Testing the waters

Poznan’s recently reconstituted Jewish community is trying to reclaim its Jewish past.

poznan (photo credit: Library of the Adam Mickiewicz University of Pozna)
(photo credit: Library of the Adam Mickiewicz University of Pozna)
THE CANTOR’S VOICE ECHOES THROUGH THE austere arched vaults and the Star of David is reflected on the shimmering surface of the (chlorinated) water. The magnificent synagogue of Poznan was converted by the Nazis into an indoor swimming pool and sports center for the Wehrmacht. The synagogue was returned to the Jewish community after the fall of communism, and, on a rare occasion, it is able to organize a service here.
But most of the time, the synagogue remains a swimming pool and sports center, the impressive two-story stained-glass windows providing colored lights as Poznan’s children learn to swim. Restoring the synagogue is a costly and complicated undertaking; estimates are at upwards of $50 million, since the building remains standing due to the pressure of the water.
And it is unlikely that a Torah scroll donated to the Poznan community in 2009 will be housed in the synagogue any time soon. The Neue Synagogue was built in 1907 by the Orthodox community in the heart of the Old City, within walking distance from City Hall. Asplendid building, designed in the German style by architects from Berlin, it had a capacity for some 1,200 worshipers and was built at a time when Poznan was an important provincial capital within the thendeveloping German Empire. It was one of dozens of synagogues in Poznan, which represented all streams of Judaism.
Like so many Polish cities, Poznan is proudly – and with great difficulty – reclaiming the memory of its once-flourishing Jewish past. And like so many other Polish cities, the reclamation has given rise to tensions among the different Jewish circles, who lay claim to former Jewish properties.
Once an illustrious city, by the 13th century, Poznan was one of the largest centers of Polish Jewry. During the Renaissance, it was twice headed by Judah Lowe Ben-Bezalel, also known as the Maharal of Prague, Dr. Rafal Witkowski, deputy director of the Institute of History at Adam Mickiewicz University of Poznan, tells The Report. And it was here, between 1815 and 1837, that the charismatic Akiba Eger, renowned leader of European Jewry and commentator on Jewish law, served as chief rabbi and waged a struggle against the haskala (Enlightenment) movement, which was making inroads among the Jewish community.
Witkowski notes that Poznan’s Jews identified with Germany, due to the centuries-long Prussian occupation of the region and the fact that the Germans granted civil rights to the Jews in the mid- 19th century. When Poland regained its independence in 1918, a majority of Poznan’s Jews left the city for Germany or the United States, while increasing numbers of Jews from central and eastern Poland moved in.
During the period between the World Wars, from 1918 to 1939, Poznan became a center of Polish nationalism, and anti-Semitism, always present in Poland, intensified. “Anti-Semitism was rooted in social-economic relations, and Jewish merchants were universally considered a threat,” Zbigniew Pakula, a Polish journalist who has researched the Jews of Wielkopolska, a region of west-central Poland of which Poznan is its chief city, tells The Report.
By 1939, the Jewish population of Poznan numbered about 3,000. The Jews were transported to the east, where most of them were murdered. Only a few survived and most of them moved to the US, Germany and Israel. Only a handful returned to Poznan.
UNDER COMMUNISM, JEWS were forbidden to even acknowledge their Judaism, although in Poznan, the communist authorities did support the Jewish Social-Cultural Association (the only legal Jewish institution in the country), which provided services to the elderly and needy.
In the late 1990s, the community of Poznan formally became a part of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland (ZGWZ), under the leadership of Poznan resident Alicja Kobus, a teacher then in her 60s. The ZGWZ was created in 1993, as part of the democratic changes in Poland after the fall of communism and in response to the need for a formal organization that would represent the Jewish community to the authorities, especially with regard to restitution of Jewish communal properties, preservation of Jewish properties, and Jewish social and religious life in Poland.
Legislation passed by the Polish parliament in 1997 mandates that formerly Jewish communal properties can only be reclaimed by the Jewish community through a recognized umbrella organization. The ZGWZ, which follows Orthodox Jewish interpretation, has thus become the sole Jewish organization recognized by the Polish authorities. The community as headed by Kobus is therefore the only legal successor to the previously existing Jewish community in Poznan.
