KRAKOW, July 22 (JTA) — During a visit to Poland this summer, Tad Taube recalled the moment when his mother learned that her father had been killed at Auschwitz. “It was in 1942 or 1943,” said Taube, a California-based philanthropist. “She had adored her father; he was the central figure in her life. When she got the news, I distinctly remember that she spent the next six months crying. And that was followed by other communiques about family members who were killed.” Born in Krakow in 1931, Taube and his parents escaped Poland on the eve of World War II. But he lost 70 percent of his relatives in the Shoah and, even growing up safe in America, he said, “I was totally immersed in the tragedy of the Holocaust.” When Taube left Poland in 1939, the country was home to 3.5 million Jews. Some 3 million of them were killed in the Shoah. Naturally, Taube said, it’s important to remember these victims and mourn their deaths. But it’s equally important to recognize, remember and build on the rich Jewish culture, creativity and civilization that was murdered along with them, he said.. “When many Jewish people come to Poland, they fly into Warsaw, go straight to Auschwitz, then want to get out,” he said. “But until the war, Poland had the most prolific, culturally diverse, creative Jewish population anywhere, ever,” he said. “We can’t afford to relegate those 3.5 million people to a postscript in history.” This assertion could be the motto of the Polish Jewish Heritage Program, a new philanthropic focus of his Taube Family Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture. The program, the Taube Foundation’s first international operation, has two goals. One is to foster positive interest in Poland among American Jews. The other is to support the remarkable revival of Jewish culture in Poland since the 1989 collapse of Communism, and to further awareness of this resurgence among Jews and non-Jews. The foundation awarded multi-year grants totaling $420,000 to three key Polish institutions that for years have worked to foster Jewish culture and promote knowledge and understanding of Jewish culture, history and traditions among Poles. The institutions — the annual Festival of Jewish Culture in Krakow, Krakow’s Center for Jewish Culture and the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw — will serve as partners for the foundation as it seeks to establish a broader network, Taube said. The foundation also provides some support for Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the American-born rabbi of Warsaw and Lodz. “We’re planting seeds,” said Taube, who also president of the Koret Foundation and a trustee of the Hoover Institution. “And I see movement, rapprochement, reconciliation. “It was a gamble,” he said. “We didn’t know we could influence changes here.” Though the foundation only began active work in Poland last year, Taube already has achieved high-profile recognition. At a June 30 ceremony in Warsaw, he was awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland, the country’s second highest distinction for a foreigner. “It is an expression of respect for your life philosophy, which lets you combine achievements in business with an active participation in public life and with philanthropy,” a representative of Poland’s president told Taube at the award ceremony. “We are deeply convinced that your initiatives have greatly influenced the development of Polish-Jewish relations, rooted in history but heading for the future.” Organizations such as the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee long have worked in Poland to support the welfare of individual Jews and the activities of the small Jewish communities that have emerged since the fall of Communism. Around 15,000 Jews are believed to live in Poland today. Taube, though, is one of several Holocaust survivors and Jews who left Poland just before the war and who recently have begun to shift their focus away from the destruction of the Holocaust toward programs that preserve and teach about prewar Jewish life and culture. Others include Sigmund Rolat, who sponsored a major exhibit this spring on Jews in his native Czestochowa, and Aaron Ziegelman, who sponsored an exhibit on the shtetl of Luboml that has been traveling in the United States. Their activities are aimed at the general public as well as Jews. “Because they belong to the Holocaust generation, their perspectives on preserving heritage and fostering culture are all the more important and have special credibility,” said Shana Penn, director of the Polish Jewish Heritage Program. Lena Bergman, of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, said focusing on Poland’s rich Jewish past and promoting Jewish culture can help break long-ingrained stereotypes. “It’s a matter of educating a broad public, creating the support for normal relations,” she said. “What we are trying to do is to show the reality and richness of Jewish life before the Shoah,” she said. “We show that Jews were not victims by definition, as is sometimes asserted. We focus on life.” For example, a recent exhibition mounted by the institute centered on Jewish soldiers in the Polish military. Taube’s visit to Krakow this summer coincided with his first direct experience with the Jewish Culture Festival, a nine-day annual extravaganza that takes place in the synagogues, streets and squares of Kazimierz, the city’s former Jewish district. He said attending the festival’s opening event, a concert by three cantors held in the ornate 19th-century Tempel synagogue, which was restored in the 1990s, reaffirmed his belief in his goals. “Here we are, committed to supporting a renaissance of Jewish culture, and all of a sudden we find ourselves in an incredible synagogue, restored with love and care, along with 1,000 other people listening to cantorial music,” he said. The audience included local Jews, American Jewish tourists, and hundreds of non-Jewish Poles. “It was an incredible experience,” he said. “People were literally hanging from the rafters!”
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Ruth Ellen Gruber is JTA’s senior European correspondent. Based in Rome, she travels and writes extensively on Jewish affairs in Italy, Central and Eastern Europe and other European countries. A former UPI reporter, she has also written for The New York Times and the Encyclopaedia Judaica. She is also the author of several books: Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to East-Central Europe and Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today.