Despite anti-Semitism Fears, Poland’s Jews Refuse to Hide Away

Tensions have been running high since the government passed its ‘Holocaust law’ in January, but Jewish organizations insist they will carry on as normal – ‘until the first stone comes through the window.’ The second in a series of special reports

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Orthodox Jews walking through the Polish city of Lezajsk as they commemorate the 231st anniversary of the death of one of the founding fathers of the Hasidic movement, Elimelech, March 2018.
Orthodox Jews walking through the Polish city of Lezajsk as they commemorate the 231st anniversary of the death of one of the founding fathers of the Hasidic movement, Elimelech, March 2018.Credit: KACPER PEMPEL/ REUTERS
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

WARSAW – On a recent Sunday morning, customers lining up for the Israeli-style brunch were spilling out onto the sidewalk, where several extra tables had been set up. At the buffet, huge plates of shakshuka (a Middle Eastern dish of eggs cooked in spicy tomato sauce), hummus, falafel and assorted salads were being devoured faster than they could be refilled.

This weekly event, hosted at the city’s Jewish Community Center, is called “Boker Tov” (Hebrew for “good morning”). If you have Jewish roots, or happen to be the spouse or partner of someone who does, it’s where the action is on Sundays.

The cuisine is only part of the attraction. On the upper floor of the newly renovated building – located in one of the city’s trendy neighborhoods – a Hebrew-language “ulpan” class is in session in one room. Young children are being taught a popular Hebrew song in another. Down the hall, writers and editors are putting the finishing touches on the popular community newsletter. The texts are in Polish but the title is transliterated from Hebrew: “Lamalo” (“Why not”).

This scene captures the essence of Jewish revival in what was once the largest Jewish city in Europe. Far more cultural than religious in flavor (while only kosher food is served here, there is hardly a yarmulke in sight), it draws heavily on modern Israeli influences.

>>POLAND SPECIAL REPORT, PART 1: These are the things that get Jews branded as ‘anti-Polish’ in Warsaw these days <<

The weekly 'Boker Tov' event at the Jewish Community Center in Warsaw, April 2018.Credit: Judy Maltz

“When we launched ‘Boker Tov,’ we started with one big table inside,” recounts JCC Director Agata Rakowiecka, 34, who lived in Israel for several years. “It got so popular that we had to start adding more and more tables. We realized there was a need for a space like this, where people could get together and just be themselves.”

It’s not only Sundays when the JCC is abuzz with activity. The previous Thursday, for example, the upstairs theater hosted a special Polish-language performance of a work by the late Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin. The line for tickets extended two flights down.

Opened less than five years ago, the Warsaw JCC is perhaps the youngest of its kind in the world. It currently has some 400 active members, but Rakowiecka says about 1,000 local residents attend some program or other during the year.

Many of those enjoying the all-you-can-eat brunch share a story similar to hers: Sometime in the past 25 years or so, they discovered they had Jewish roots and, because such information no longer needed to be kept quiet, they started exploring their heritage.

Warsaw is not the only Polish city experiencing a Jewish renaissance. On a recent Friday evening, close to 100 guests were gathered around long tables at the Krakow JCC for a festive, four-course Shabbat dinner. The vast majority were young locals who had only recently discovered their Jewish roots.

The 'Boker Tov' Sunday brunch event at the Warsaw JCC, April 2018.Credit: Judy Maltz

Zosia Radzikowska, a spunky 82-year-old, was the notable exception. A Holocaust survivor from Krakow, she escaped the Nazis by using false papers and, along with her mother, posing as a non-Jew. Among the various Jewish activities she engages in on virtually a daily basis, Radzikowska sings in the JCC choir, edits the JCC newsletter and delivers the post-dinner “Dvar Torah” (musings on the weekly Torah portion) here on Friday evenings.

Dinner was served, as per usual on Fridays, by a team of non-Jewish volunteers. “These are non-Jews who feel the country lost something when it lost its Jews, and now they have the opportunity to be part of its revival,” explains Jonathan Ornstein, the former New Yorker who has been running the center since its founding 10 years ago this month.

In the past year alone, the first Jewish preschool in Krakow to accept children of all religious affiliations (an Orthodox Chabad preschool already exists) was opened at the JCC, as was a chapter of Hillel (the international Jewish campus life organization) and a branch of the Jewish teen movement BBYO. Not a day passes, says Ornstein, without someone who has just discovered he or she has Jewish roots popping into his office and wanting to learn more.

