In Poland, a focus on Jewish life, not just death

There is a Jewish renaissance in the Republic of Poland, one of Europe’s post-Iron Curtain success stories. A new and promising energy is in evidence. The main square of Krakow is alive with young people in sidewalk cafes.

Nevertheless, these signs of a renewal face formidable obstacles. Jews around the world are unaware of Poland’s central role in the historic diaspora. Perhaps as many as two-thirds of American Jews can trace their ancestry to Central and Eastern Europe.  

Yet the rebirth of a Jewish presence in Poland is not yet on the agenda of Jewish organizations and individuals around the world. Indeed, the opposite is more often the case. Instead of celebrating Jewish life, there continues to be a focus on Jewish death as Poland persists in being regarded principally as a vast cemetery. Too many Jewish visitors are inclined to limit their Polish experience to a visit to Auschwitz.

Jewish communities in Poland, after the carnage of the Holocaust, are miniscule, but a modest emigration from the former Soviet Union and elsewhere has boosted its numbers to about 30,000. Many Poles are beginning to recognize and admit to their Jewish ancestry.

A growing core of younger families enrolling their children in Jewish schools and summer camps, many sponsored by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, with which the S.F.-based Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture is developing a working partnership.

Visiting the Lauder School, I was introduced to children who are the grandchildren of survivors. Until recently several of these students did not know they were Jewish. A teacher explained: The grandparents, surviving the Holocaust, abandoned their Judaism after the war and did not bring up their own children Jewishly. But families are finding their way back and their children are being educated in a Jewish school.

Synagogues are being rebuilt in various Polish cities, but owing to the small number of Polish Jews, these historic facilities are as much for culture as for worship. For example, in the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz in Krakow concerts are offered in the Kupa, Izaak and Temple synagogues where the Gestapo once quartered their horses.

Tad Taube, who left his native Krakow 65 years ago, recently offered words of greeting to a concert audience, and he spoke to them Polish. I overheard a member of the audience say, “That’s pretty good. We get lots of American Jewish visitors, but only a handful speak our language.”

Surprisingly, the majority of participants in such programs as the annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow are not Jewish. There is avid and genuine curiosity and interest in Poland’s Jewish history and culture, particularly among the younger Poles. Other signs of Jewish cultural recovery include the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, the archive of prewar Jewish life, closed by the Nazis but active again by 1950.  

Poland has always been a nation caught between two major currents of Jewish civilization. For more than half a millennium, Poland was at the epicenter of a thriving Jewish civilization. But the annals of Jewish history also record the forces of death and devastation in a land where 95 percent of Polish Jewry was wiped out.

But it is now 60 years later, time for Jewish rebirth, to life rather than death, and to move beyond the Jew as perennial victim. A large part of Jewish history, the story of our people in Central and Eastern Europe, needs to be told and become part of the collective consciousness.

The painful but inspiring memory of the indomitable will of our people to survive animates much of the Jewish renaissance. The prewar Jewish community in Poland has all but ceased to exist physically. But the spiritual and cultural memory is gaining strength.

Jews in Poland are recovering traces of the rich and prolific culture developed there. In so doing they honor those individuals and communities that preserved our traditions as a people for the better part of a millennium.

Stephen Mark Dobbs is the executive director of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture in San Francisco.