Celebrations | In Polish city, wedding fetes Jewish rediscovery, revival

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wroclaw, poland  |  When Katka Reszke and Slawomir Grunberg tied the knot at the historic White Stork Synagogue in this southwestern Polish city, they were determined that the occasion would be more than just a wedding.

They wanted it to be a symbol of how thousands of Polish Jews, like themselves, have found their way back to Judaism and Jewish identity.

The couple, who are based in New York but spend part of each year in their native Poland, also wanted the ceremony — the first religious Jewish wedding in Wroclaw in 14 years — to be a learning experience for both local Jews and non-Jews.

Friends, family, the public and media crowd in front of the chuppah for the June 22 wedding in Wroclaw. photos/ruth ellen gruber

To this end, they opened the June 22 ceremony to everyone in the city and turned their nuptials into an hourslong, open-air public event with klezmer bands, kosher food, two officiating Orthodox rabbis, and loudspeaker explanations of each step in the traditional wedding ritual.

“Jewish community members told us that they had never been to a Jewish wedding, so we made it into a sort of festival,” said Reszke, 35, an outgoing woman with spiky reddish hair who was born and raised in Wroclaw. “By explaining the wedding to everyone, we’re trying to break down the mystery that separates people.”

The couple’s personal histories drove their desire to make a statement and vividly reflect the complex dilemmas of post-Holocaust and post-communist Jewish experience in Poland.

Reszke is a photographer, writer and Jewish studies scholar who in 2013 published “Return of the Jew,” a book about the country’s post-communist Jewish revival — a revival that shaped her life.

Since she was a teenager, Reszke said, she had felt strongly connected to Judaism. “I had a hunch I was Jewish,” but no proof.

Reszke earned a diploma in Jewish studies from the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, lived in Israel, obtained a doctorate in Jewish education from Hebrew University and underwent formal conversion.

But it wasn’t until last year that she learned that her mother’s family had actually been Jewish.

“My mom told me that her grandmother had confided on her deathbed that she was Jewish but made her swear not to say anything while my own grandmother was still alive,” Reszke said. “She finally told me a week before my book was launched.”

Grunberg, 63, is an award-winning documentary filmmaker raised by a grandmother who also rejected her Jewish identity.

“She used the term ‘Jewish’ as an epithet,” he said. “I learned that being a Jew was something bad, something scary — something not to be mentioned.”

Katka Reszke and Slawomir Grunberg

As a teenager in the 1960s, he learned that he was Jewish. “I did everything to reject this. I didn’t want to be a Jew,” he said. “To be different in Poland in those days was no good, to be Jewish was worse.”

It was only after immigrating to the United States in 1981 that Grunberg began learning about Jewish culture, digging into his past and “becoming comfortable” with being Jewish. Many of his films over the past two decades have centered on Jewish or Holocaust themes.

Reszke noted the irony that growing up, Grunberg “was doing his best to hide his identity and roots, while at the same time I was doing my best to discover them. Today we are together and are celebrating.”

The two met about seven years ago, when Rezke contacted Grunberg after seeing a post on a Polish Jewish Internet site that he was making a documentary on Polish Jewish identity.

“For me it was love at first sight,” she said. “Now we are working on a film together, called ‘I am A Jew.’ ”

At the wedding, hundreds gathered in the spacious courtyard outside the White Stork Synagogue.

Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, and Wroclaw’s Rabbi Tyson Herberger officiated under a tent-like chuppah held aloft by friends of the couple. They stood on a raised platform set up in front of the elegant facade of the synagogue, which was rededicated in 2010 after a full-scale restoration.

An announcer using a loudspeaker system described all the details — from the ketubah, to the sheva brachot (seven blessings), to Grunberg’s breaking of the glass.

Before and after the ceremony, there was music: Klezmer, Yiddish and folk bands from Poland, the United States, Italy and Cyprus performed on a second stage. Vodka flowed freely and cooks in the Jewish community kitchen kept replenishing a long buffet table of salads, herring and challah.

“It’s our big, fat, Jewish wedding,” Reszke joked.

Among the guests were Ellen Friedland and Curt Fissel, U.S. documentary filmmakers whose own wedding in 2000 had been the last Jewish wedding in Wroclaw and, at the time, also the first there in decades.

They had produced a film about Wroclaw and the White Stork Synagogue, and they, too, had wanted to make a statement about Jewish revival by holding their wedding there, though the synagogue at the time was dilapidated and they brought a rabbi from the United States to officiate.

Friedland and Fissel’s wedding was an inspiration, Grunberg said. He and Reszke used the same chuppah as the American couple.

Before World War II, Wroclaw was the German city of Breslau, with its Jewish population of more than 23,000 making it the third-largest Jewish community in Germany. Breslau was a center of the Reform movement, and the renowned Breslau Jewish Theological Seminary was located across the street from the White Stork Synagogue.

The shul, completed in 1829, was not destroyed on Kristallnacht in 1938 because of its proximity to other buildings. But it was desecrated and used by the Nazis as an auto repair shop and storage place for stolen Jewish property. The Nazis herded Wroclaw Jews into the synagogue courtyard before deporting them to concentration camps.

Wroclaw became part of Poland after World War II. Today, with some 350 registered members, the organized Jewish community is the second-largest in Poland after Warsaw, offering a range of religious, educational and cultural programs.

The synagogue restoration was spearheaded by a foundation established by the Wroclaw-based Norwegian Jewish singer Bente Kahan. The building now anchors an educational and cultural center that also includes a smaller prayer room where regular services are held.

Herberger, Wroclaw’s rabbi, viewed the wedding as “a sign of hope and life,” adding, “in two weeks we will have a bat mitzvah. And I’ve already heard comments from community members telling me that they are looking forward to the next chuppah.” n

For her part, Reszke expressed hope that her wedding could serve a larger purpose.

“Over the past 25 years, thousands have discovered their Jewish roots, but thousands haven’t,” she said. “A display like this may or may not encourage them, but it can’t hurt.”

Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ruth Ellen Gruber is a writer for JTA.