A Unique Perspective on the Revival of Jewish Life in Poland

Earlier this summer, I joined a group of 18 young adults from the Bay Area on YAD’s Journey through Unexpected Poland. Overall, this mission to Poland with the Federation exceeded my expectations. One of the main reasons I joined the trip was to explore the history and culture of prewar Jewish Poland, but also to bear witness to the Holocaust by learning about and visiting Holocaust memorial sites. Additionally, as a former Soviet Jew and an immigrant to the United States, I wanted to understand what kind of Jewish life exists in today's Poland. I read many articles before the trip and understood that Jewish revival in Poland presents complex issues for Poles and Jews alike. I wondered how I would feel as a Jew in Poland, having experienced life in the former Soviet Union.

Victoria, age 10, in the FSU

I was born and raised in Ukraine, and immigrated with my family to the United States in my late teens, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For me, growing up as a Jewish girl in the USSR meant having the stigma of a second-class citizen, while also receiving double standards about everything: you had to be the best in school, university, work, and in daily life. My family never really discussed my Jewishness with me. Our Jewish life had almost ended with my grandparents in the late 1930s, when all educational Jewish institutions were closed (religious life was ceased decades earlier). Our family was very assimilated among the Russians and Ukrainians, and I grew up not knowing that I was Jewish until I accidentally discovered it when I was 8 years old. Even after that, I kept this information to myself and did not dare to ask my family any questions. Among my Russian and Ukrainian peers, I pretended to be one of them. When there was a joke about Jews or a negative comment, I was too self-aware and uncomfortable about the subject to say anything. I knew of many Jewish kids and families in my city of Kirovograd, and believe that most of them practiced a very similar assimilated lifestyle. While we knew of each other as being Jewish, we never had discussions about what it meant or what we should do about it.

In early 1990s Ukraine, almost overnight, being Jewish went from being prohibited to perceived as almost popular – mostly because Jews could finally emigrate and could, therefore, escape the FSU’s terrible economic conditions and anti-Semitism. By the mid 1990s, more Jews were leaving Kirovograd for Israel, Germany, and the United States.

In that context, this summer’s mission to Poland gave me a unique perspective, a reflection of my own life more than two decades after leaving Eastern Europe. While I had anticipated certain emotions related to visiting Holocaust memorial sites and learning about prewar Jewish Poland, I was surprised to discover a lot of similarities between Polish Jews and myself. The trip gave us incredible access to Polish Jewish leaders and speakers of various backgrounds. I don't think my experience would have been as complete without meeting such an educated, passionate, and experienced group of people. The day we met with a former Polish Jewish dissident really connected me to my own past and gave me a lot of answers to my personal journey to find my own Jewish identity as a young adult in the United States. Meeting a German journalist, Uve, and his wife, Gaby, gave me a unique perspective on confronting the past and looking into the future through the framework of growth. Visiting the POLIN museum opened my eyes to 1,000 years of Jewish history in Poland prior to World War II. It was mind-blowing!

Victoria in Krakow, Poland

The most joyful part was having our trip coincide with the Krakow Jewish Cultural Festival, which gave our group a wonderful view of how present day Poland is connecting with Jewish culture. The Festival also provided an opportunity to experience diverse Jewish culture being celebrated in ways I could not have imagined possible in that part of the world. I was choking back tears when we celebrated Shabbat in Krakow after a somber day in Auschwitz, and learned that it was the biggest Shabbat gathering (650 dinner guests) in Krakow since before World War II. The scale of destruction of Jewish lives is beyond my comprehension, but it felt so empowering to be sitting in Krakow, in large numbers, celebrating everything that is Jewish, ours.

Reflecting on this trip, I am personally very grateful to both the Federation and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture for making it possible, and for all they are doing for Polish Jews and beyond. Over the course of this mission, I saw that Polish Jews feel strong and optimistic, in large part due to significant support and leadership from American and Israeli Jewry. It is great to see the revival and the growing interest from young Polish adults who are curious to find out about their families' past and claim their Jewish roots. It was so moving to see thriving Jewish Community Centers in Warsaw and Krakow. It is my hope that Polish Jews can continue to claim their heritage, traditions, and culture in a safe and accepting environment. This trip was a good reminder that we cannot take our Jewish freedom for granted and that our generation should continue to educate those around us. We must pass on the lessons of the past to the younger generation of Jews and non-Jews alike.

YAD group at a synagogue in Warsaw, Poland
Categories: Overseas, Young Adults


August 16, 2017


Victoria Karp