Feeling ‘insecure and unsure’

For the fledgling Jewish community of Poland to continue thriving, though, Ornstein stresses it is critical that Jews continue to feel comfortable in the country.

“The reason we have so many people who’ve discovered their Jewish roots and acted upon it is because of the positive atmosphere we’ve had here until now,” he says. “There is a fear that if the environment changes, it could bring an end to all this.”

Interior of ancient synagogue in Tykocin, northeastern Poland.Credit: Judy Maltz

That fear became very real in January when the Polish parliament passed a bill that would make it illegal to accuse the Polish nation or Polish people of complicity in Nazi war crimes. The proposed law was seen by many of its detractors as an attempt to rewrite history and pander to right-wing, anti-Semitic voters. It is still pending review by the Constitutional Court.

For many years, it was considered taboo in Poland to make public statements against Jews. Within a matter of days of the bill passing, that taboo was lifted.

Helise Lieberman, director of the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland, is also the founding director of the Lauder-Morasha School, which opened in Warsaw almost 25 years ago. It was the first Jewish day school established in the country since 1949.

Born and raised in Illinois, she has been an eyewitness to almost every milestone in the rebirth of Poland’s Jewish community in recent decades.

“This is the worst of times that I remember, but also the best of times in terms of Jewish community life,” Lieberman says. “There are so many ways to express your Jewish identity these days in Poland. You want to go to [the left-wing Zionist youth movement] Hashomer Hatzair? Great. You want to go to [the Zionist youth sports association] Maccabi? Great. You want to join a traditional community? Great. You want to join a Progressive community? Great. There is so much more choice today than there was 25 years ago, and this reflects the growth and diversity of the community.”

Still, she worries that all this community building might suffer a setback if the hostile atmosphere prevails.

Orthodox Jews walking through the Polish city of Lezajsk, March 2018.Credit: KACPER PEMPEL/ REUTERS

“I’ve heard some young Jews say they’re not sure if their future is here or not,” she relates. “These are people who grew up under democracy and have no recollections of communism. Not that people are leaving yet, but many are thinking about how to affect an outcome so that Poland can stay their home.”

The fact that Jews are not being beaten in the streets, and that most of the anti-Semitism of recent months has manifested itself online, is no great comfort to her. “Just because there aren’t bludgeonings doesn’t mean you don’t feel insecure and unsure,” she says.

Waiting for the first stone

Despite anxieties over rising anti-Semitism, most Jewish sites around Poland are still not heavily guarded. For travelers accustomed to the high level of security typically found outside Jewish sites in other parts of Europe, the absence is quite glaring.

“We’ve talked about increasing security around the building, but we really don’t want to build fences,” says Warsaw JCC’s Rakowiecka. “The whole point is for this to feel like a welcoming place. So we basically decided to wait until the first stone comes through the window.”

On the streets of Warsaw and Krakow, Jewish men – most of them visitors from outside the country – walk around with yarmulkes on their heads, seemingly unperturbed.

Karina Sokolowska, director of the American Joint Distribution Committee office in Poland, says many of her Jewish friends – parents in their thirties and forties with children living at home – talk about leaving Poland, but in the meantime are not following through. “There aren’t really many options of places to go, especially if you have to make a move with children,” she notes. “So as long as things aren’t extremely bad, I think people will stay put.”

Sokolowska, who was born into a Jewish family and always knew she was Jewish (“Mine is a boring story compared with others”), describes her state of mind these days as “puzzled.”

“On the one hand, I follow the news and it’s pretty terrifying,” she says. “On the other, I live my Jewish life and nothing in my Jewish life has changed.”

Michael Schudrich, the New York-born chief rabbi of Poland, says this is the first time young Jews in Poland have ever felt targeted by anti-Semitism. “It’s ironic when you think about it, but in the wonderful post-communist period, this is something we never experienced – and that’s why so many people are in shock,” he explains. “I mean, for people in their early thirties and younger, anti-Semitism was something they read about in the history books.”

Schudrich says that, in general, he supports immigration to Israel, but not under these circumstances. “I don’t want Jews to be running away from here out of fear,” he says. “After all, here in Warsaw, when things get tough we Jews have a history of fighting.”

He adds that if he had any concerns Jews in Poland might go back into hiding in response to anti-Semitism, his nerves were calmed over Passover. “We had the same number of people attending our communal seders this year as last – about 350 – but this year there were even more locals among them.”

