'I'm a Member of the Family Now'

Since the fall of Communism - and an increasingly positive perception of them, in general - the trickle of Poles seeking a connection to their Jewish roots has turned into a powerful stream. An interview with Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland.

The first time he visited Poland, in the summer of 1973, at age 18, New York-born Michael Schudrich was told to expect to find, at the very most, only a few Jews there. Not long before that, in 1968, those Jews who had insisted on remaining in their Polish homeland during the earlier waves of postwar emigration in 1946 and 1956 - and who numbered in the tens of thousands - had been expelled from the country. But Schudrich did the math differently from the way he was taught in school: He factored in history.

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"At the beginning of World War II, on September 1, 1939, there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland," says Schudrich, who today, 37 years after that first visit, is chief rabbi of that country. He is speaking Hebrew, sitting in his office on the second floor of the Nozyk Synagogue in Warsaw.

"By the end of the war," he continues, "90 percent of Polish Jews were no longer among the living. But 10 percent of 3.5 million is 350,000. That's [the same as the number of Jews in] Haifa, and more Jews than in England. True, nearly all of them decided to get out of here after the 1946 pogrom in Kielce, and most of the rest followed in the expulsions that came later. If you wanted to be able to say 'I'm Jewish' it was best to get out of Communist Poland. And unlike the situation in the former Soviet Union, it was possible to leave Poland.

"Most of the small number who remained cut off relations with other Jews and went underground. It was not possible to say the word 'Jew.' Instead, one said 'Zionist' or 'non-Polish.' This was not exactly a reaction to traditional Polish anti-Semitism, but a very communist symptom. After all, the idea of denying one's national identity, even a Jewish one, was Marx and Lenin's idea."

Schudrich visited Poland, summer after summer, during the 1970s, before Solidarity began to break through the iron curtain of Communism. But he did encounter dissident youth who dared to proclaim their Judaism. One was Stanislaw Krajewski, who was in the process of earning a doctorate in mathematics and later became the founder of the Polish-Israeli Friendship Society.

In his article "Poland, Like America," which appeared in a publication entitled "Rebirth of Jewish Life in Poland: 1989-2009" (Warsaw, 2009; in English ), Krajewski writes that he, like his friends, believed at first that Judaism would disappear completely in Poland in the '70s along with the last Yiddish speakers whose lives revolved around the synagogue, and who were supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee at the time.

These young Jewish Poles, long-haired and barefoot, not only looked different from their elders, but expressed their rebellion against the previous generation by drawing closer to Judaism. "We felt much more in common with the American Jewish visitors to our home," he writes. "They knew about [Jewish philosopher Martin] Buber, as well as about the hippies, the Beatles, Shlomo Carlebach and vegetarianism."

In the eyes of these dissidents, Michael Schudrich, the friendly young Jew from New York, was the right man in the right place.

"I'm a product of New York of the 1970s," Schudrich says today. "On the one hand, one of the flower children, and on the other, a combination of the Hasidic and Lithuanian [ultra-Orthodox Jewish] worlds, not of the Sephardic world."

During those years, Schudrich studied in Israel and New York (including at the Jewish Theological Seminary ), and studied Polish at the Jagiellonian University of Krakow. In 1980 he was ordained as a Conservative rabbi and worked as such in Tokyo, but quickly returned to Poland.

"This is ironic, because before World War II, American rabbis would come to Warsaw to study Torah with the greatest Talmudic scholars of their time," Schudrich writes in an article called "Giving Back to the Jewish People," in the same publication. "The city was the heart of Jewish tradition. Now an American rabbi has to come here to help the Polish Jews."

Radical change

After the fall of Communism in 1989, more than a few young Poles dared to reveal their Jewish identity, Schudrich explains. "For 50 years, it was taboo to speak positively or negatively about Jews. Suddenly in 1989 it was possible to speak about things that had not been spoken about for 50 years, and to say, 'I am a Polish Jew.' Poles began to reveal their Jewish roots, and others had to decide what to do with that information. Basically, there were three questions: Is this information important? Will I decide to become a proud Jew, connected to the Jewish community? Will I do something Jewish?"

This radical change could not have taken place among the community if it weren't for the change undergone by the non-Jewish population around them. In Poland, where 95 percent of the people are Catholic, there were almost no Jews back then.

Schudrich: "Poles began to miss them. For 50 years, nothing had been heard about the Jews; it was forbidden [to mention them], but now it was permitted and interesting. That's the first reason for the change in the approach toward Jews. The second reason is more important: Pope John Paul II, whom I nicknamed Jochanan-Pesach, fought anti-Semitism in the most effective way, more than anyone else in the last 2,000 years. He said that an anti-Semite was anti-Catholic, and dared to tell Christians to ask forgiveness from their 'older brothers,' the Jews. This had an enormous impact, first of all in Poland, but also in the entire Christian world.

"The third reason for the change stems from the first two. The Poles understood the Jews' great contribution to Poland in hindsight: to literature, journalism, medicine, the economy. What began as curiosity brought about a special link between Poles and Jews. There are today tens of thousands of people - non-Jewish Poles - who have an interest in Judaism and Jews. Once a year they want to receive an 'infusion' of Jewishness - for example, at the Jewish festivals in Krakow and Warsaw, just as I like to listen to jazz sometimes.

"Today, for example, before our meeting, I participated in an official government ceremony marking the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, where 300,000 Poles died. It is a very Polish thing; the participation of a rabbi in such a ceremony would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Now people see me on television, next to the bishops and a few steps from the mayor of Warsaw, and it sinks in. When I arrived there today, I did not have to show my invitation, because my face is familiar. Afterward, people approached me to make sure that I had a front row seat. I'm a member of the family now."

