22 'new' Polish Jews rediscover their heritage

Youths who recently discovered their Jewish roots arrive for Jerusalem seminar.

polish jews jlem 224 88 (photo credit: Courtesy of Shevei Israel)
polish jews jlem 224 88
(photo credit: Courtesy of Shevei Israel)
A group of 22 Polish youth who only recently discovered their Jewish roots arrived in Israel this week for a three-week-long Polish-language seminar in Jerusalem. The seminar is being arranged by Shavei Israel, a non-profit organization which aims to strengthen ties between Israel and the descendants of Jews around the world. The participants will travel throughout Israel, study Hebrew daily and learn about Jewish history, culture and religion, as well as the history of the State of Israel. "In Poland in recent years there has been this awakening taking place where more and more people are discovering their Jewish roots," Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, told The Jerusalem Post. "Many Jews who survived the war and chose to remain in Poland, because of the persecution they faced, decided to hide their identity. Now that Poland has become a democracy and its society has begun to open up people feel freer to identify as Jews. We are seeing this incredible phenomenon of the hidden Jews of Poland emerging from the shadows." Rabbi Yitzhak Rapoport, one of Shavei Israel's two full-time emissaries in Poland, told the Post, "Shavei Israel has the idea that people who have Jewish roots should receive an equal opportunity to decide whether they want to be Jewish or not." "It is not their fault that they are not 'Jewish' in the sociological sense of being Jewish." The participants each possess unique stories of how they began reconnecting with their Jewish roots, but not all were able to do so without complicating their former lives. About a year and a half ago, Andrzej, one of the seminar's participants, found papers proving the Jewish heritage of his mother. She, like many other Jewish children, was given away as a baby to a non-Jewish Polish family during World War II. Andrzej has since become an observant Jew, keeping kosher and observing Shabbat. "The irony and/or tragedy of it all is that Andrzej's mother is a believing Catholic while his father is even quite anti-Semitic," said Rapoport. "Andrzej therefore made it a secret to his own family that he was going to have a brit mila [circumcision]." Another participant, Patryk Wolanowski, grew up in a Polish orphanage. "His aunt once told him that his father was Jewish. That's all he knows," [But now he is] an active member of Jewish life in Wroclaw [Poland]," said Rapoport. "The goal here is to strengthen the connection between the descendants of Jews and the Jewish people. I think there is value simply in maintaining this connection because the fact of the matter is the State of Israel and the Jewish people don't have that many friends around the world," said Freund. "I see it time and time again, when people discover that they have some Jewish ancestry, they gain a certain affinity to the Jewish people," he added. Freund has high hopes for the impact the trip will have on the participants. "Being in Israel will work its magic on them, I'm sure," he said. "There is nothing quite like the experience of seeing a Jewish country in action, of traveling to and seeing up close some of the places they have heard and read about. I'm sure that will have a big impact on them. Whether it is visiting the holy sites or simply seeing street and store signs in Hebrew." Over 90 percent of Polish Jewry, about three million people, were wiped out in the Holocaust, by far the greatest number of Jewish casualties from any one country during World War II. "I can think of no sweeter revenge for what happened there [Poland] than if we can succeed in bringing back some of Poland's hidden Jews to the Jewish people," concluded Freund.