A wedding in Poland celebrates towns Jewish rebirth

WROCLAW, Poland — When Curt Fissel stomped on the glass after his wedding in this southwestern Polish town, the congregation erupted into loud applause and a resounding chorus of "Mazel Tov!"

But the joyous response went far beyond heartfelt good wishes to Fissel and his bride, Ellen Friedland, of Montclair, N.J.

Their emotional nuptials took place this summer in the historic, partially reconstructed White Stork Synagogue, which just four years ago was a ruin. It was the first Jewish wedding there in 36 years, and it marked a symbolic milestone in the life of the small but reviving local Jewish community.

"This is a sacred moment in Jewish history," said Rabbi Michael Monson of Montclair's Congregation Shomrei Emunah, who traveled to Wroclaw from New Jersey to perform the ceremony.

"It is a statement to the world that the Jewish people, wherever we may be, are alive and well."

Jerzy Kichler, Wroclaw-based president of the Union of Jewish Congregations in Poland, called it a "kind of miracle."

Fissel and Friedland decided to marry in Wroclaw to make their personal joy a public celebration — not just of a united Jewish people, but of the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland since the fall of communism a decade ago.

The near-capacity congregation included as many as half of Wroclaw's estimated 600 to 1,000 Jews, nearly 200 non-Jewish townspeople and about 30 friends and family of the bride and groom from the United States and Israel.

"I've never been to a synagogue, and wanted to see a real Jewish wedding," said Anna, a 19-year-old Catholic student who attended with her parents and aunt. "It was beautiful, amazing — there was more passion, love and friendship than in my church."

Also present were representatives of local Catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox churches, plus the U.S. consul from Krakow and the German consul from Wroclaw.

Local television, radio and newspapers covered the event, which began with the signing of the ketubah — the wedding contract — and ended with a party featuring klezmer music, Israeli dancing and a kosher buffet cooked in the Jewish community kitchen.

"Our wedding is about more than a personal union bridging different lives and families," said Friedland.

"It is also about a union bridging different Jewish communities, and it is about a union bridging different times in Jewish history," she said.

Friedland, a political journalist with the New Jersey Jewish News, and Fissel, a photographer, first came to Poland about four years ago.

Like most American Jewish visitors to Poland, they expected only to learn about Jewish death — the annihilation of 3 million Polish Jews during the Holocaust; the death camps; the devastated shtetls, cemeteries and synagogues.

They were amazed to find small Jewish communities that had begun emerging, like seedlings through ashes, after the fall of communism.

They became deeply immersed in chronicling — and championing — this still fragile rebirth.

Fissel, meanwhile, born a Christian, reclaimed his own distant Jewish roots and converted to Judaism.

"My Jewish roots are 7-1/2 generations back," he said, "but with my conversion I reconnected my Jewish soul to Judaism."

Their documentary film, "Poland: Creating a New Jewish Heritage," was completed in 1997.

Thanks to a more than $1 million grant from a German foundation, the synagogue has a new roof and its ground floor has been restored, though its two balconies and exterior still need reconstruction.

"The rebuilding of the synagogue," said Friedland, "is a metaphor for the rebuilding of personal, communal, religious, cultural and political lives."

Before World War II, Wroclaw was part of Germany. Then known as Breslau, it was home to some 30,000 Jews, the third-largest Jewish community in Germany. It was a center of the Reform movement.

The neoclassical White Stork Synagogue, built in 1827-29, was designed by the same architect who designed Berlin's Brandenburg Gate. The famous Breslau Jewish Theological Seminary was located across the street.

During World War II, Wroclaw's Jews were herded into the synagogue's courtyard before being deported to Nazi death camps. The synagogue itself was desecrated and used as a stable.

After the war, Wroclaw became part of Poland. The synagogue was used again for worship until 1974. At that time, it was taken over by the Communist state after the regime's anti-Semitic campaign forced most remaining Polish Jews to leave the country in 1968. Over the decades, it became a ruined shell.

Jewish life began to revive in Wroclaw after 1989, as young people began to claim a Jewish identity amid new religious, social and political freedoms.

Today, Wroclaw has Poland's second largest Jewish community after Warsaw's.