Behind the Headlines: with the Holocaust Ever in Mind, a Jewish Community Buds in Warsaw

Throughout Warsaw there are constant reminders of the Holocaust and the mass killing of the Jews of Poland: the Memorial to the Ghetto Fighters; Umschlagplatz, from where thousands of Jews were deported to concentration camps; and the Monument to the Children of the Ghetto.

Earlier this year, thousands of Jews, along with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and U.S. Vice President A1 Gore, participated in ceremonies surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Against this background, it can sometimes be difficult to remember that today, a half-century after the Holocaust, there still exists a Jewish community in Warsaw.

“Foreigners are always surprised when they discover us,” said Joanna Susek, a student of Polish language at the University of Warsaw. “They cannot believe that there is a new generation of Jews in Poland.”

Susek is one of a growing number of Polish Jewish youths who have begun actively participating in the Jewish community in recent years.

Since the fall of the Communist regime, repression and limitations on the Jewish community have ended, and there has been a tremendous upsurge in interest in the Jewish past and present in Poland.

Dozens of books about the Jewish past of the country are published every year, and nearly all the classics of Yiddish literature have been translated into Polish, including the complete works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Polish-born Nobel Prize winner.

Before the outbreak of World War II, Warsaw had the largest Jewish population of any European city, with more than 325,000 Jews and a thriving Jewish culture.

At its peak, more than a third of the city was Jewish, making it the capital of Polish Jewry.

HOLOCAUST STILL REVERBERATES

During the Holocaust, more than 90 percent of the 3.5 million Jews of Poland were killed by the Nazis.

The subsequent waves of emigration to Israel and the West, especially after Communist-orchestrated outbreaks of anti-Semitism during the 1950s and late 1960s, further depleted the Jewish population.

Today, according to official statistics from the Polish government, only 5,000 Jews remain.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich, an American-born rabbi, has worked full time in Poland since September 1992 with the younger generation of Jews. With the help of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, Schudrich runs summer and winter camps for over 200 people, a kindergarten and the Warsaw Center for Jewish Education Youth Club, located directly next to the Nozyk Synagogue.

Schudrich does not believe the government figure for Jews.

“The official number of 5,000 is ridiculously low,” Schudrich said. “Perhaps 10,000 is right, but the number of what I like to call ‘Poles of Jewish background’ — that is, those who have Jewish heritage and have taken some positive steps in discovering that heritage — is perhaps as high as 40,000.”

Last year more than 1,000 younger people who were born after the war had contact with his organization. As a result of the high rate of intermarriage, many younger people in Poland who consider themselves Jewish and participate in the community are not Jews according to Jewish law.

Schudrich said, “Despite what happened here 50 years ago, there are still Jews in Warsaw and in all of Poland who want to be Jewish.”

Only one or two generations since the Holocaust, the event reverberates in all discussions about today’s Jewish community here.

“We need to save the Holocaust as a memory, but we cannot live in a memory. I want to live here, but I cannot live in a cemetery,” explained Piotr Sobotka, a 29-year-old student of psychology. “We must create a concrete life for Jews now.”

EDUCATION NEEDED TO PRESERVE COMMUNITY

After four decades of Communist rule which restricted Jewish communal life to the state Jewish theater and a Yiddish weekly magazine, Dos Yiddishe Vort, funding from the Lauder Foundation has done a lot to rebuild the institutions needed for Jewish communal life.

After 15 years without a rabbi, the community now has two. Kosher meat and food are now available, and the foundation helps to subsidize Menorah, the only kosher restaurant in Warsaw. Despite the activity and the wave of fascination for Jewish culture among the younger generation, lingering questions still remain about Jewish life in Poland.

Even with such large amounts of funding, a community with such a small amount of Jews cannot support many of the institutions needed for Jewish life.

Shlomo Zieniuk is considering emigration to Israel after he completes his master’s degree because of the lack of Jewish schools available.

“Without Jewish education, it is difficult to preserve the community,” he said.

At a memorial service for the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April, Schudrich connected the present situation to the past.

“The battle did not end in 1945 when the Germans were defeated.” he said. “It continued under the Communists as people here continued to retain their Jewish identity and it continues today.”

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