JCC Krakow director Jonathan Ornstein shows off the center's preschool books. (Photo/Gunda Trepp)
JCC Krakow director Jonathan Ornstein shows off the center's preschool books. (Photo/Gunda Trepp)

Up close and personal with Poland’s Jewish revival

Holocaust survivor Zofia Radzikowski lights Shabbat candles at the JCC in Krakow, Poland. I’m seated with 20 members of my synagogue, along with Krakow community members and other visitors. Non-Jewish volunteers pass plates of kosher hummus, baba ganoush, and roast chicken. The multi-purpose room where we sit is cheerful with brightly colored posters of images from Jewish holidays: apples and honey, a Seder plate, a shofar, the lulav and etrog.

I’m on a Jewish heritage trip to Krakow, Warsaw, Budapest, and Vienna with my synagogue. As I watch the candles flicker I think about how hours earlier our group paid homage at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where we stood on muddy ground at the Pond of Ashes, a small pond fringed by birch trees, where Nazis cast ashes and small pieces of bones from people burned in the crematoriums. We chanted Kaddish—the Jewish prayer recited for the dead. In less than a day we’ve exchanged a Jewish gravesite for new Jewish life in Poland.

A few days later we take a dinner cruise down the Danube with Sasha Freidman, Camp Director of Szarvas, an international Jewish Youth Camp in Hungary founded in 1990. Friedman tells the story of a young camper hoisting his duffel over his shoulder, saying good-bye to his mother and preparing to jump on the camp bus when she says, “You’re Jewish. You’ll learn all about it at camp!” Why does the mother wait until the last moment to tell her son about his heritage? How does the son feel after hearing this information as the bus door swings shut and he throws his duffel in the overhead bin? When I return to Krakow and Warsaw the following year to interview Jews integral to Poland’s Jewish revival, I hear versions of this story again and again.

Michal Grynberg, a Warsaw photographer in his early fifties, former psychologist and the son of Holocaust survivors, went to Auschwitz to ask visitors why they were there. Some of the responses he got: “Because it is the largest cemetery in the world. Without even a single tombstone.” Another: “Beyond the pile of glasses I saw all these eyes. What to do to protect them from being forgotten,” and “They were human beings. I’m a human being too and so I had to come here.”

I read these responses and ask myself why I decided to visit Krakow and Warsaw. My grandparents emigrated from the Ukraine in the early 20th century; our family didn’t experience the Holocaust directly. And yet, I’m drawn to the stories. By understanding Polish Jews’ return to Judaism, I hope to better understand my own renewed embrace.

I am sitting in a small conference room in the JCC in Krakow, talking with Marcjanna Kubala. In her mid-20s, Marcjanna is founder and director of the student club Gimel. “Why Gimel?” I ask. “Because we’re the third generation (post-Holocaust)…we’re teaching our parents about Jewish traditions.”

Marcjanna’s mother is Jewish; her father is not. Researching her family’s history at 13, she Googled her mother’s name. Something caught her eye and she called to ask her mother a question. “You’re Jewish,” her mother called back from the next room. That’s how Marcjanna found out. She’s proud to be Jewish, and proud to say she’s Jewish out loud. “It’s safe to wear a kippah in Krakow,” she says, “but maybe that’s just Krakow. When you find out later in life you’re Jewish, the most important thing is it’s normal to know you’re Jewish.” She discovered Jewish values. Through tikkun olam—repair the world— she says, “I feel the power to make a difference.”

The view from inside the Warsaw JCC (Photo/Susan Moldaw)
The view from inside the Warsaw JCC (Photo/Susan Moldaw)

Marcjanna’s story is of Jewish pride, the excitement of discovering and reclaiming one’s Jewish past. Religious observance in her home is informal—the family tells the story of Hanukkah and Passover, and also celebrates Easter and Christmas. Marcjanna knows her legacy, but has little Jewish education. She believes Jews owe something to those who died in the Holocaust.

