How Poland is reconnecting with its Jewish roots

Image credit: Board of Deputies

By David Walsh

Revival, renaissance, looking to the future – just some of the terms used by various organisations and the Polish government when describing the state of Jewish life in Poland today.

You would think that few would have to be reminded that Poland is the world’s biggest graveyard for Jews. Its huge Jewish population of three million before World War II was decimated during the Holocaust. post-war socialism wasn’t kind either, forcing many of the remaining Jews into hiding or worse: ultimate assimilation and oblivion.

Today Poland is trying to put the pieces back together. Towns, some of which had grown accustomed to denying the very existence of their Jewish populations, are restoring their synagogues and building memorials. An impressive new Jewish museum, the Polin Museum, has opened in Warsaw. The museum tells the 1000-year long history of Polish Jews, enlightening for Poles and visitors alike.

Perhaps more interesting, however, is the steadily increasing number of Poles looking to reconnect with their Jewish roots. The Jewish Community Centre in Krakow offers an ‘in’ into a Jewish community which rarely frequents the ‘Kosher-style’ restaurants of Kazimierz. Unlike the JCCs of the US and UK, the JCC here functions almost as a quasi-synagogue-cum-culture centre. This reflects the reality of status issues (many claiming Jewish heritage but unable to prove it) and the necessity for an ‘easing in’ process following the trauma of authoritarianism and self-denial. Jonathan Ornstein, Executive Director of the centre, rattled off some impressive numbers about membership and reach.

Klezmer music, Jewish film, literature and cooking are all subjects of a dizzying array of events and festivals which attract a sizeable number of cosmopolitan Poles. Orthodox and Reform synagogues are steadily building up their profiles in the largest cities and organisationally the community is attempting to consolidate its strength – though not without conflict. At the same time, antisemitism and prejudice remain stubbornly high in Poland.

One attempt to reach broader swathes of society can be found in the ‘Forum for Dialogue Among Nations’. Funded by a number of governmental and non-governmental bodies, the FDAN runs programmes such as the ‘Schools of Dialogue’, where school children are educated in the local Jewish history of their towns. School children in Końskie gave our delegation a guided tour, in English, in what certainly proved to be one of the highlights of the programme. Their enthusiasm and thoughtfulness were palpable. Clearly this education will take time to filter into wider society but it should be commended as a positive initiative.

Back in the capital of Warsaw, the local JCC serves up an excellent Israel brunch on Sunday mornings to a diverse collection of Jews and non-Jews, old and young. On the top floor a photography class is taking place, while an Orthodox Rabbi is teaching a cheder class on another level. The atmosphere is buzzing, a clear sign of deepening interest and attachment to Poland’s Jewish heritage.

In our last meeting, we are joined by Sebastian Rejak, Special Envoy of the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Relations with the Jewish Diaspora. He is at pains to emphasise the government’s interest in supporting this revival. As complicated as the reconciliation of Poles and indeed Polish Jews with their history and identity may be, the Polish government’s approach is not free of complexities either. On the subject of restitution, Poland has a patchy record and this is a subject that the Board will continue to raise.

There is much scope and potential for the Polish Jewish community. The more open nature of Polish society is leading to interesting cultural expressions (Israeli food with a Polish twist being one example) and increased understanding. The revival of Jewish communities in what was such a cradle of Jewish life and learning can only be a positive development for the diaspora and we look forward to supporting its sustainable growth.

David Walsh is the Board’s international affairs officer

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