As part of the ZGWZ, the Poznan community became a meeting point for Jews in the region. Today there are some 40 registered members, only a small number of whom are Jewish according to halakha (religious law,) while the rest define themselves as Jews based on family histories and their own sense of identity. Many are elderly and in poor health.
The small Jewish community gathers at the community center, housed in one of the historic buildings in Poznan’s Old City that was also returned to the Jewish community in the late 1990s. Located near the synagogue, the community center serves as a meeting place for Sabbath and holidays.
“I feel obliged to live the Jewish life. Who will do it, if not us?” says Czeslaw Pardela, a nearly 80-year-old member of the community who survived the war on the Aryan side, hiding with his Jewish mother. “Recently I have started to learn Hebrew. I learn how to pray. If not now, then when?”
There are also a few younger members of the community, most of whom have recently come to Poznan as professionals or academics, since Poznan is a regional academic center with five public universities and more than 20 private colleges. “I found the Jewish community right upon my arrival to Poznan,” recalls Marek Schott, a 20-year-old student of management at a local college who came to Poznan from northern Poland. “I want to enrich my Jewishness not only by preserving the culture and tradition, but also by practicing Judaism, as much as possible.”
Jewish communal activities are funded by the ZGZW and foreign donors. The community continues to maintain the Jewish Social- Cultural Association, as well as the Wielkopolska-Israel Association, which was privately established, like many organizations in Poland, by philo-Semitic non-Jews, and organizes cultural-educational activities focusing on Israel, Polish-Israeli relations, and cultural dialogue.
In 2002, Poznan municipal authorities turned the synagogue, known as the Neue (New) Synagogue, over to the reconstituted local Jewish community. Since then, the pool itself has been a stage to a variety of artists, from cantors, choirs, and modern Hasidic jazz to New York-based avant-garde musician John Zorn and the Polish Bester Quartet. On many occasions the water has also been decorated with artistic installations, including a burning Star of David.
In 2008, the Jewish community restored and dedicated a small part of the former Jewish cemetery, restoring its official status as a sacred burial ground, centered around Rabbi Eger’s restored grave, where Rabbi Michael Schudrich, head of the ZGWZ, and Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger, head of the London-based Committee for Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, were able to say kaddish (the traditional prayer for the dead).
In January 2009, the community marked a renewed religious chapter with the dedication of a Torah scroll – the first to come into the community since 1939, as well as a prayer sanctuary in the community center.
The Torah scroll was donated by Orit and Meshulam Shafran of Ra’anana, on Israel’s coastal plain, which is a twin city to Poznan. The Shafrans had accompanied a tour of the Ra’anana Symphonette Orchestra, which Orit Shafran manages, to Wielkopolska in honor of Irena Sendler, a woman recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile who saved 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. In a phone interview, Meshulam Shafran tells The Report that they decided to donate the Torah scroll because they were moved by the “revival of the Jewish community’s presence in Poznan… and because wherever there is praying and soul – there is hope. The sefer Torah, dedicated to the memory of the martyrs, closes a circle: we have survived, we are back, our Torah is back where it belongs.”
AN INVENTORY, VOLUNTARILY conducted in 2007 by students of Poznan’s Academy of Fine Arts, revealed that pumping out the water at this stage, without immediate renovation, would cause the building to collapse. Lacking the necessary funds to renovate or even maintain the building, the Jewish community has leased it back to the city which continued to use it as a communal swimming pool; currently it is leased to a private maintenance company.
But even if there were funds to return the “swimagogue” to its former glory, whom would it serve? Even if all of the Jewish community were united, it would number fewer than 150.
And the Jews of Poznan are not united, with several groups competing for leadership of the community. One such group, the Israelite Community of Poznan, numbering a dozen or so members, was founded in 1997 by Andrzej Beryt. Beryt, a former director of the Martyr’s Museum near Poznan, tells The Report that he strongly opposes Kobus and the ZGWZ because of their Orthodox orientation. He has led an unsuccessful initiative to convince the Polish officials to recognize the Israelite Community as a Jewish group. The Israelite Community does not participate in the religious or cultural activities organized by the ZGWZ.
“We maintain our community alone without any support from the government or other organizations because of the lack of support from the ZGWZ, and because of the formal [legal] difficulties,” Beryt tells The Report. “We have not found our place in Poznan, and therefore we have decided to continue being independent.”
