Fifty years after the defeat of the Nazis, Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe is beginning to flower once again.
Central and Eastern Europe, once the heartland of a vibrant European Jewry, bore the brunt of the Nazi’s policy of extermination. It was here that most of Europe’s 9 million prewar Jews lived and it was here that Jews from across Europe died in ghettos and death camps.
At the end of World War II, hundreds of thousands of Jewish survivors fled the devastated region, immigrating to Israel, the United States, France and elsewhere.
For the Jews who remained, the end of World War II ushered in yet a new era of danger and oppression under Communist regimes that carried out Soviet-directed policies of suppression and secularization.
Maurice Samuel, the essayist and Yiddish translator, called Nazism and communism the twin “malachei-chabole,” or angels of destruction.
“The instrument of the first was mass murder, the bullet and and gas chamber,” Samuel wrote in his 1971 book, “In Praise Of Yiddish.”
“That of the second was and is spiritual and cultural asphyxiation.”
Today, five years after the fall of communism, Jewish life in Eastern and Central Europe from Warsaw to Sofia, from Vilnius to Zagreb, is blossoming again, as the often tiny remnant communities are undergoing a renaissance.
“As I watch the candles of the children’s chanukiyot burn each evening, I am very moved,” Helise Lieberman, director of the first Jewish elementary school to open in Warsaw in more than a generation, wrote in a letter in December, three months after the school opened its doors.
“When celebrating Chanukah outside Israel, one says: `A great miracle happened there,’” she wrote. “When celebrating in Israel, one says: `A great miracle happened here.’ This year in Poland, we must say that a great miracle is happening here!”
Fifty years ago, little was left of the Jewish population or centuries-old Jewish culture in Eastern and Central Europe.
Jews returning to their homes from death camps and exile were sometimes set upon by local anti-Semites. The most infamous incident took place in the central Polish town of Kielce in 1946, when a mob killed more than 40 returning Jews.
But there were anti-Jewish riots and attacks in other countries as well.
The Communists restricted Jewish life and observance and implemented a policy of secularization. They barred or impeded emigration and carried out anti- Semitic campaigns. Political show trials and purges sent hundreds of Jews to jail, labor camps or their deaths, or removed them from their jobs.
Under Communist rule, even memorials at Holocaust sites such as Auschwitz, Theresienstadt and Babi Yar minimized or ignored the fact that most victims were Jewish.
All Communist countries except Romania broke relations with Israel after the SiX-Day War in 1967 and embarked on anti-Zionist policies.
At least 300,000 Romanian Jews survived the war, but most of them immigrated to Israel, thanks to the controversial efforts of the late Chief Rabbi Moses Rosen, who traded public support of the Communist regime for certain privileges for the Jewish community, including the ability to emigrate.
In Poland, Communist authorities let loose an anti-Semitic campaign in 1968 that forced most of the tens of thousands of Jews who had remained in the country after the war to leave.
Soviet oppression and the refusal of Soviet authorities to allow Jews to emigrate sparked a world campaign to aid Soviet Jewry.
For the most part, Jews in Eastern and Central Europe assimilated totally, denied their heritage and identity, or went underground to keep the faith in private.
Most Jews who identified with the Jewish community were elderly Holocaust survivors.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee helped support these people when it could, but its operations were banned in various countries at various times.
Only in the late 1970s and 1980s did the oppression against Jews begin to ease as the political foundations of the Communist world began to crumble.
By the late 1980s, as communism teetered on the verge of collapse, younger Jews in some countries had begun to rediscover their identities and trying to learn about Judaism.
The first tentative attempts at rediscovery mushroomed after the collapse of communism, first in the Eastern Bloc countries and later in the Soviet Union, which resulted in the institution of religious freedom, restored diplomatic relations with Israel and the opening of the door to contacts with Jews worldwide.
Young people by the hundreds, many of whom had not known they were Jewish or knew little about Judaism, came out of hiding, eager to learn about their heritage.
They flocked to new schools, youth clubs, educational programs, camps and exchanges set up by local Jewish communities, Israeli volunteers, or organizations such as JDC and the New York-based Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.
The JDC shifted some of its focus from helping the elderly survive to helping young Jews to learn.
For many of the newly emerging Jews, the attraction was cultural, not religious.
There has been a parallel boom of interest in Jewish music, dance, art, literature, and even food among non-Jews in many countries in the region.
But religious life, too, began to revive. The Lubavitch movement and others sent rabbis to far-flung communities, and several local Jews studied to become ordained rabbis.
In Poland alone, more than 40 men and boys have been circumcised during the past 18 months.
“Three years ago, I practically did not know anything about Judaism and I felt very lonely,” said one teen-ager who takes part in Lauder Foundation activities in Poland.
“I knew that my grandparents had perished in Auschwitz and I thought all the Jews all over the world died as well. I was afraid of my background because I did not know what it meant. I remember that I longed for something — something vague, not-defined, incomprehensible, something that I associated with the shape of the Torah which my father saved from the ghetto.”
Today, the numbers of Jews in East-Central Europe are still small — 10,000 or so in Poland; 4,000 to 6,000 each in the Czech Republic and Slovakia; 5,000 to 7,000 in Bulgaria; 15,000 in Romania.
The only places where Jews live in any significant numbers are Hungary, where there are some 130,000 Jews, and in Russia and Ukraine, whose Jewish populations total about 600,000.
Jewish life in these countries will never be what it was before the Holocaust, and it still remains to be seen whether the young, emerging communities can attain the critical mass necessary for ultimate survival.
But local Jews and their helpers from world Jewry are committed to making the effort.
This too, however, has raised questions, as some observers see a “turf war” developing among outside Jewish organizations attempting to influence the development and direction of emerging East European Jewish communities.
Anthony Lerman, executive director of the London-based Institute of Jewish Affairs, warned of the potential risks.
“Eastern Europe is a battleground of different strains of Judaism pushing and pulling,” he said in a telephone interview.
“Jewish communities in the East must feel empowered to make their own decisions, without pressures from outside. They need self-empowerment, not through isolation, but within the context of the broader Jewish world.
“The key is that people should have free choice, especially small communities.”