A tree grows in Krakow

The Jews of Poland do not live between the dagger and the Torah pointer, but have the luxury of defining their own identity.

May 3, 2010 21:32


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To anyone with connections to Poland, the tragic death of the nation’s president and other members of the country’s elite – and near Katyn of all places – was a defining moment. Poles will always remember where they were when they heard the dreadful news. Together with dozens of other worshipers, I was in the Remu synagogue – the 16th century sanctuary named for Polish Jewry’s greatest rabbi, Moses Isserles, and the pearl of Krakow’s rapidly gentrifying Jewish quarter, Kazimierz.

On my way to shul, I passed through a small flea market in which traders were setting up stalls with antiques and second-hand goods. On display on one table was a silver Torah pointer alongside a Hitler youth dagger emblazoned with a swastika. What an extraordinary allegory of the 1,000-year history of Jewish life and death in Poland!

Too often, that experience is looked at through the prism of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. To be sure, Poland was the killing field of much of European Jewry. But the Jewish encounter with that country should not be viewed as nothing more than a compendium of hatred and horror. Before Treblinka, Auschwitz, Jedwabne and Kielce, Poland was home to the largest and most vibrant Jewish community in Europe, one which made inestimable contributions to every field of Jewish endeavor. In recent years, a perception of Poland as a hothouse of Jewish creativity – spiritual and intellectual, cultural and economic – has taken root. Nowhere is that more evident than in Krakow, which was once home to 60,0000 Jews – 25% of the population of Poland’s ancient capital.

I was in Krakow for a Shabbaton organized by the Shavei Israel organization, aimed at bolstering the Jewish identity of local Jews. Local Jews? In Poland? Indeed, 65 years since the embers of the crematoria went cold, some 40 years since a witch-hunt drove most of the surviving remnants out, there are still Jews who call Poland home.

It is impossible to accurately calculate the numbers involved, but at the gathering I attended, dozens of Jews, young and old, from Krakow and many other cities and towns, were present, some of them with an impressive degree of Jewish knowledge and some of them religiously observant. They knew the prayers and, led by their charismatic and thoughtful rabbi, Jerusalemite Boaz Pash, chanted them enthusiastically and with visible devotion. Certainly, they knew more about Jewish tradition than some of the Israeli youngsters in blue jackets trooping through the streets outside, some of whom would be hard put to explain the difference between Kaddish and Kiddush.

JUST BEHIND the 19th-century Templum synagogue stands the ultramodern Jewish Community Center. The four-story JCC is a hub of Jewish life erected at the initiative of Prince Charles and in cooperation with the London-based World Jewish Relief and the Joint Distribution Committee in cooperation with the London-based World Jewish Relief, the Joint Distribution Committee and the local Jewish community-ably led by Tadeusz Jakubowicz.

For the Jews of Krakow, this is a second home, one in which they can let their hair down. It is also a place that welcomes non-Jews to a wide variety of cultural programs which, according to its dynamic 40-year-old New York-born director Jonathan Ornstein, range from Yiddish lessons to belly dancing. “Unfortunately, many of the Israeli tourists passing through have no idea what is going on in this building, and only know about Poland as a place of death.”

Over a strictly kosher Sabbath meal replete with kiddush wine, hallot and roast chicken, some of those who had just discovered their roots were exploring what it means to be Jewish. Others had come out of the closet years ago and seemed comfortable with their Jewishness. All of them had moving stories to tell of just how they had been lost, and then found to the Jewish people.

Today, the Jews of Poland do not live between the dagger and the Torah pointer, but have the luxury of defining their own identity. Unlike their forbears, some see no contradiction in being both Poles and Jews. Some, perhaps the most committed and religiously observant, will chose to leave for Israel or other large Jewish communities, just as Jews from other small communities have been doing for years. Meantime, one way in which they express their Jewish yearnings with one another and foreign friends and relatives is through Facebook.

To be sure, anti-Semitism has not disappeared. According to a just-released survey, some 16% of Poles believe that Jews are being punished for crucifying Christ; 20% believe the destruction of Polish Jewry was a crime, but that Poland is better off without Jews; 45% believe Jews have too much influence.

But is the glass half full or half empty? Large numbers of young Poles have a positive view of Jews, and vast numbers take part in the annual Jewish Festival in Krakow. Poland has once again become an outstanding center of Jewish scholarship, though most of it is sustained by non-Jews. The country is also one of Israel’s staunchest friends.

In the absence of any appreciable community of Middle Eastern immigrants, Jews feel no more threatened than their coreligionists in Western Europe, and probably much less so. Poland has become a place in which Jews feel a greater degree of self confidence than at any time in recent memory. Indeed, some of the Shabbaton participants left the JCC with kippot on their heads and tzitzit dangling – something about which Jews in Brussels must think twice.

On the day after the accident that claimed the lives of the president, the first lady and more than 90 other Poles, the community held a memorial service. Although many of those with whom I spoke stressed that they had not been supporters of the conservative president, all acknowledged his friendship for Jews and the Jewish people. Although the Jewish community in Krakow will never be a shadow of what it once was, new winds are blowing through this historic city, and it would behoove Jews in Israel to recognize and reach out to their brethren who sit amid the material heritage of a place to which so many of us trace our roots.

The writer is chief editor of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, and a longtime officer of the World Jewish Congress Research Institute.

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