Catching up: Connecting to Poland

In early July, I spent a week in Poland as a guest of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture and the Jewish Heritage Initiative in Poland. This was their annual Poland trip and we visited three major projects, all of which the Foundations are involved in, and they’re really quite amazing. It was my first trip to Poland, where, on a personal level, I had always been resistant to going. The Poland of the Jewish imagination is different from the physical and political map that we see today. It includes this giant Jewish heartland where for 1,000 years Jewish life flourished. Until World War II it was, in many respects, the center of Jewish learning and culture for the Yiddish speaking Ashkenazi Jewish world. Before the war, major Polish cities like Warsaw had enormous Jewish populations, but, of course, almost all of it disappeared in the Shoah.

Daniel Sokatch visits the Remuh Synagogue in Kazimierz, the former Jewish quarter of Krakow.

Daniel Sokatch visits the Remuh Synagogue in Kazimierz, the former Jewish quarter of Krakow, Poland.

The first project connects North American Jews with these thousand years of Jewish cultural heritage. As my rabbi says, we as a people suffer from collective Post-Traumatic Syndrome Disorder, and you don’t get over that by not addressing the traumatic parts of your past. It’s like we sometimes imagine that we just came here to the US or moved to Palestine at the turn of the last century. Then quickly rewind a thousand years and we were walking the dunes of Judea where suddenly we were expelled, and Rome, Spain, the Inquisition and then murkiness, the horror of the Holocaust and now we’re here. So, part of what I think this project is meant to do is to allow us to reclaim this part of our Jewish history. At the Jewish Genealogy and Family Heritage Center of the Emanuel Ringleblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, there is a nonprofit organization headed by Mr. Yael Reiser, with a massive databank that allows them to connect Jews to where they came from. “You were told of the Shtetl where your family came from, that the little town was wiped out, erased from the map.” Everyone nods that, yes, that’s what they were told; and he says, “Well, that’s not true. There’s not a single Jewish settlement that vanished like that. The names may have changed, the Jews may have been completely eradicated, but we can find out where it was and where you came from.” So I emailed my parents and handed him a list of towns and he said, “It may take a while but I will get back to you and I will tell you something about where you come from.” For Jews of Eastern European origin this is very powerful and very profound, that connects us to this critically important part of our past.

The Old Synagogue in Krakow, Poland

The Old Synagogue in Krakow

The next project is the revitalization of a Polish Jewish community. There were 3.5 million Jews in Poland before the war and now there’s just a tiny remnant, perhaps 25,000 – 30,000 out of a nation of 39 million. There’s something very poignant and powerful about watching this community re-establish itself. I had the opportunity to meet with some of the young people from a student group called Cholent. I asked them “Why do you call the group cholent?” and they said “Oh, you know, we’re a weird mix and it’s all been simmering for some time.” They’re these adorable, brilliant, gorgeous, sweet Jewish kids and they’re struggling to figure out what being a Polish Jew means. The 22-year olds I spoke to were not saying I want to move to Tel Aviv, London, or New York -- they were, at this point in their lives, intent on living a Jewish life in Poland. It’s important to note that Poland today has made itself a strong ally of the US and Israel. This association with the West, with democracy, understandably after the Polish experience with Nazism and under communist totalitarianism, is incredibly powerful. They’ve made it their business to be strong supporters of Israel and of the United States. So the Polish kids growing up now are growing up with this strange double legacy: on one hand they know the history of Polish anti-Semitism. They know there’s this whole long history of pogroms even after the Holocaust, but there’s clearly an attempt on the part of Poland to come to terms with it. One important piece of this second project is Rabbi Michael Schudrich, an American born, modern orthodox New York rabbi with a civil rights background, who is a real character, a real mensch, and I think, a godsend to the Polish Jewish community. He has clearly become somewhat of a national celebrity. He’s a very engaging guy, has a sense of mission, his kids have grown up in Poland instead of New York, and he’s one of the real great spark plugs in the Jewish community there. 

The Izaak Synagogue in Krakow

The Izaak Synagogue in Krakow

Our trip began at the Krakow Music Festival, which bills itself as the largest free Jewish music festival in the world. It’s important to know that Krakow was not destroyed in the war, including the old Jewish quarter which was perfectly preserved. When you walk into the Jewish quarter you’re immediately struck by a very weird mix of emotions because there is both actual preservation of the Jewish quarter plus a lot of kitsch such as Jewish-themed restaurants, the outer walls of which have these faux shops, like “Moishe Ringlebaum, Tailor.” You enter the big Jewish square through this alleyway and you see these real Jewish synagogues and buildings that have been renovated. There is increasingly a return of Jewish culture and activity there, even in the absence of Jews. Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar who I ran into said, “You know the whole story here now is about the absence of presence, and the presence of absence,” which I thought was exactly the way to describe this situation. There you are in Krakow and during the music festival there’s just Jewish culture happening everywhere. There are maybe 200 Jews in this tiny community, which is descended upon by five to fifteen thousand people who on the final night crowd into that central square of the Jewish quarter where Jewish life happened for a thousand years, crowding in to see Israeli, American and European Jewish musical acts – and only a handful of us are visiting Jews; the rest of the people there are non-Jewish Poles.

Main entrance to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps in Oswiecim, Poland

Main entrance to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps in Oswiecim, Poland

Which brings me to the last of the three great Jewish projects that I encountered - the reclamation by a new generation of Poles of the Jewish parts of Polish history and culture. And I realized that this is not about us - this is about the Poles coming to terms with the fact that a critical part of their culture, history and country were expunged, murdered and driven out both by the Nazis and by this history of Polish anti-Semitism. I was infused with a sense of great hope for this Polish national project, this generational project that’s turning a history of anti-Semitism and of ignoring Jewish life into reclaiming it. The head of the Jewish Music Festival in Krakow is a non-Jewish guy who wears a kippah and keeps kosher. The most acclaimed guide to the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex is a 32 year old Polish woman who’s not Jewish. The ten thousand people who squeeze into that square, the vast overwhelming majority of them listening to Jewish music and dancing and experiencing Jewish culture in the absence of Jews, are Poles who are not Jews. As I imagined, this trip was a profound and moving experience, and I deeply appreciate the opportunity.

These remarks are based on excerpts from JCF CEO Daniel Sokatch's interview with Richard Miles, Senior Director of Marketing, on August 12.

Categories: Overseas


August 26, 2009


The Federation