Marcjanna made a deal with her non-Jewish Polish boyfriend. They won’t baptize their future children, and they won’t circumcise them either. His mother offers to take her to church. Marcjanna guesses that his grandparents will want to teach their grandchildren about Catholicism. Marcjanna believes intermarriage is an individual choice. She wants to raise her future children, “smart with choice.” They will know they’re Jewish, she says. “Our job is to pass (Judaism) on to the next generation so the community won’t be smaller.” There are “50 shades of Judaism” in Poland, she says.

I’d like to have asked Marcjanna how it felt to suddenly discover you’re Jewish. I think of my own story, also complicated by assimilation. On a Friday night like many others in our home, my non-Jewish husband and I light Shabbat candles, then he fires up his tablet as the sun sets. My Jewish mother drives from her home to entertain friends at a very non-kosher crab dinner at her club. My Orthodox son living in Tel Aviv turns off his phone in observance of the Sabbath. Another son also living in Tel Aviv keeps his phone on, and the third son living in Boulder, Colorado has all but forgotten Shabbat.  I’m curled up in an easy chair, reading. Lately it’s Dani Shapiro’s “Devotion.” “For years, I had avoided the Jewish stuff,” she writes. “But deep down, beneath layers of discomfort, there was something I wanted to know.”

I’m a Reform Jew, raised in the 1950s and ‘60s in the Bay Area. My father was a real macher, one of the founders of my childhood synagogue, a philanthropic, assimilated Jew with a big-hearted Jewish identity and deeply held Jewish values of tikkun olam. My mother grew up in a small Jewish community in Maine and attended services at a tiny shul in Old Orchard Beach. She never had a firm grip on Jewish ritual, so there were few in our home, mostly mandatory Sunday School for my sister and me, perfunctory attendance at synagogue for the High Holidays, and lots of talk of the Jewish Federation, where my father took leading roles.

My father died 11 years ago and his death moved me to begin a program of clinical pastoral education at a local hospital, with the goal of becoming a lay chaplain. Once a week five other chaplains-in-training and I met with a supervisor. We presented cases, learned clinical skills, and challenged one another for six intense hours. As I listened to the other chaplains talk about their religions I came face-to-face with how little I knew about mine. And it wasn’t just the chaplains’ knowledge I wanted—it was their faith, grounded in knowledge, rituals, and tradition. I joined a Torah study group, entered a two-year adult education program at our synagogue, started attending Friday night services, and began lighting my own candles.

Pre-Holocaust, the size of the Jewish population in Poland was 3.5 million. Three million were murdered. Of the half-million survivors, about 280,000 Jews returned to Poland after the war, or came out from hiding. Post-war pogroms led to more than 100,000 Jews leaving Poland by the end of 1946. In 1948 thousands departed for the new state of Israel. A communist-led anti-Zionist campaign in 1968 led to additional emigration. By 1970 only about 30,000 Jews remained. The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee began rebuilding Jewish institutions only after 1989, when Poland broke up the communist system and formed a non-communist government.

Estimates of today’s Polish Jewish community range between 7,000 and 40,000. The exact number is difficult to pinpoint. I spoke with Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the American-born, Orthodox Chief Rabbi of Poland, who has lived in the country since 1990. In an article in Haaretz he asked, Should we count as Jews those who are halachically Jewish but don’t want to affiliate? What about practicing Catholics who are Jewish by birth and feel Jewish? He told me, “Anyone seeking to engage Jewishly, in an honest way, I welcome.” Uncertain Jewish genealogies and the community’s small size make necessary a broad Jewish tent.

In Warsaw we meet for interviews at the “Boker Tov” kosher vegetarian brunch at the JCC on Chmielna Street. The JCC was founded in 2013 and attracts up to 200 Jews and non-Jews for these Sunday meals. They take seats inside and at tables outside, eating, talking, lingering.

Susan Moldaw (left) interviewing Malgorzata Kozera Topinska in Warsaw (Photo/Gunda Trepp)
Susan Moldaw (left) interviewing Malgorzata Kozera Topinska in Warsaw (Photo/Gunda Trepp)

Karina Sokolowska, 45, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Poland director, has a Jewish father and a mother with an “unclear Jewish history.” Karina always knew she was Jewish. After university in the 1990s she met other young Jews and together they formed the Polish Union of Jewish Students. There were about 30 students to start. They had one thing in common—they all knew they were Jewish. It wasn’t the “sudden discovery” that’s happening now.

