Why I am going to be a rabbi in Krakow, Poland

After the Holocaust many Jews in Poland survived by assimilating, hiding their Jewish identities and never speaking of their Jewish roots – until the end of their lives.

Shtetl in Poland 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Shtetl in Poland 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Next week I begin teaching Torah and catering to the old and new Jewish community in Krakow, Poland. My first reaction when hearing about the position was a typical Jewish North American one – “Why would anyone want to go back to that graveyard?” Then I did some reading, met some people who live there and learned that as usual, things are a bit more complex than some would have it. Indeed, burying Poland in a 70-year-old sarcophagus is historically wrong and morally objectionable.
I had been unaware of the strides taken both by the Jewish community of survivors and by the Polish government over the past several decades. I learned of the remarkable resurgence of Judaism in Poland in general and Krakow in particular. In Krakow the Gminy Wyznaniowej (The Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland) has maintained synagogues, services and Jewish connection to the past, while at the same time the new Jewish community center has reinvigorated Polish Jewish life, paving the way for a stronger Jewish future. Old and new are gathering daily and are re-introducing themselves to Judaism.
To be sure, the numbers are paltry compared to Polish Jewry’s glorious past – but considering the history of Poland’s Jews, any resurgence at all seems to me miraculous. This change is taking place despite the fact that while the Nazis eliminated 90 percent of the Polish Jewish population, Communism, which lasted for 40 years beyond the Holocaust, strove to erase whatever Jewish consciousness remained.
Many Jews survived by assimilating, hiding their Jewish identities and never speaking of their Jewish roots – until the end of their lives.
IN THE past 20 years, thousands of Poles have been confronted with new information about their roots. Rabbi Michael Schudrich, who has been serving the Jewish community in Poland since 1992 and has been its chief rabbi since 2004, described just a few of the stories of revelation in a TED lecture.
“After my grandmother’s death,” one man told Rabbi Schudrich, “I was searching through her papers and found out that her name was actually Goldberg! When I confronted my mother about it she said it was untrue, but then my aunt corroborated the story. I went back to my mother and she confessed, [but said], ‘Don’t tell your father, he still doesn’t know.”
A woman in her early forties related: “I recall grandma made these special pancakes and then one day I bumped into an Israeli tour group which was carrying a box of the same pancakes – matza! She said as a child she remembered her grandmother would not give us milk after meat but never divulged the true secret of her identity.”
Some Jewish children were given away during the war to non-Jews. One man came to the rabbi and said, “at my mother’s funeral I found out that she wasn’t my actual mother. If I was born to a Jewish mother, I want to know what it means to be Jewish.”
A young couple in their thirties met in high school, fell in love and got married.
Ten years later the wife was told by a relative that she is in fact Jewish.
She goes to the Jewish Historical Institute and finds out that both she and her husband are in fact Jewish. She waits for her husband to come home from work and says, “Hi honey, dinner is ready – and by the way I’m Jewish, and so are you!” Now both are very active members of the Jewish community of Warsaw.
Karolina found out she was a Jew just a few years ago. She heard that her grandfather might have been Jewish and employed a genealogist to confirm it. The research was conclusive: there were documents found such as a birth certificate and an original circumcision certificate, among other proofs. When she spoke with her mother about it she didn’t deny it, saying that the prevalent belief was that it would be less dangerous if Jewish identity was covered up. The grandfather survived Auschwitz but vowed to never let his Judaism endanger the lives of his children. These days the mother feels more confident about her Jewish identity but still fears reprisals.
Teens, college students, young families and middle aged individuals – all types of Poles, from all walks of life. What binds them together is a secret revealed and a strong desire to find their roots, and for some, to pursue that Jewish identity and integrate it to their lives as Poles.
THESE STORIES, and countless others like them, reflect a maturing country which is trying to come to terms with its past and making sometimes courageous steps toward its own identity regarding its Jewish past and present.
From Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Auschwitz in 1979 to Lech Walesa’s visit to Israeli parliament to speak at a special session in the Israeli Knesset in 1991, we have witnessed the beginnings of a change which spans several decades and includes all subsequent presidents of Poland, including today’s.
A speech by then-president Aleksander Kwasniewski at Yad Vashem underscores the official position Poland has taken in recognizing its difficult past and attempting to build avenues for reconciliation and Jewish-Polish rapprochement: “Efforts are currently being made in Poland to preserve the material heritage of the vibrant world of Polish Jews for future generations, and to commemorate their history for the benefit of all visitors to our country. A Museum of the History of Polish Jews testifying to over 800 years of Jewish presence in Poland is being built with the support of public and private funding on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto. We can rest assured that it will be a unique, world-class institution, a remarkable site of remembrance and meditation, like the memorial opened a year ago on the site of the former Nazi death camp at Belzec.
“As president of the Republic of Poland, and a friend of Israel, I am pleased with the very favorable development of relations between our two countries.
Dialogue, better understanding and closer ties between Poles and Jews are bearing the desired fruit. Thanks to the multitude of projects involving Polish- Jewish history (such as the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow or the activities of the Shalom Foundation), we in Poland are now happy to witness a growing interest in Jewish culture, especially among the younger generation.
This allows us to look to the future with optimism. I am therefore convinced that meetings of Polish and Israeli youth have a great part to play in overcoming the unfounded stereotypes which have not yet been eradicated in our societies.”
The late president Lech Kaczynski, who died tragically in 2010, was mourned by Israel and Jews in Poland as a great friend to the Jews and a strong supporter of rebuilding relations between Jews and Poles. He was courageous in official steps taken to honor Polish Jewish heritage.
Current president Bronislaw Komorowski has continued the official position of visiting Auschwitz, has cultivated warm relations with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, recently meeting with him in Warsaw and attending Auschwitz museum together. He wrote in the book of inscriptions there: “The enclosure of the former camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau has been designated a place on Earth where those who visit should say out loud: ‘This shall not be repeated!’ Our common goal is to make this symbol of the fall of humanity a warning for all time, a sign of opposition against evil, crime and the destruction of human dignity. At the same time, it would be a cry to take care of the most important values and human rights.”
TO BE sure, anti-Semitism still exists in Poland, though on a much smaller scale than in years past and certainly on a smaller scale than in some Western European countries. However, barring a mass exodus to Israel our mission as Jewish leaders is to cater to any Jews searching for their past, their identity.
Krakow is just one shining example of a Jewish community re-emerging, a city acknowledging its Jewish roots, a university (Jagiellonian) dedicating a department to Jewish studies, Polish children learning about their Jewish neighbors in museums like the Galicia Jewish Museum, at thriving annual Jewish festivals and much more. It is our duty and privilege to serve any Jewish community in the world; how much more so in the home of the Rema, Tosfot Yomtov, the Bach and so many more Jewish personalities who have graced the city with their presence.
There is work to be done. Building bridges and combatting anti-Semitism is a slow process, but it can be accomplished when both parties show they are interested in working toward these goals. We clearly have seen gestures from the Polish government, should we not play our part as well? I will be serving the Jews in Krakow, old and young, traditional and modern, those who maintained their Jewish identity for the generations of turmoil and those who have just uncovered their identity. I will pray in the synagogues of old, visit the museums and cemeteries and then enter the new JCC and teach Torah, sing songs, talk about Israel, share Friday night dinners and ultimately join the team of leaders who are facilitating the re-emergence of a vibrant Krakow Jewish community.
The author is the rabbinic representative of the chief rabbi of Poland in Krakow.