being of minorities, Jews in particular.
Anna is one of what she calls the “1989 generation,” individuals who today are in their 30s and 40s. They did not grow up in Jewishly-identified families and learned only as teenagers about their “hidden” Jewish heritage.
For Anna, her own personal discovery as a teenager prompted a process of passionate engagement with Judaism and Jewish peoplehood. In 2014, at age 35, she was elected president of the 700-member Jewish community in Poland’s capital.
Evident in that tiny number is the near elimination of a people and a country by the Nazis. Prior to World War II, Jews comprised one-third of Warsaw’s population and 10% of the overall population of Poland. The vast majority of Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Many American Jews, including myself, can trace at least one branch in our family trees to Poland, once the center of Ashkenazi Jewry and its culture.
“Being Jewish in Poland is different than being Jewish anywhere else in the world,” says Agnieszka Markiewicz, acting director of AJC Central Europe. “Polish Jews struggle with identity. Many do not know their own family history. They only learn when they become adults and then decide to do something.”
Markiewicz did grow up with an awareness of Jewish identity and the full impact of Nazi Germany on Poland.
Most of her Jewish father’s family perished in the Holocaust.
Her maternal grandfather, a Christian, was sent to Auschwitz as a political prisoner, yet survived.
A yearning for Jewish tradition and an appreciation of Jewish contributions to the country are reflected in the popularity among non-Jews of the annual Jewish festival in Krakow, the largest Jewish cultural event outside Israel.
And the opening three years ago of the award-winning POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, erected on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, has furthered the quest for knowledge about Jews in Poland.
Indeed, it was fitting that POLIN was the venue for the gala that launched AJC Central Europe. Wide interest in and support for this initiative was demonstrated by the extensive media coverage in Poland and the more than 500 government officials, diplomats and Jewish leaders from across Europe who attended the celebratory event on March 24.
“For me, personally, the opening of AJC Central Europe in Warsaw is a historic moment,” said Markiewicz. “In addition to Poland defining its place in the international community, with international institutions, with NATO and the EU, it also is a sign of recognition of the deep roots of the Jewish presence in our country.”
AJC has long been one of the most active nongovernmental organizations engaged in global advocacy and diplomacy. In Central Europe, promoting democratic transformation has been an AJC priority since 1989.
What has transpired is not only the revitalization of diminished Jewish communities, but, importantly, a remarkable expansion of bilateral ties between the countries of this region with Israel and the United States.
At a time of increasing uncertainty about trends in international affairs and in the domestic politics of a number of European countries, deepening those alliances is essential to bolstering the security of each country, the region and, indeed, the world.
“I am glad that you have chosen the capital of Poland as the place from which the activities of AJC will extend all over our region,” said Polish President Andrzej Duda, who saluted the transatlantic partnership and the AJC role in advancing it.
US Ambassador to Poland Paul Jones, addressing the gala, praised AJC Central Europe as “another important symbol of revival of Jewish life and culture in Poland, and of deep ties between the US and Poland.”
President Duda also spoke about the unique relationship between Poles and Jews. “I consider it meaningful that this gala takes place in the amazing Museum of the History of Polish Jews. This institution is critically important for preserving the truth about the common history of both our nations,” said Duda. Indeed, the Nazis murdered three million Jews and three million non-Jews in Poland.
Memory and truth are precious. They are vital to appreciating that democracy should never be taken for granted, and that the values that undergird democratic nations are profoundly valuable to Jews, to our freedom, safety and concerns.The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.