Playing soccer as a Jew in Warsaw

I’ve been living in Warsaw, Poland’s capital, for just over a year. I have never felt safer, as a woman and, especially, as a Jew.

I was introduced to Poland during two trips organized through the Holocaust Center of Northern California, and after each trip, I found myself regularly thinking about the country. I have an academic interest in the visual manifestations of memories of the Holocaust, specifically related to the death sites and memorials. I was brought up to think of Poland as the land of anti-Semitism, the land of the death camps, and the land of the death of the European Jewry. I decided to pursue my curiosity. In late fall of 2013, I packed my few pieces of winter clothing and left for Warsaw.

Poland is a strange place. It is a capitalist country that is still struggling to shake off the Communist mind-set. Skyscrapers, expensive cars and large chain stores are taking over the cities, but the small food and flower stands on almost every street corner, rundown market places, and local café-bars are the centers of neighborhood life. In Warsaw, one of the most popular squares, where people hang out till the early morning hours every day, hosts a huge rainbow arch composed of human-made flowers, representing diversity and acceptance. It is an artwork installed by the Warsaw city government. Every time the rainbow is burnt down by far-right nationalists, which happens a few times a year, it is immediately rebuilt. Very quickly, it became apparent to me that the notion of Poland as a place of death is not at all how it is seen here. Poland is a homeland with a proud culture and heritage, and with its own story to tell.

The Jewish community of Poland is composed largely of people who are new to Judaism. Driven to hide their religion by both the Nazis and the Communists, some grandparents and parents are now revealing that they are Jewish to their descendants, often on their deathbeds. It feels as if there is always someone reaching out to a Jewish organization and saying, “I just found out I’m Jewish. What does this mean?” To the Polish Jewish community, it means that they have another member, no matter how that individual may choose to identify.

When I arrived in Warsaw, I was immediately enveloped into the Jewish community. Most of my friends here are Jewish, and I am constantly participating in Jewish activities —“Second Breakfast” every Sunday at the year-old Warsaw JCC, large holiday celebrations with members of the multi-denominational Jewish community, and casual Shabbat dinners with friends and relatives. Recently, I have become actively involved with another Jewish Polish tradition — Maccabi Warsaw (known in Polish as Å»TGS Makabi Warszawa).

This past May, Makabi Warszawa was continued after a hiatus of more than seventy years. The original club was started in 1915. Until its demise in 1939 under German occupation, Makabi Warszawa was one of the largest and strongest clubs in the world. This past July at the Jewish Culture Festival in Kraków (the largest in the world of its kind), Makabi Warszawa played the newly created Kraków Jewish athletic club, Å»KS Kraków, in what is believed to be the first Polish-Jewish soccer match played on Polish soil since before the Holocaust. In late October, the revenge match was played during the opening weekend of the core exhibition of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Makabi Warszawa has a soccer team, yoga workouts and during warmer weather an athletic and running session. We have plans to start a youth soccer team, and we are hoping to send three representatives to the European Maccabi Games in Berlin next summer to compete in swimming, running and tennis, both of which I am involved with organizing.

I find myself, as a member of Makabi Warszawa, feeling proud to be Jewish. I was always Jewish, but I have never felt such pride for my religion, my culture, and my heritage. Makabi Warszawa is a place where Varsovian Jews can come together, regardless of their religious or cultural affiliations — to play soccer.

Maayan Stanton grew up in the East Bay, graduating from El Cerrito High School, Berkeley Midrasha and UC Santa Cruz. She now lives in Warsaw.