Feature: Polish Jewry From The Shadows
In the courtyard of the Wroclaw Jewish Community Center in Poland, a large black chestnut tree spreads its twisting arms up into the night. Figures cut across the yard, carrying trays of latkes, oranges and other snacks from the kitchen to a Hanukka party in the JCC.
At the event, held in rooms that belonged to the city’s prewar Jewish community, an elderly man lights a hanukkiya. “Barukh atoh,” he begins in a heavily Ashkenazic intonation. An orange glow brightens the room as the candles are lit.
David Ringel is one of the last of his generation. But the atmosphere at the party—and among the Jews of Poland—is not mournful: A new Jewish community is being born.
In Warsaw, The Lauder-Morasha School, a kindergarten and middle school opened by The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation (www.rslfoundation.org), is thriving. There is a Lauder-supported primary school in Wroclaw; youth centers in Gdansk, Krakow, Lodz, Warsaw and Wroclaw; and a summer camp and educational retreat in Srodborow.
There are about 26 synagogues throughout the country. Warsaw and Wroclaw have budding Reform communities, and a Conservative congregation is growing in Warsaw as well. Chabad Lubavitch has also made inroads. Today, some 5,000 Jews are affiliated with Jewish groups here while an estimated 35,000 more have some connection to Judaism, acknowledged or not.
Even more astonishing than the continuing development of Jewish communal life in a country decimated by the Holocaust are stories of individuals emerging from the shadows to claim their Jewish heritage. Most did not even know they were in hiding.
When he was 13, Jan Krasniewski of Wroclaw asked his father about the origins of their family name.
His father, Jurek Krasniewski, “sighed at first,” he relates, “and then said, ‘It is high time to tell you something. Your granddad changed his name.” Jan decided to reclaim his family’s name, Kirschenbaum. He and his twin brother, Maciej, are now studying for conversion.
“I did not want to be considered by some people as a non-Jew,” explains Jan Kirschenbaum, 20, a student at the University of Wroclaw. “I wanted to feel in my heart as a full Jew.”
Ewa Pacult of Krakow had a similar revelation. Seven years ago, at age 35, she sat with her dying Polish Catholic grandmother, Viktoria Gaj. Among her grandmother’s last words: “You are Jewish.”
Pacult had known her mother, Danuta Gaj, was adopted. What Pacult did not know is that her maternal grandparents were Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.
Pacult, who is divorced, began learning about Judaism. Sometime later, she sat her three sons down and told them to listen to her carefully because she had something important to tell them.
Before she could say anything they interrupted and asked, “‘Mother, are you Jewish?’” Pacult recalls. “I said, ‘Yes. How did you know?’ ‘Mother, the whole house is filled with Jewish books on tradition, culture, religion.’”
Since the fall of Communism in 1989, hundreds of such reconnections have taken place. “It hasn’t abated,” says Poland’s Orthodox chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, who came here from the United States in the early 1990s.
A lot of people will tell you how hard it is to come out and reclaim their identity, but now there is a rich infrastructure to help them,” says Ruth Ellen Gruber, author of Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe (National Geographic).
Rabbi Mati Pawlak, 31, of Warsaw, is one of those helping. The first Polishborn rabbi since World War II and principal of Lauder-Morasha, his parents kept his Jewish identity from him until he was 14. They felt they must remain quiet about being Jewish while Poland was under Communist rule, but after he found out, his parents sent him to a Lauder summer camp. The Israel-based Shavei Israel organization later helped him in continuing his Jewish education in New York, where he was ordained at the Orthodox Yeshiva University.
“Our objective is to assist communities around the world that have a historical connection with the Jewish people,” says Shavei Israel chairman Michael Freund, who founded the organization in 2004.
Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org) has brought two other rabbis to Poland: Israeli Boaz Pash to Krakow and Yitzchak Rapoport, from Sweden, to Wroclaw. According to a 2006 Associated Press article, they bring the total number of rabbis in Poland to seven.
In October, Freund coordinated a gathering in Krakow of 25 people from across the country who are trying to reclaim their Jewish heritage. “It would be a tragedy of historic proportions if we were to allow this opportunity to slip away,” he says.
“There is a great hunger for study,” confirms Tehilah van Luit, coordinator for Shavei Israel in Poland. Today, in Krakow’s Jewish community center, she helps teach Hanukka songs to a handful of children. The dusty room is draped with holiday decorations that sparkle in the late afternoon sun.
Hope is in the younger generations, adds Van Luit, who came here from the Netherlands. “[Children of Holocaust survivors] are a lost generation. Most of the returnees are in the third and fourth generation, in their teens and twenties,” she explains.
The effects of the Holocaust and Communist dictatorship are palpable, notes Schudrich. “This community was killed for six years and damaged for the rest,” he says. “It takes longer to fix than it does to damage.”