Karina says the idea of being Jewish among the young people was very serious—it wasn’t a passing fashion. Her husband, the father of her two children, is Protestant, and the family identifies as Jewish, but she has “no problem” with her children going to church. Her son didn’t have a bar mitzvah because she didn’t want him to choose between parents. Her kids will make their own choice about religion.

Warsaw fashion designer Antonina Samecka, 36, always knew she was Jewish. Her mother was open about the family’s Jewish roots. Her father isn’t Jewish. Antonina has friends who aspire to be Jewish and aspire to have Jewish roots. “It’s cool to be Jewish in Poland,” she explains.

Antonina doesn’t plan to raise her two-year old daughter religiously, though she put her in a Jewish kindergarten where she learned Hebrew. She’ll tell her daughter she’s Jewish; she believes in passing on the heritage. Antonina celebrates Christmas with her daughter’s non-Jewish father, whom she believes is Jewish, but it’s “a secret in his family,” she says.

My sons’ father, my ex-husband, wasn’t Jewish, and before marriage we agreed to raise our children in the Jewish religion. After our sons were born I waged a constant mental contest with myself to make sure their religious training matched, if not bettered, mine. They went to a Jewish preschool—I hadn’t. They had bar mitzvahs—I had an Anshei Mitzvah in adulthood. We sidestepped Christmas with an annual vacation to Hawaii over the holidays, and always celebrated Chanukah, as I did growing up. I cooked Passover specialties like matzoh apple pudding and tsimmes and our family seder was no more or less religious than my childhood experience, when my father once asked, “What are these books doing on the table?” and ate the boiled egg from the Seder plate before we all sat down.

Agata Rakowiecka, 36, director of the JCC Warsaw, grew up with a Catholic father and a Jewish mother. Catholic traditions are important to her father. Her mother is an atheist with a strong Jewish identity. Agata’s first Jewish experience was at Lauder Camp—her father wanted her to embrace her Jewish roots. Jewish camp made a difference for her. The message from the camp was: We know you don’t know about Judaism, but you are capable, you can learn. At the beginning she wondered if she was just playing at being Jewish—is it honest? She felt scared—what will she find in this Jewish community, how should she approach it? She was afraid to do the wrong thing; she didn’t know how to behave. It’s not God she’s finding at the JCC; it’s an understanding of her family, her identity, and an opportunity to connect with other Jews. To Marcjanna’s “50 shades of Judaism,” Agata says, “Only 50?”

Katarina Jachnicka, 38, learned Hebrew at university and wrote her thesis about Jewish women. She can’t explain why. She didn’t know she was Jewish until she was 28, and her mother said, “We need to talk.” For two years, she wondered what to do with this information. Is it important to her, how much, and in what way? Now, with her Jewish partner, they light Shabbat candles, and sometimes have a Sabbath dinner. Katarina occasionally goes to the progressive Warsaw synagogue. By lighting Shabbat candles, she makes a connection with what was lost. She didn’t consciously choose a Jewish partner, it just happened. Katarina’s partner, an atheist, always knew she was Jewish. She isn’t religious, but knows it’s important for Katarina. Now she likes the Shabbat dinners. Katarina does the prayers, her partner’s interested in the challah. “I have to regain everything,” Katarina says.

In January 2018, a law was passed in the Polish parliament making it a crime to blame the Polish nation for complicity in Nazi crimes against Jews in WWII. That June, the law’s criminal penalties were eliminated. But between passage of the law and the elimination of penalties, uproar ensued. Jews in Poland experienced an upsurge of anti-Semitism, mostly, this time, on social media.

In the two months after the law’s passage, JCC Krakow Director Jonathan Ornstein said that Jewish families asked if there was a place for them in Poland; a few months later, he heard the question less. Anti-Semitic elements that hadn’t been heard from in a long time were given voice, as is happening throughout the world.