The tricky numbers question

The toughest question you can ask anyone engaged in Jewish life in Poland is to provide some concrete numbers on the size of the community.

“Without a question, nobody knows,” as Schudrich puts it. “I know people here who are Jewish who don’t they are, and the reason I happen to know they are is that I know their cousin who is. So do we count them? Do we count those who are Jewish according to halakha [Jewish law], but who don’t want to affiliate because they’ve already been cut off from the Jewish community for two generations? What about practicing Catholics who are halakhically Jewish and feel Jewish?”

When pressed, though, Schudrich says the Jewish population in Poland totals between 30,000 and 40,000. He cites the following calculation: 350,000 Jews remained in Poland after World War II (after 90 percent of the population was wiped out). About 90 percent of those 350,000 left in the 25 years that followed the war, many of them expelled by the communist regime in 1968. (The total population of Poland is about 38 million.)

Selling Jewish memorabilia outside the Jewish synagogue in Tykocin, a small town in northeastern Poland.Credit: Judy Maltz

Schudrich serves as rabbi of the Nozyk Synagogue – the only Jewish house of prayer in Warsaw to survive the war. In addition to this Orthodox congregation, there are two Reform synagogues in the capital and another that defines itself as Progressive. The Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland – an organization affiliated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism – estimates the number of “potential Jews” in Poland at 200,000. The JDC, whose flagship programs in Poland include the JCCs in Warsaw and Krakow, estimates the number at somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000. Many would even consider that to be overly generous.

To make matters even more confusing, Ornstein likes to throw out the following numbers: “Lots of people say there are 100 Jews in Krakow. What I can tell you is that we have 700 members at the JCC. How can that be? Because there are more than 100 Jews in Krakow.”

Jews by choice

On a recent Tuesday evening, eight candidates for conversion were gathered in a makeshift classroom in downtown Warsaw for their weekly Judaism lesson. Two more students joined them from Lublin via Skype. The two-year course is offered by Beit Polska, which is affiliated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

Each student has a unique story to tell about his or her Jewish journey.

Maria Jessa, a 53-year-old pharmaceutical industry executive, has no Jewish roots that she knows of. However, she became interested in Judaism after her daughter began attending Jewish day school in Warsaw. “At this point in my life I am seeking spirituality, and Judaism provides that,” she says.

An ulpan class at the Warsaw JCC, April 2018.Credit: Judy Maltz

Michal Mazur believes his maternal grandmother was Jewish, but has no hard evidence to prove it. “What I do know is that we found menorahs and books in Hebrew in her home,” the 32-year-old stockbroker says.

Eliza, a 28-year-old student teacher who asked that her last name not be published, experienced her Jewish epiphany in a dream. “I was born into a Catholic family, but about two years ago I had a dream that I was in Israel at the Western Wall, and I found a key there to the spiritual universe,” she relays. “I was so excited when I woke up that I booked a trip to Israel, and now I’m here.”

Kasia Dlugokecka, 34, decided she wanted to convert to Judaism during a trip to Israel. “Everything about the place and the people felt so familiar to me,” the computer graphic designer explains. “I was discussing it with my sister, who said she believes our grandmother must have been Jewish – even though she never spoke about it.”

Forty-year-old lawyer Chris, who also asked that his last name not be published, discovered a year ago that his paternal grandfather was Jewish. “I’m not totally certain I want to go through with conversion, though,” he says. “Right now, I’m here because I want to learn more about Judaism.”

Dominika Zakrzewska, 30, is the program director. She discovered she had Jewish roots on her father’s side when she was a teenager. Since her conversion seven years ago, she spends every spare hour – that is, when she’s not teaching psychology at the Pedagogical University of Warsaw – working for the Progressive movement in Poland.

This year’s conversion class is much smaller than those in previous years, notes Zakrzewska, who wears a hamsa (good-luck amulet) on a chain around her neck. She’s not sure whether to attribute lower participation to more stringent requirements (the course was recently lengthened from one year to two) or to the recent targeting of Polish Jews.

“Since the new government took power two years ago, I’ve been seeing two very distinct trends,” she says. “Either people are flaunting their Jewishness or hiding it. We’ve always had people in the class who’ve preferred to keep their decision to convert a secret from their co-workers and others – but now I’m seeing much more of that.”

A conversion class run by the Progressive movement in Warsaw, with two people participating via Skype from Lublin. Credit: Judy Maltz

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