On a recent Friday night I saw you leave the synagogue, with a yarmulke and [ritual] fringes visible. It looks like you aren't afraid, even though you were attacked four years ago.

Schudrich: "I was walking in the street with members of the community on Shabbat when I heard someone shout a typical anti-Semitic taunt: 'Poland for the Poles and the Jews to Palestine.' I approached him and asked if, in his eyes, I was not Polish - and he answered with his fist. I hit back, and he hit me again. I chased him. The prime minister tried all day to find out how I was, and waited patiently until Shabbat was out to inquire. After that, the late president of Poland, Lech Kaczynski, invited me to the presidential palace and said in front of all the photographers that Poland had no room for anti-Semitism. I thought the gesture was aimed at the world, and was very moved to discover that nearly all the photographers he had invited were Polish. He wanted to deliver a clear message to his people.

"Of course, I'm the first to admit that it is terrible to be punched. Everyone knows there is anti-Semitism in Poland, but there is also anti-Semitism in the United States. It is a worldwide disease, and here it generally receives a sharp rebuke from the government."

Over the last 20 years, during which Schudrich has served as chief rabbi of Poland (he underwent a second, Orthodox ordination through Yeshiva University ), the trickle of Poles who are seeking their Jewish family roots has turned into a powerful stream. Many visit the rabbi in his office.

"A few months ago," he writes in his article, "a man of about 60 approached me. He said he had never done anything Jewish, but now felt the need to say Kaddish. So on a Friday morning, I taught him this prayer for the dead, then said, 'Shabbat begins this evening. Why don't you come to the synagogue?'"

Hillel vs. Shammai

The average age of the Warsaw Jewish community has declined from 65 to 45 over the last three years, and most of the new members are under 40. Thus, the community is one of the youngest in Europe. And most of those young people, not surprisingly, are children of mixed marriages.

Israeli filmmaker Ronit Kertsner's 2001 movie "The Secret: Poland's New Jews" tells the moving story of Poles who had discovered the secret of their family's Jewish identity and chosen not to reject it. They join such organizations for young people as (the non-denominational ) Czulent, and are active in Jewish community groups in Warsaw and Krakow. In the film, Rabbi Schudrich is seen accompanying these people affectionately, and in the last scene spends a Sunday with them in Warsaw's Lazienki Park. But he includes them in a minyan (prayer quorum ) and various rituals only if their mothers are Jewish or they have converted.

Schudrich: "Conversion in Poland is different and important. In the United States, for example, the need to convert is usually connected to marriage. In Israel, to be Jewish is an advantage because the majority is Jewish. Here people want to be Jewish out of profound understanding, not out of opportunism. And so the convert usually wants to live according to Jewish law. I, as an Orthodox rabbi, receive [their] commitment to all the obligations [of Orthodoxy]."

One can convert people as Rabbi Hillel did. He said to the non-Jew who asked him to describe Judaism's teachings while standing on one foot, "That which is hateful to you, do not do unto others." Or one can simply banish the non-Jew, as Shammai did.

"True. But Hillel also said to the non-Jew, 'Now go and learn the rest on your own.' Hillel did not reduce the amount of obligations, but taught an important lesson: When someone comes to convert, don't tell him you lost his file somewhere. Hillel received him in a friendly manner. And we must do this, too. After all, love of Israel is a religious commandment - without any comments in the margins. Otherwise, the Torah would say, 'Don't hate except for this and this and this.' And this is even more true when those who seek to convert fall into the definition of 'the seed of Israel' - those with Jewish roots but a non-Jewish mother. Over the years, many rulings have been handed down to ease such conversions, but today no one speaks of this. The trend is to make conversion more difficult, especially in the State of Israel.

"Most converts want to observe [religious precepts], but sometimes we disturb them or approach them in an inhuman way. We Jews, and especially rabbis, must be more sensitive, understanding and attentive. I had brought a rabbi from Israel to Poland to work on conversions, but stopped working with him because of politics - because his conversions were considered suspicious in Israel. I understood that if his conversions were unacceptable in Israel, I was violating the religious prohibition on tormenting the convert, although there is no ban on tormenting a rabbi."

The late German-Israeli philosopher Samuel Hugo Bergmann said there was a Judaism of "Love thy neighbor as thyself," and a Judaism of "Remember what Amalek did to you." Which Judaism is yours?

"In Poland it is hard to forget what Amalek is all about. I have my own private feelings as a man and a Jew, not as chief rabbi. I always went the way of [the moderate Israeli religious party] Meimad, and I was a student of the late Rabbi Yehuda Amital ... Judaism is both sides, and never just one. Right after 'Remember what Amalek did to you,' come the words, 'Do not forget.' Commentators ask: Why the repetition? Why 'remember' and 'don't forget'? The answer I like is that we must also remember 'those who lag behind you.'"

The ancient Isaac Synagogue in Krakow recently passed into the hands of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which doesn't exactly share your point of view.

"This is a sign that Judaism in Poland is undergoing normalization. After all, there is no Jewish community in the world without Chabad and without Reform Jews. We have dozens of rabbis in Poland: six Orthodox, two Reform and two Chabad. All are Jewish in my eyes; [also the late writer] Bruno Schulz, too. Just don't ask me about [Jean-Marie] Lustiger [the Jew who converted to Catholicism and became archbishop of Paris]."

In your library I see a Yiddish translation of the Bible, and also a Koran.

"The Koran is here because I believe we must become familiar with other religions and cultures. This afternoon, for example, I am taking part in an interfaith service in memory of the Warsaw Uprising; tomorrow I am going to Birkenau, for a memorial for the Roma. But the Bible in Yiddish is a more symbolic story: In 1967 when I was 12, I gave the book to a member of our congregation in New York. The man died a few years ago and his widow decided to return it to me. See, in this way everything comes back to Poland in the end."