Polish Jews today, four generations and growing

In Poland today, an astonishingly vigorous Jewish community has emerged from the shadows – a reminder that where democracy flourishes, so too can the Jewish people.

February 14, 2015 20:55
3 minute read.
Polish Jews

Old gravestones are pictured at the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw (file). (photo credit: REUTERS)


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This month, Poland’s Jewish community went to yoga classes. They attended interpretive literary readings, learned about the genetic origins of Ashkenazi Jewry, and taught their kids about Sephardic cuisine. And that was just at the Warsaw JCC.

The revival of Jewish cultural life that began more than two decades ago with the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival has become an established, post-revival reality, with dynamic Jewish youth groups, day schools and summer camps, and scholarly work conducted by Jews and non-Jews alike. American Jews still have a tendency to speak of the Polish community only in terms of memory, but Poland’s living Jewish culture reflects resiliency, depth and beauty.

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However they may express their heritage, the members of today’s Jewish community in Poland have a powerful sense of place, deeply rooted in their Polish belonging. From Orthodox traditionalists to cultural Jews, to the growing number of Poles raised Catholic or atheist who have discovered their Jewish ancestry only recently, all are pursuing the vitality that marks 1,000 years of Polish-Jewish life. As Piotr Wislicki, chairman of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, says, “There is no history of Poland without the Jews, and no history of the Jews without Poland.”

The Jews of Poland are experiencing a reawakening of identity. Warsaw’s new, state-of-the-art POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews expresses and builds on this awakening, as Poles of all backgrounds become agents of a new future, built together. Perhaps most fascinating is the number of non-Jews involved in this process at every step of the way.

As democracy has taken root and flourished, Polishness has ceased to be defined in narrow ethnic or religious terms, becoming instead a question of citizenship and multicultural heritage. Non-Jewish turnout at festivals, academic seminars, and among the museum’s visitors is a sign of this growing inclusiveness, as anti-Semitism is increasingly perceived as a threat not just to Jews, but to society as a whole.

All of this can be seen in the Polish justice system’s recent defense of ritual slaughter in the face of those who sought to legislate against the rules of kashrut and halal; in their campaign to defeat this pernicious law, the Jewish community was joined by leaders of Poland’s small, indigenous Muslim community.

Yet most in the world’s Jewish community seem unaware of these changes. The narrative of loss and destruction is powerful; many among us fear that failing to focus on the horrors of the past will mean we’ve failed the memories of those we lost.

I believe, however, that nothing could be further from the truth. Over the course of 10 centuries, Jewish lives were lived in all their glory on Polish soil. The community’s rabbis, writings, food, art, thoughts and deeds are everywhere woven into our shared culture – and that community’s descendants are continuing its legacy. To fail to recognize the growth and vitality of today’s Polish Jewish community is to violate the memories on which they draw.

As the director of Taube Philanthropies, I have felt real pride and deep joy as I’ve watched the POLIN Museum move from dream to reality – the role we play in that institution will always give it a very special place in my heart.

As deep as the Holocaust’s trauma was and will always be, it is not now, nor has it ever been, the whole story of Polish Jewry. Vibrant Jewish life is now a reality in Poland, and those who live elsewhere who don’t realize it are missing out on a rich cultural revival. The narrative has been changed.

In Poland today, an astonishingly vigorous Jewish community has emerged from the shadows – a reminder that where democracy flourishes, so too can the Jewish people.

Shana Penn is executive director of Taube Philanthropies and a visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union’s Center for Jewish Studies.

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