Anti-Semitism is here, says Ornstein, and is based on old stereotypes, but it’s not a physical threat. It’s safe to walk around Krakow being visibly Jewish. Polish Jews, says Ornstein, are not looking to leave.

Antonina Samecka says Poles ask why she is so successful in business. Her answer plays into Jewish stereotypes. “I’m Jewish,” she says, knowing that Poles trust a Jew in business. She says Poles claim, “A Jew will never go bankrupt.”

After the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in November 2018 in Pittsburgh, I put on my Star of David as an act of defiance. My husband and I attended services at our congregation in San Francisco for international #ShowUpForShabbat, organized by the American Jewish Committee. I listened intently to the rabbi, who discussed anti-Semitism, state power, and the emboldening of the alt-right in the United States. Jews here “can’t hide as just another white (group).” We must be “proud and loud” Jews, because in history, “that’s the only thing that ever worked,” he said. I’ve had just one personal experience of anti-Semitism, more than 40 years ago. A friend’s mother, who didn’t know I was Jewish, made mention of “those people.” Then, I said nothing. Today, I’d tell her I’m Jewish.

Given that most Polish Jews are intermarried and many advocate giving their children a choice regarding religion, one might be tempted to draw comparisons to the concerns of Jewish continuity that surfaced in the findings of the 2013 US Pew Report, where the majority of Jews married between 2005 and 2013 intermarried, and less than half of those raise children Jewish or partly Jewish.

But, cautions Rabbi Shudrich, the Jewish community in Poland is a “work-in-progress.” “Don’t compare this place to any other place,” he says. “This is different.” Polish Jews are in the “early stages of rebuilding Jewish life,” says Shana Penn, executive director of Taube Philanthropies in Berkeley, which gives heavily to Jewish life in Poland. The Jewish communal structure is growing: JCC, Hillel, Jewish studies, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

The further the community gets from the Holocaust, says Ornstein, the harder it will be to feel the excitement of discovering you’re Jewish. There’s a window now of 10 – 20 years, he believes, adding that we must “do everything we can while we can still do it.” JDC director Sokolowska believes the larger communities will survive: Warsaw, Gdansk on the Baltic Sea, where Israelis are settling, Krakow, and Wroclaw.

Overseas support is crucial, as well as sharing ideas. Krakow’s JCC is financed 90 % by outsiders, says Ornstein. His primary concern is that the community needs people to visit and participate and believe that the revival is real. “We must never again be isolated from the Jewish world.”

My husband and I light Shabbat candles on Friday nights. He’s learning to chant the blessing in Hebrew, a language I’ve begun to study, for no other reason than it’s the language of my ancestors, and, perhaps, the language of my future generations, given my two sons living in Israel. We say Shabbat Shalom and watch the candles flicker, as I watched them at the JCC Krakow. I think of Zofia Radikowski, lighting Shabbat candles at the JCC, and Katarina Jachnicka, lighting candles with her partner. “I have to regain everything,” I hear her say in my mind. Though starting from a different place, I feel a kinship.

“I grew up among a group of Jews who wished, more than anything else, I think, to be invisible,” wrote Muriel Rukeyser in 1944, in the Contemporary Jewish Record. That same year, as part of a ten-poem sequence, she composed “ To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century,” which begins, “To be a Jew in the twentieth century/Is to be offered a gift,” —a gift of identity and community for many Polish Jews, a gift, in the eyes of Shana Penn, they’ve been brave to accept.

Rukeyser continues, “If you refuse,/Wishing to be invisible, you choose/Death of the spirit, the stone insanity./Accepting, take full life, Full agonies,”—full agonies for the six million, a hoped-for full life in the present day.

Our synagogue rabbi echoes Rukeyser’s words. We must be “proud and loud,” he says. Today’s young Polish Jews choose to be visible, to explore the idea of being Polish and Jewish, with evidence of the Holocaust not too far out of sight.

“I’m part of something,” says Agata Rakowiecka. “As long as debates are going on, we’re alive.”

The above interviews were conducted together with Moldaw’s traveling companion Gunda Trepp, a San Francisco-based writer.

Susan Moldaw
Susan Moldaw

Susan Moldaw is a gerontologist and writer living in San Francisco.