Jewish visibility

It's hard to say what brings Poland's 'hidden Jews' out of the woodwork.

poland shul 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
poland shul 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The good news is that observant Jews who go to Poland on business, as tourists or to trace their family roots no longer have to fill their suitcases with cans of tuna and packets of powdered soup. The bad news is that while Jewish life has resurrected itself in Poland and one can walk through the streets in Hassidic garb without attracting undue attention, anti-Semitism still exists. "Of course we have anti-Semitism, we're a normal country," says Boleslaw Beniamin Zajac, who takes visitors through the recently renovated Nozyk Synagogue, Warsaw's only surviving pre-Holocaust synagogue. The Praga Synagogue in Warsaw, built more than 60 years before Nozyk and famous as one of only six round synagogues in Europe, also survived World War II. But with no Jews left in the area, Praga fell into neglect and was demolished in 1961. Before the war, the Praga district was home to a very large Jewish population. What is now a police dormitory, only a few minutes' walk from the site of the demolished synagogue, was in prewar years a university dormitory. One of its occupants was a young law student named Menachem Begin. After the war, Praga attracted unsavory social elements and became known as a seat of crime. It is now being regentrified and boasts a growing number of galleries, restaurants and nightclubs. Born well after the war, Zajac, unlike the majority of his generation of Polish Jews, never hid his Jewish identity. He had close Jewish friends. None of them were religious, none of them sought to hide the fact that they were Jewish. In general, he says, most Warsaw Jews born after the war were only told that they were Jewish when they were in their 20s, although others are only now discovering their Jewish roots. Under Communism, the overwhelming majority of Warsaw's Jews lived a totally secular and assimilated lifestyle. In general, they refrained from openly admitting to their Jewish identities. Notwithstanding his attachment to the Nozyk Synagogue, Zajac proclaims himself to be a secularist, but not assimilated. He is part of the Social Cultural Union of Polish Jews. In Jewish circles, he prefers to be called Beniamin rather than Boleslaw. He attends synagogue services fairly regularly. There's a daily minyan in spring, summer and autumn, he says, but not in winter. About 30 people attend Shabbat services on average, but for Kol Nidre the synagogue is filled with somewhere between 300 and 400 worshipers. While they might not be attending synagogue on a regular basis, says Zajac, more local Jews are keeping kosher and are observing other aspects of Jewish law - especially those who only recently discovered that they were Jewish. Zajac says that he hasn't suffered any anti-Semitic traumas. "Sometimes people remind me that I'm Jewish, but I wouldn't say it's a problem. Poland has changed a lot, and the difference in the official relationship [between] state bodies and Jewish organizations today, compared to what it was in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, is like day and night." AN EXAMPLE of the Polish government's new relationship with its Jewish population came this past December, when for the first time ever Hanukka candles were lit in state ceremonies. In the Polish Parliament, Deputy Speaker Jaroslaw Kalinowski and Chabad rabbi Shalom Stambler lit a candle on a menora that was well over 60 years old. The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneersohn, opposed Chabad activities in Poland - which he considered to be the largest Jewish graveyard in the world - and particularly relocating Jews to set up new Jewish communities there. However, since his death, Chabad has become extremely active in Poland, mainly because the Jewish presence in Poland has become more visible. Businesspeople from Israel and other Jewish communities are engaged in huge projects in Poland and commute back and forth regularly. Jewish students from abroad study at Polish universities. Jewish academics come to Poland for a wide range of international conferences, and Jewish entertainers and tourists flock to the Krakow Jewish Festival and the more recently established Singer Festival in Warsaw. Musicians, artists and writers participate in cultural exchange programs. Jews living in Poland are becoming more community-oriented, and have no qualms about participating in Jewish community events. Chabad was quick to make connections with the upper echelons of Polish politics, and Chabad leaders in Warsaw accompanied Polish President Lech Kaczynski on his state visit to Israel in 2006. They also accompanied former president Lech Walesa on his visit to Israel earlier this year. Warsaw's tourist brochures list several "Jewish" restaurants, although only two are kosher. One, inside the Nozyk Synagogue compound, was for many years a soup kitchen run by the Joint Distribution Committee. It still serves subsidized meals, but under a somewhat different arrangement. Chabad runs the other kosher restaurant. One of the non-kosher Jewish restaurants is located almost next to the synagogue compound. In mid-December, its décor included both a Hanukka menora and a Christmas tree. However, inside the compound is a store selling kosher foodstuffs. Any Jew on a nostalgia trip to Warsaw can get a better sense of what it was like in the late '30s and early '40s during a drama tour called "Experience Warsaw." Jakub, who won't divulge his surname, is waiting outside the synagogue to take me on this twilight tour of Jewish Warsaw, as it used to be. He is one of a group of non-Jews interested in learning about Jewish life in Poland and in reminding people of Jews' contribution to Polish culture, politics and economics. Jakub is wearing a World War II-style coat and hat. He is extremely eager to impart information about Jewish Warsaw. Indeed, Jakub is so keen on all things Jewish that he's studying Hebrew at Warsaw University, and after only a few months is reasonably fluent, with an accent that does not betray his origins. When asked why he's so gung-ho about Poland's Jews, he replies: "Their history is our history, and our history is their history." Journalist and translator Anna Minczewska-Przeczek, who joined the tour, confirms that there is a debate in certain Polish