The stories of emergence are bittersweet. There are many examples of couples who learned after they married that both are Jewish. They probably met, says Schudrich, because their parents moved in similar circles.
Some cases have been publicized in the media. For example, The New York Times ran an article about Romuald-Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel, a priest who learned of his Jewish origins in 1978. His biological parents were killed in the Holocaust, and he was raised by Roman Catholics.
More often, the stories don’t make the news, but they are no less spectacular. The word bashert—destined— comes to mind.
“Everyone has an amazing story,” says Rapoport, 31. When one young man found out why his grandfather had been disappearing every Saturday morning for years—to attend synagogue—he decided to go, too. Another decided to reconnect with his Jewish roots after spending his entire childhood in an orphanage.
This is the greatest reemergence of Jews since the 17th-century Conversos reemerged in places like Amsterdam, England and the Caribbean,” says Bert Schuman, senior rabbi at Beit Warszawa, Warsaw’s Reform congregation, whose own members are a case in point.
One worshiper who rediscovered his Jewish roots, Wojtek Skarczinski, is now studying at the Reform Abraham Geiger College rabbinical seminary in Berlin.
Yet for many Jews outside Poland, there is a nagging discomfort with the idea of celebrating Jewish life in post-war Poland. They think of the country as a graveyard. Of the 3.5 million Jews in prewar Poland, only 10 percent survived. Many of those who returned following the war fled again after pogroms and the official anti-Jewish measures of 1968.
True, historians say there were more Jews hidden and rescued in Poland than anywhere else. True, Poles top the list of Righteous Gentiles at Israel’s Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Memorial. But there is no recreating the past, argue critics such as Rabbi Josh Spinner, vice president of the Lauder foundation and director of the Beit Midrash of Berlin, a Torah education center. Jews today should be living among other Jews, he says, and not in Poland.
Schudrich knows such arguments well. When he first immersed himself in Polish Jewry in the 1970s, he witnessed the budding Jewish Flying University headed by Jewish activist Konstanty Gebert, an unofficial, informal school that traveled around Poland helping Jews learn about Judaism.
“[I felt] something was going on here that nobody understood,” Schudrich says. “It was not only about cemeteries that existed and synagogues that still stood, but about Jews.”
He believes American and Israeli Jews reject the idea of a continued Jewish presence in Poland partially because of feelings of guilt. “Some survivors always knew that their cousin or their daughter may have survived in hiding,” he says. “But if nobody is left, that takes care of it. Psychologically, closing the chapter was healing.”
For Poland’s new flock of Jews, the Holocaust is of receding importance. “American Jews come here [thinking] Poland is a graveyard and no one should live here,” says Kirschenbaum. “And when they find out that there are people who want to live Jewishly here and want to build a community, they are astonished.”
To some young Polish Jews, it is annoying to be constantly asked how they feel about the Holocaust. They prefer focusing on finding a Jewish partner, trying to keep kosher or converting (in Europe, as opposed to the United States, the Reform movement does not accept patrilineal descent).
For many, reclaiming their heritage begins at The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation Genealogy Project at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, whose archive contains many clues and documents.
“The time has come to talk about it,” says Yale Reisner, codirector of the genealogy project. “The publication of family sagas emboldened people to come out.”
“The shock is not so great anymore because of the public discussion, and it’s not so bad to be a Jew anymore,” says Anna Przybyszewska-Drozd, who also works at the project.
Recently, a man walked into the institute, sent by the Red Cross. Even he didn’t understand why. But, “inside half an hour, we had his whole Jewish family [history] for him,” Reisner says.
Of course, for some people there’s no proof. “I have the feeling many people are coming without Jewish roots,” Przybyszewska-Drozd says.
“Maybe they feel rootlessness and want to join a group.”
But most have some clue, whether it is a piece of paper, a family name or a childhood memory.
“There are so many question marks,” says Pawlak. “Sometimes older people will say just before they die, ‘Listen, I have to tell you a story: This is not my real name.’ And because so many documents were destroyed in the war, such statements are sometimes all one has to go on.”
Like the young priest who recently discovered his mother was Jewish. “He sneaks out of the seminary on Friday nights to come to
,” says Schudrich, who would not reveal the man’s name or location, except to say it isn’t Warsaw. “He can’t come to shul on Shabbat morning because the priest will catch on.
“He has got to make some serious decisions,” adds Schudrich. “He realizes now that he can’t dance at two weddings.”
In a country whose population was traumatized by two dictatorships, the Jewish secret settled to the bottom of the soul. Sometimes, that soul awakens in the strangest of ways. Yet, make no mistake, Poland and its Jewry can never be what it once was. But it can be something else.
