No Longer Hiding From Nazis or Communists, the Jews of Poland Come Out of the Closet

A new generation – many whose families have only recently emerged from the shadows – must grapple with Polish-Jewish identity and their country’s legacy of hatred and horror. The Cossacks Aren't Coming: A special series on the future of European Jews.

Moshe Gilad

KRAKOW, Poland — At the center of the main memorial held here on January 27 to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz were nearly 300 survivors. They were seated in front, and it was impossible to ignore that they were in two separate groups. To the left of the aisle were the Jews, who had arrived by plane from 19 different countries. To the right were the Poles, many of them wearing scarves in the blue and white stripes of the prison uniform with the red triangle worn by political prisoners. Jewish prisoners — the ones who were not immediately sent to the gas chambers, that is — had worn yellow triangles.

The two groups, which barely mixed with each other, represented the dual narratives of Auschwitz — a place where a million Jews were industrially slaughtered and a center of slave labor and brutal incarceration for hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Poles, around 80,000 of whom died. For 40 years, the Communist authorities allowed only the second narrative to be officially mentioned. In 21st-century Poland, there is a growing attempt to combine the two in one story. For the elderly survivors it is probably too late but there are younger Poles who believe that history can serve as a foundation for a joint Polish-Jewish identity.

Kordian Gdulski, a 35-year-old travel agent from Krakow who recently converted to Judaism after marrying a Jew, speaks proudly of his Catholic great-grandfather who was murdered at Auschwitz. “When the Germans invaded in 1939, they had a list of 200,000 Polish citizens to be liquidated. My great-grandfather was on the list because he had been one of the leaders of the 1919 Silesian uprising against the Germans.” For Gdulski, becoming Jewish did not mean relinquishing his Polish identity in any way. “In some ways you can choose your future but you can’t deny the past. I was born in a Polish family and grew up in the Polish society. I’m a proud Pole and I’m proud of being Jewish because it’s my faith, but also I know the history very well. There were 300,000 Jewish soldiers in the Polish army, more Jews than in any other army.”

Few topics, however, are less relevant for most Polish Jews than conversion. After two generations in which assimilation, intermarriage and concealing any shred of Jewish identity were the norm, having one Jewish grandparent and deciding you belong to the Jewish people is more than enough.

“It’s really a silly question to ask,” says Aliczya Beryt, a Krakow graphic designer who is Jewish on her father’s side. “Back when I was more involved in the religious side of Jewish life, I thought maybe I should convert but I forgot about it. My Jewish existence and community now are much more secular.” Beryt says she has spent the last few years considering “what does it mean to be Jewish without doing these religious things, and for me it’s learning about people who have been excluded and about tolerance.” Now working on her Ph.D. in modern philosophy, she turns to Jewish philosophers for universal ideas. “Look, all around the world Jews are intermarrying and becoming more assimilated and the way to go is to search for a more universal meaning.”

Beryt says she doesn’t feel less Jewish just because Orthodox rabbis do not recognize her as such. According to Jewish law, or halakha, in order to be Jewish one must have either been born to a Jewish mother or to have converted to Judaism. Beryt’s friend Ishbel Szatrawska says she feels the same, although she admits that in the past she felt slightly inferior because only her father is Jewish and that she considered converting.

“I decided not to because it would be admitting that I’m not Jewish enough. A group of Israelis once asked how come you’re involved in the Jewish community and I said it depends how you see being Jewish,” Szatrawska explains. “The experience of the Holocaust is very central for our identity here as Jews but so is communism, which was why many of us discovered very late we’re Jewish. For a friend of mine it was at 18 when his grandmother gave him a Star of David and left it to him to decide. Some people run away from it. I have a friend in Warsaw who is halakhically Jewish and sends Christmas cards each year to try and hide it. Though he’s fooling no one.”

Even after the Holocaust, Jews in Poland who returned to their old homes faced first a wave of pogroms and later, in the 1960s officially sanctioned discrimination by the Communist authorities. As a result, many Jews concealed their identity. A majority of Jews in Poland today were baptized, and it is common for Jews who have reclaimed their identity to have siblings who remain practicing Catholics.

