Fundamentally Freund: No sweeter revenge

Poland now has the basic infrastructure necessary in order to sustain Jewish life.

michael freund 88 (photo credit: )
michael freund 88
(photo credit: )
Slowly but energetically, the circle of worshipers made its way around the interior of Krakow's Kupa synagogue, their voices rising ever more forcefully in song and prayer. Stirred on by the inspiring melodies of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, they briskly joined hands and thrust their feet forward in unison, filling the large and airy space with a dynamic, yet gentle, fervor. "Merciful Father, draw Your servant closer to Your will," they sang, as the words of the 16th-century Yedid Nefesh hymn cascaded throughout the room. "Illuminate the world with Your glory, that we may rejoice," they chanted. Just as Jews have been doing for centuries, the celebrants welcomed the figurative Sabbath bride with a mixture of pomp and elation. But this was no ordinary Friday night service. Over 65 years ago, this very same house of God had been stormed by the Nazis. They ransacked the interior, destroying the synagogue's furnishings with the aim of erasing the name of Israel from under the heavens. But last week, that name was alive and well in the Kupa's sanctuary, as some 150 "hidden Jews" from across Poland gathered to reclaim the precious heritage that is rightfully theirs. The service marked the opening of a three-day conference organized by Shavei Israel, the organization I chair, with the aim of enabling our Polish brethren to come together, meet one another and learn more about their heritage. And, equally as important, to see that they are not alone in their struggle to recover their Jewish identity. Indeed, something special is taking place in Poland these days, something that should inspire us all with confidence and hope for the future. Against all odds, a nascent revival is underway, as increasing numbers of Poles are rediscovering their Jewish roots and looking for ways to reconnect with their people. Some were raised as Catholics, only to learn later in life that their biological parents or grandparents were Jews. Others knew they were Jewish, but chose to hide their identity because of their families' experiences under Nazism and Communism. THERE IS Jacek, a young man in his early 20s from the city of Wroclaw, who first learned he was Jewish just two years ago. One evening, while watching a television program about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict together with his mother, she offhandedly said to him, "now you know why my nose is so large." The news struck him like a thunderbolt, particularly since he knew that his maternal great-grandfather had been a German who had served in the Wehrmacht during World War II. Nonetheless, his great-grandfather had married a Jewess, meaning that Jacek's grandmother, mother - and, yes, him too, - are all Jewish according to Jewish law. He now proudly wears a large Star of David around his neck, and attends synagogue regularly. Then there is another young person, whom we'll call Marek, who discovered his family's Jewishness thanks to a homework assignment he was given in high school. Marek and his classmates were asked to research the origins of their last names. When Marek went home and asked his parents about their Polish-sounding surname, they grew flustered and sought to discourage him from continuing with the project. But that only bolstered Marek's curiosity, and he peppered them with more questions, and still more, until finally they told him the shocking truth: his grandparents had in fact been Jews. After surviving the Holocaust, they had changed their names out of fear in an effort to rid themselves of any hint of Jewishness. Marek spent last summer at a Jewish camp, delving into Jewish history, practice and religion. He now dreams of marrying a Jewish girl and building a traditional Jewish home. DOES POLISH Jewry have a future? After what I witnessed this past weekend in Krakow, I dare say the answer may be yes. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, and Poland's embrace of democracy, people feel freer to delve into their past, and to express themselves as Jews. Thanks to Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, who has devoted the better part of his adult years to rebuilding Judaism in Poland, the country now has the basic infrastructure necessary in order to sustain Jewish life. And so, after two or even three generations in which untold numbers of Polish Jews sought to hide their identity out of fear of persecution by the Nazis and then the Communists, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren have now started to come back. Can anyone possibly doubt the eternity of Israel? As the Friday night service in the Kupa synagogue continued, I thought of how, just an hour away, to the west of Krakow, stands the death camp of Auschwitz. It was there that part of my family, along with millions of other holy Jews, were so cruelly murdered by the Germans and their henchmen. And my heart began to sink. But then I looked around me and watched in awe, as the reawakened remnants of Polish Jewry recited an impassioned version of the Lecha Dodi prayer. "Wake up! Wake up! For your light has come," they intoned, "awake, awake and utter a song, for the glory of the Lord is upon you." The "hidden Jews" of Poland are truly awakening, and it is incumbent upon us to help them. We must reach out to them and encourage them, as they find their way home. Sixty years after the Holocaust, there can be no sweeter revenge than to bring as many of them back to Jewishness as possible. Yes, Poland will always be marked throughout history as a place of death for our people. But now, at last, it is showing signs of becoming a place of life, too.