About 20 youngsters stood out of doors in the center of Warsaw on a cold, snowy Monday evening, shivering in their new plastic Maccabi Sports Club coveralls.
It was the eighth night of Chanukah, and they were waiting for a flame from Israel to kindle the eight lights on a huge prewar menorah set up at the foot of the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial.
Wide-eyed, they watched as the torch-bearer, an Israeli youth named Alon Bar-Natan, raced to the spot with a flame relayed from Modi’in, the ancient hometown of the heroic Maccabi clan.
The renewal of this old custom marked the first time since the Holocaust that the gap was bridged between Jews in Poland and Israel.
It symbolized attempts to revive Jewish life in Poland, which was decimated by the Nazis, suppressed during 40 years of Communist rule and always threatened by indigenous anti-Semitism.
A new Jewish pride was evident in the remark of a boy named Jurek who received the torch. “If we give up, then Hitler has won,” he said.
Out of a prewar population of more than 3 million, fewer than 300,000 Polish Jews survived the Holocaust, and most of them left the country after the war.
The Jewish community in Poland today officially numbers about 5,000, of whom some 2,000 live in Warsaw.
But community officials say that if Jews afraid to identify themselves are counted, the population would be closer to 10,000. About 20,000 Poles are said to have one Jewish parent.
Until recently, Jewish life here has been barren.
“Since 1968, the menorahs disappeared from the windows,” explained Ethel, a young actress of the Warsaw Jewish Theater, referring to a period of government-inspired anti-Semitism.
‘AFRAID TO IDENTIFY AS JEWS’
“People were afraid to identify as Jews. But today we are lighting candles in the street, so that everybody can see,” she said.
The revival of Jewish custom and culture in Poland since the end of Communist regime owes much to the support provided by the Ronald Lauder Foundation.
Lauder, an American businessman and former U.S. ambassador to Austria, established the foundation in three years ago. It is headquartered in New York, has an office in Vienna, and has affiliates in Budapest and Warsaw.
He celebrated Chanukah here this year with the young Maccabi Sports Club members at the Menorah kosher restaurant.
“Tonight I am facing here some 30 Jewish youngsters, who are hungry for Jewish education,” he said.
In reviving the various aspects of Jewish life in Poland, Lauder has been helped by two New York rabbis, Chaskel Besser and Michael Shudrich.
“Rekindling the lights in the desecrated Temple back in 164 BCE is the reason for the Jewish festival of Chanukah,” Shudrich observed. “Rekindling the lights of Jewish education in Eastern Europe today is the ultimate aim of the Lauder Foundation.”
Its emphasis is on the younger generation, according to Axana Sternberg, vice president of the foundation, who works out of Vienna.
“Establishing a Jewish kindergarten was the very first achievement,” Sternberg said. “Then followed the organization of a summer holiday camp for youngsters and their parents.
“The first camp had only about 20 children. But the word spread so quickly that the next camp attracted nearly 120 people, including some guests from the Soviet Union,” she recalled.
In addition to providing sports and recreational facilities, the foundation runs a daily program of Jewish history and prayers, and it provides kosher food.
“We started our fencing club without any equipment. We just made arm and leg movements,” said Grazyna Pawlak, chairman of Maccabi Sports Club in Poland. “The Lauder Foundation provided us with the necessary equipment,” she said, adding proudly, “We also have a chess and a bridge section.”