“The way you judge Judaism in Jewish life in Poland must be very different from the way you do in the rest of the Jewish world,” says Avi Baumol, an Israeli-American rabbi who has been living in Krakow since 2013. “Officially, there are a few thousand Jews here, but unofficially there are tens of thousands and every day I discover more. It would be absolutely wrong for me to say to someone who discovered that his father’s mother is Jewish, ‘you’re not Jewish enough.’ There is Jewish and there is Jewish according to halakha and to say to someone, show me your birth certificate before you can light candles on Shabbat, is a major disservice.”

But perhaps Poland is not that different from other parts of the Jewish world.

As in most Jewish communities, Krakow’s Jews are split among rabbis, congregations, synagogues and organizations. This series is not about the wars between European Jews, but about the Jewish future in Europe. The disagreements over who controls the city’s centuries-old Jewish buildings and who represents the community are not only over money and politics, however, but also about whether to adopt a more inclusive approach or to focus on preserving the past. As a result the more insular official community, which owns the old synagogues, has only 130 members, while the Jewish Community Center has 550, although both officially accept anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent. Similar issues and conflicts are being played out in Warsaw, Wroclaw and Lodz.

The unexpected generation

Katka Reszke, a writer and filmmaker who divides her time between New York and Warsaw, grew up in Wroclaw. She says that from age 16 she had a hunch that she was Jewish, partly because she remembered her great-grandmother calling her meshuggener. But it was only in 2013, after she spent time studying in Israel and converted to Judaism, that her mother admitted that her maternal family was indeed Jewish. In her books “Return of the Jew: Identity Narratives of the Third Post-Holocaust Generation of Jews in Poland” (Academic Studies Press, 2013) and “The Meshugene Effect” (in process), she explores the Polish-Jewish identity. At 36, Reszke calls her generation of young Polish Jews “the unexpected generation. We were not supposed to be. We began embracing or discovering our Jewish roots following the fall of communism and the numerous predictions of the end of the Jews in Poland. It turned out there were still Jews and they were coming out of the closet.”

Reszke believes that Polish Jews will serve as an example for other, larger and more established communities that have still to find their way of dealing with intermarriage and assimilation. “The Polish predicament creates a huge challenge of how you define who is a Jew and is the community capable of accepting them. When you discover you’re Jewish in Poland and you have come to terms with your identity only to find yourself talking to a rabbi who says that you’re not Jewish for him and have to convert, then it’s an act of inauthenticity,” she says

Veteran journalist and Warsaw Jewish activist Konstanty Gebert sees this also as an exciting opportunity.

“We are assimilated here, that is the situation. So for us being halakhically Jewish is not an issue for anything besides having a minyan (prayer quorum of 10 Jewish men in Orthodox Judaism or 10 Jewish adults of either sex in Conservative or Reform Judaism). Anyway, most of the creative Jewish stuff happens in the connections between Jews and non-Jews,” Gebert says. “Take the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival for example. It began as venue where the artists were Jewish and the organizers and most of the audience, who reacted vibrantly and vividly to Jewish culture, were not. But then also non-Jewish artists began creating in this culture. So are you going to say that it’s non-Jewish art? If you say that, then you’re agreeing with the Nuremberg laws.”

In the absence of what Gebert calls a “pristine halakhic Jewishness,” he says there is no choice but to build “a new form of Jewish culture and identity in a European multicultural environment — this is a cutting-edge hybrid.”

Reszke says that at last year’s Limmud conference in Poland she saw, for the first time, four generations of Polish Jews. “You could see the Holocaust survivors, their children and grandchildren who had returned to their roots, and now there is this first generation (since the Holocaust) who know they are growing up Jewish.” For now their numbers are relatively small but according to Reszke, “Being Jewish in Poland is not about the number of Jews who live there, but the number of questions on what it means to be Jewish and the huge number of answers there are in contemporary Europe and contemporary Poland. We’re at the age we discuss those questions and answers and it’s something the rest of the Jews should be looking at.”