circles as to whether those Jews who brought honor to Poland should be considered Polish Jews or Jewish Poles. The identity problem is not an easy one to overcome. Minczewska-Przeczek is the daughter of Jewish father who survived the Holocaust and a non-Jewish mother. "In Poland, I'm considered Jewish," she says, "But when I go to Israel, I'm treated as a Polish gentile." The Poles are making strenuous efforts to renovate synagogue buildings even in places where there are no Jews, and build museums and other memorials to the decimated community. The Jewish Heritage walk in Krakow's Kazimierz district now includes bookstores, libraries and museums that did not exist a decade ago. Books in several languages are displayed, and the subject matter is largely Holocaust or pre-Holocaust related, but there are also books about Jewish religious customs, biographies of famous Jews and kosher cookbooks. Many of the titles are not seen in Israeli bookstores. Some places on the tour feature huge portraits of former Jewish residents of the city who survived the Holocaust to make new lives for themselves in other parts of the globe. YIDDISH MUSIC plays interminably in the bookstores, libraries and museums as well as in the "Jewish" restaurants in Kazimierz, one of which can supply packaged kosher food on demand. Kosher food imported from Israel and America, including meat and fish, is now available in the 364-year-old Izaak Synagogue, which Chabad has taken over and is renovating. The Izaak Synagogue was desecrated and partially destroyed by the Nazis, occupied after the war by various non-Jewish groups, and used as a sculptor's studio and a storage area for theater props. Now, it's being restored to its former glory - Chabad conducted a large Pessah Seder there last year. Some 500 people who identify themselves as Jews live in Krakow, and there may be a lot more. Kazimierz, which for many years was a Jewish ghost town, is now home to modernized Jewish institutions. It gives visitors the impression it might, like Warsaw, become a center of Jewish revival. Every year, more Poles with Jewish roots choose to identify with Poland's Jewish community. Some of them may be only one-quarter Jewish, but according to Zajac, they are not turned away from synagogue services. However, they are not permitted to open the ark, carry the Torah or perform other ritual acts. The presence and increasing visibility of residents who are genetically but not halachically Jewish is one of the reasons that it is so difficult to determine how many Jews there actually are in Poland. Officially, there are 4,000 to 5,000. Unofficially, it's anyone's guess, though a popular estimate is around 10,000. Boleslaw Zajac believes that the number of Polish Jews is closer to 30,000, and says that Poland's Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich, also believes that this number is accurate. Indeed, Schudrich has been quoted many times as saying that the number of Polish Jews is greater than is generally realized. It's hard to say what brings Poland's "hidden Jews" out of the woodwork. One of the more recent events that "outed" local Jews was the 2004 centenary of the birth of Nobel Prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, which provided an opportunity to establish a Festival of Jewish Culture in Warsaw. The three-day festival led to the creation of the Shalom Foundation, initiated and directed by Yiddish stage and screen actress and singer Golda Tencer, who is also the director of the National Jewish Theater in Warsaw. The Festival of Jewish Culture, now an annual event, is under the auspices of the Shalom Foundation and attracts large audiences, including many non-Jews. Zajac acknowledges that the festival gives Jews a sense of belonging. What may give them a stronger sense of belonging is the soon-to-be constructed Museum of the History of Polish Jews, adjacent to the famed Warsaw Ghetto Uprising monument created by sculptor Nathan Rappaport. Agnieska Rudzinska, the museum's director of development, has been to Israel many times, and anticipates another visit in mid-June for the opening of a virtual exhibit at Beth Hatefutsoth - the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora based on the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Bina Sela Tsur, chief curator at Beth Hatefutsoth, explains that a new area within the museum complex is being devoted to the future Warsaw museum, and that the exhibit will serve as a catalyst for an international conference on Holocaust-oriented Jewish museums around the world. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is being built on open park land in the heart of what was once the Warsaw Ghetto. The park is surrounded by apartment blocks, few of whose residents are Jewish. Many were initially uneasy about the museum and its effect on the neighborhood, admits Rudzinska. To allay such fears, the museum's directorate set up an on-site installation, housed in a blue-and-white tent that is presented as the "Ohel" - the Hebrew word for "tent." The Ohel serves as an information center about the museum, and also functions as an events center. The museum project has been endorsed by Kaczynski and by President Shimon Peres. Kaczynski, a former mayor of Warsaw with a strong sense of history, also put his weight behind the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising, which commemorates the August 1944 rebellion by Poles against the Nazis. Kaczynski personally chose the site of the museum - a former tramway power station in an area that was part of the Warsaw Ghetto. Jews who had survived the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising or who smuggled themselves out of the ghetto and joined Polish revolutionaries, are also featured by name in portraits and group photographs in this interactive museum. The museum also features a section on the Communist regime, and the roles of certain Jews in the Communist takeover of Poland. Last June, Kaczynski delivered an address at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in which he said that the museum offered a significant opportunity to overcome a mutual lack of understanding between Poland's Jews and gentiles. Peres was unable to attend the event, but sent a letter that was read out by Ambassador David Peleg. Peres, who is scheduled to travel to Poland for the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, is also slated to visit the museum site.