WARSAW (Nov. 25)
It was estimated from officials of Poland’s Office of Religious Beliefs that the Catholic Church has 15,000 churches throughout the country and that new churches are springing up all over. They expressed relief that the thorny issue of the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz had been resolved during the Cardinal of Cracow’s meeting last July in Geneva with Jewish and Catholic representatives from European nations. The Cardinal reportedly agreed to suspend construction on the convent, but the issue still appears to be unresolved.
Andrzey Sawicki, the representative of Poland’s Religious Office in Lublin noted that a House of Seven Faiths, including the Jewish and Catholic, had been proposed for construction, but that after an architectural competition had already been held to select the most appropriate design, the Archbishop of Lublin had suddenly been directed by the Vatican to withdraw his keen support for the interfaith project.
It seemed quite clear to this visitor that the Office of Religious Beliefs was committed to restoring and preserving Poland’s Jewish heritage. Its program includes repairing and renewing Jewish monuments in cemeteries, and rebuilding synagogues destroyed by the Nazis, even if only as museums to remind the visitor of a once glorious past. It also provides material support of the Jewish Cultural Clubs.
All these factors and others underline the remarkable paradox that, even in a difficult economic situation, Poland gives financial aid to bolster the remnants of Polish Jewry.
EFFORT TO RESTORE RAVAGED CEMETERIES
The Religious Office has been seeking financial support to augment its own contributions, a vital need if the ravaged cemeteries are to be restored. But the results so far have not been impressive, with one startling exception.
The Brodno Cemetery, dating from 1780, in an outlying Warsaw district, and where 300,000 Jews were buried, had been totally destroyed by the Nazis. When Sigmund Nissenbaum, a participant in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and a rare survivor of Treblinka, come to Warsaw from West Germany to attend the 40th anniversary rites, he went to Brodno to try to find his family’s graves. He was appalled at the destruction. There is now a Nissenbaum Foundation, funded at more than a million dollars, and reconstruction is well under way. A striking example of the nationwide restoration program is the synagogue at Tykocin, 100 miles northeast of Warsaw, between those former citadels of Jewish culture, Lomza and Bialystok. Originating in 1642, the baroque temple has been lovingly renewed, and visitors are transported, as in a time capsule, back to the “shtetl” of yesteryear. Also restored is the adjacent yeshivas, now a museum, and the facades of the houses facing the synagogue, the former homes and the shops of the prosperous Jews of the vibrant, teeming community, the prototype of hundreds of great Jewish communities housing over three million Jews before the cataclysm.
Another “must” for the visitor is the National Historic Institute, adjoining the Great Synagogue destroyed by the Nazis. The graceful building housing the Institute was rebuilt in the past few years, and contains a remarkable exhibit of the Holocaust, the Warsaw Ghetto saga, and religious and secular Jewish art objects.
Sponsored by the Polish Academy of Sciences, it is privately administered, and its archives are among the finest in Europe. The library contains more than 40,000 volumes in Yiddish, Hebrew and Latin, and one has the rare privilege of seeing the original of the diary of Emanuel Ringelblum, the chronicler of the dark days of Warsaw Ghetto life. He scribbled his immortal story on scraps of paper, now lovingly preserved in the archives.
The Institute may well be called the Yad Vashem of Warsaw, and it provides a moving experience in a journey to this country inhabited by the ghosts of a turbulent past as well as the current generation of a relative handful of Jews.
It is heartening to see the constant groups from Israel and other countries, all of whom have come not only to see, but to remember. It must be acknowledged that Orbis takes very good care of them. And “getting there” is made relatively painless, strangely enough by neutral Switzerland, through the soothing comfort provided by Swissair.
This is a period of relative calm in a land that has seen confrontations between church and state, and between the authorities and many of its citizens. This reporter, whose last visit was in April 1983, noted a definite easing of tensions during his present visit.
In the material sphere, there is a definite increase in the standard of living, with food and clothing in abundance; and the blight of Westernlike traffic jams due to a plentitude of automobiles. Poles are reaching out for “the good life,” and Jews one never knew existed (because they have concealed their faith) packed the synagogues during the High Holidays in a fleeting testimonial to their martyred people.