One weekday morning, Pawlak is learning one-on-one with Pinchas Bramson, 31, in Warsaw’s Nozyk Synagogue. Pawlak is talking with his hands, and Bramson holds his forehead, as if a great idea (or a headache) is brewing.
Bramson was once Pawel, a former skinhead in Warsaw. After he discovered that he was Jewish, he changed his name and grew a beard and sidelocks.
In his earlier life, Bramson earned his living driving trucks through Poland and the Czech Republic. He spoke the guttural language of the road and was a heavy smoker.
About seven years ago, Bramson’s wife—he prefers not to give her name—started researching both of their Jewish roots.
“I didn’t want to be involved,” he says between sips of coffee.
Eventually, she went to the institute, where Reisner found documents showing that both of Bramson’s parents were Jewish.
This information turned the tide. Gradually, Bramson gave up smoking on the Sabbath. He and his wife started keeping a kosher home.
The hardest thing for Bramson is talking to his former friends. “It used to be easier, because all the truck drivers speak the same language,” he says. “Now, I am learning about Judaism and about respecting people. It makes things harder, because you can’t say everything you think.”
Bramson’s parents and identical twin brother remain ambivalent about his choices. “They say, ‘One of these is enough in the family,’” he notes with a smile.
Such ambivalence is understandable. There are conflicting reports on the degree of anti-Semitism in Poland, with some community members insisting that the problem is minimal. However, Schudrich was assaulted last year by a man yelling racist slogans, though the rabbi shrugged off the attack since such incidences are rare. And the word “Jew” is sometimes used as an insult.
When Kirschenbaum found out his father was Jewish, “I was confused, I didn’t know how to relate this offensive word to myself,” says Kirschenbaum.
Then, when he was 17, he and his brother visited Auschwitz with non-Jewish friends. “For us, it was different because we knew it had something to do with us,” he recalls.
A year later, Kirschenbaum began dating a Jewish woman. “It was the first time anyone told me—apart from my family—that they had Jewish roots,” he says. Soon, he met other Jews at Wroclaw’s Jewish youth club and a Lauder summer camp. After Rapoport came to Wroclaw in 2006, he decided to start on the path toward conversion. And as a sign of solidarity, his 80-year-old Catholic grandmother knitted a kippa for him.
Recently, Kirschenbaum began keeping kosher. “It is a bit demanding, but you can do it if you want, even in Poland,” he says. His future might be here, or in Israel, England or the United States—partly depending on where he finds a Jewish woman to marry. Joanna Grudzitska, 23, is also on a path toward greater Jewish observance. But unlike Kirschenbaum, Grudzitska, who is studying at the University of Wroclaw, always knew there were Jewish roots in her family.
Grudzitska’s Jewish-born maternal grandmother had looked so Aryan the Germans wanted to use her to breed the next generation. Traumatized by her experiences, she renounced her Jewish identity after the war. But on her wedding night, “she found out her husband was a Jew, too…,” says Grudzitska, laughing.
Only her grandfather kept some of the traditions—secretly. He taught Grudzitska how to light Sabbath candles. He died eight years ago. “[I] saw that this flame will die if nobody will carry it,” Grudzitska says, “so I decided it is going to be me.”
Her Catholic-raised mother cried when Grudzitska told her she was converting—a secondary conversion used by those whose mothers are born Jewish but have accepted another faith. Her mother had thought of the baptismal papers as a type of insurance, something that could save her daughter’s life in case anything happens.
Today, Grudzitska’s parents, who are divorced, support their daughter’s choice. Her father keeps a kosher pot for her. And her mother is learning about Judaism so one day she can answer her grandchildren’s questions. She once told Grudzitska she felt she had failed as a Jewish mother. “She wanted to apologize,” says Grudzitska, “and I said, ‘It’s O.K, Mama!’”
Ewa Pacult’s mother remains silent. She “thinks it is dangerous, because everyone would like to kill us, still now,” Pacult says.
Yet, acceptance can come from unlikely places. Jan Kirschenbaum’s parents attended the Wroclaw JCC’s Hanukka party with their son.
“You know, I love my sons and I want them to be happy,” says his mother, Mirka Krasniewski. “We did not teach our children about Jewish culture when they were young because we were afraid of discrimination. I am not very Catholic, and if my son wants to be a Jew, I accept it.”
Not only that, she wants her sons to find wives in Jewish circles. And, she adds, she wants “to be a good Jewish mother and…Jewish grandmother.”
Today, she is no longer afraid. In fact, she says that her husband is going to write the history of his own father for Yad Vashem’s archives.
Kirschenbaum cherishes being linked to the past. “My great-grandparents and ancestors followed the same rules I follow,” he says. “In this hectic world, so full of disparate ideas and false idols and celebrities, I have some very specific rules. Sometimes I find them hard to follow. People around me don’t have them. But that is what is valuable for me in Judaism. This feeling of belonging.”