In addition, Andrew Hingston, a non- Jewish American lawyer and businessman, has founded the Poznan Synagogue Project, a foundation that appealed for international aid to restore the former synagogue. At first positively received by ZGWZ, the Poznan Synagogue Project soon lost its ally in Warsaw and, due to a “series of conflicts with Jewish organizations, Hingston’s campaign does little but create a scandal,” Piotr Kadlcik, head of the Jewish community of Poland, tells The Report. Hingston, a shadowy figure known mostly through his website, refuses to speak with the media, but claims to have collected enough money to successfully restore the building.
The majority of Jews in the region are not Orthodox or even traditionally observant. Their activities are, like those of so many young Polish Jews, more culturally oriented. Although the ZGWZ is the officially recognized umbrella organization and it follows Orthodox guidelines, increasing numbers of Polish Jews are aligning themselves with the Progressive (Reform) and Conservative movements, which have strong presences in the major cities, including Krakow, where a female rabbi has held a pulpit since 2009, Wroclaw and Warsaw, where the community of “Beit Warszawa,” established in 2002 and affiliated with the World Union of Progressive Judaism, provides Reform-oriented activities to increasing numbers of young Polish Jews.
Dr. Michael Hornsby, a British lecturer in English philology who has lived in Poznan since 2009, tells The Report that Orthodox Judaism does not respond to the needs of Poznan’s Jews. “Jewish life in Poznan is much more about atmosphere, culture and social contacts between people who have rediscovered their Jewish roots,” he says. Hornsby was part of a recent meeting between members of the British and French Masorti (Conservative) movement and Jews from Poznan, who discussed the possibility of establishing a Conservative community in the city.
These groups are in conflict with the ZGWZ over numerous issues, including the right to recognition by the Polish authorities, control of properties and revenues from income-generating restituted properties (such as the Poznan synagogue), the role and rights of international Jewish organizations (such as the Israel-based World Jewish Restitution Organization) towards restituted property, as well as liturgy, religious practice and recognition of rabbis.
Several of these issues are currently being litigated in the Polish courts, and officials refused to speak with The Report. The ZGWZ has hired a progressively-trained rabbi, Stas Wojciechowizc, to serve as a liaison between the organization and the progressive Jewish community in Poland. However, Wojciechowizc, who declined to speak with The Report, has not connected himself to the Reform or Conservative movements in Israel or the US. A source close to Beit Warszawa, who spoke with The Report on condition of anonymity, claims that “Wojciechowizc is a ‘court Jew’ who was hired just to keep the non-Orthodox groups quiet.”
WHILE SOME OF THE JEWS argue, others are engaged in promoting Polish-Jewish dialogue, advocating for Israel, paying tribute to the Polish Righteous among the Nations and preserving Jewish cemeteries in the Wielkopolska region. “The fact that a region that welcomed Jews more than a thousand years ago is today a supporter of the State of Israel has a symbolical dimension,” says Dr.Ilona Dworak-Cousin, the head of the Israel- Poland Friendship Association, which is based in Israel.
The ZGWZ and the Poznan Municipality, together with the Wielkopolska-Israel Association, are currently promoting plans to establish a Center for Dialogue and Tolerance in the Poznan synagogue. Plans prepared in 2007, by two architects from Poznan, Stefan Bajer and Krzysztof Kwiatkowski, with funding from the European Free Trade Association, include a concert hall, a kosher restaurant, a museum of the history of Poznan’s Jewry, a hall devoted to Polish Righteous Among the Nations, a small synagogue and a glazed dome with a view to the city. However, no further funds have been raised.
Although the Catholic Church has historically fomented anti-Semitism in Poland, Poznan’s Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki tells The Report, “We are aware of the past disagreements and conflicts… Therefore we try to do everything possible to transform the memory of the sins of the past into a firm will to build a new future.
“Jewish-Christian encounters in Poznan are aimed at prayer and contemplation on the spiritual bonds of two religions. Their goal is not a blurring of the differences, neither a Judaization of Christianity, nor a hidden Christianization of Judaism,” Gadecki says.
As Poznan’s Jews argue among themselves and find common ground with their Christian neighbors, the elderly seek merely to survive as Jews. “We are like the splinters of a big jug that was broken in the past and are now trying to glue themselves together again,” says Pardela.