PIOTRKOW TRYBUNALSKI, Poland (JTA) — Whenever I visit Poland, I’m struck by how the intensity of the Jewish presence dwarfs the tiny number of Jews who actually live in the country.
Even with the resurgence of Jewish life since the fall of communism, organized Jewish communities exist in fewer than a dozen Polish cities, and only the Warsaw community numbers much more than a few hundred people.
Yet each year sees hundreds of Jewish-themed festivals, conferences, educational projects, commemorative activities, publications and other initiatives throughout the country.
"I often joke that the mayor of every small town now feels obliged to make excuses if he or she has no Jewish festival," said Anna Dodziuk, a Jewish activist in Warsaw.
Dodziuk published a book this year on Poland’s largest and most famous Jewish festival, the nine-day Festival of Jewish Culture in Krakow, which has been going strong since 1988.
"To put it in short," she said, "it is politically correct now to explore the Jewish history of the local communities, to commemorate Jews of a shtetl who perished in Holocaust, to celebrate somehow Jewish culture."
The activities are meant to educate and memorialize, but they coincide with a Jewish presence that is glaringly visible in more negative contexts, too, and this is also part of the paradox.
Anti-Semitic graffiti is shockingly widespread. Spray-painted Stars of David hanging from gallows deface countless walls.
Much of this, however, likely has little to do with actual Jews. The ugly scrawls are the work of soccer fans who may have no idea what Judaism is but have adopted Jewish symbols as pejoratives with which to bash their opponents.
Meanwhile, figurines of Orthodox Jews clutching coins fill souvenir stalls in Warsaw, Krakow and some other cities. The imagery harks back to the stereotype of Jews as greedy moneylenders, but the figurines are marketed today as abstract good-luck talismans.
"When a member of the city council from a Polish town came to visit me in the States not long ago, he brought a present," said Michael Traison, an American Jewish lawyer who has offices in Chicago and Warsaw. "It was a painting of a Jew counting money, with a dollar bill stuck in its back. He obviously had no idea that the image could be offensive."
Trying to make sense out of the disparity is a cottage industry among scholars, educators, policymakers, communal leaders and ordinary citizens.
How do you balance an abstract evocation of Jews and Jewish life with the real thing? And how do you prevent stereotypes and skewed templates from dominating discourse?
Traison believes a sort of "public display of Judaism" can be useful.
Toward that end, over the past four years he has helped organize Shabbatons that have brought actual Jews and Jewish practice to half a dozen provincial towns where few or no Jews have lived since the Holocaust. Religious services are held in long-disused synagogues, and local officials and ordinary citizens are invited to join in for prayers, kosher meals and Shabbat study.
Traison says he has four main goals: remembrance; demonstrating that the Jewish people — and Judaism — are still alive; outreach to Poles; and enabling Jews and local Catholics to participate in a Jewish religious experience.
"This is all very important for young people in Poland, who often only know Jews through imagery and mythology," he said.
Stanislaw Krajewski, a Warsaw Jew who has attended several of the Shabbatons, agreed.
"It doesn’t just show pictures but is doing something that is really alive," he said. "It is such an innovation — a way of bringing a sort of circulation of blood in these places."
A Catholic man who attended last year’s Shabbaton in Kielce put it this way: "I could feel myself what I already knew theoretically, namely what the Shabbat means for Jews who treat their faith seriously.”
The song “Boi Kala” – “Come, Sabbath Queen” – “is also a challenge or a question on how I, a Christian man, treat my ‘shabbat’ — Sunday," the man said. "Thanks to Jews’ testimony of how they treat their holy day, I treat my one more seriously."
Most of these elements were evident at the latest Shabbaton, which took place this summer in Piotrkow Trybunalski, a rundown industrial town in central Poland where city walls are scarred by anti-Semitic soccer graffiti but also bear commemorative plaques recalling the town’s rich Jewish past.
The Shabbaton coincided with a city-sponsored Days of Judaism festival, and posters advertised the religious events along with lectures, exhibits and a klezmer concert. Piotrkow’s mayor and other officials took part in a Holocaust commemoration ceremony, a kosher Shabbat dinner and an open-air Havdalah celebration in a public park near the center of town.
Schoolchildren staged a play based on a Holocaust story, and Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, led services in Piotrkow’s former synagogue, which was defiled by the Nazis and then turned into the public library in the 1960s.
Most of the participants were Piotrkow Holocaust survivors and descendants from Israel, the United States and other countries. They included the former Israeli diplomat Naftali Lau-Lavie, who was called to the Torah that Shabbat to celebrate the 71st anniversary of his bar mitzvah. Lavie’s father was Piotrkow’s last chief rabbi, and his brother is Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel and now the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv.
Many in the group had visited Piotrkow before. Some had sponsored commemorative projects such as placing plaques and cleaning up the Jewish cemetery. They came to honor the dead, relive memories and make a positive statement simply by walking the streets.
It was "surreal" to pray where both "fame and infamy reigned," said Irving Gomolin, a survivors’ son from Mineola, N.Y., who was making his third trip to Piotrkow.
But, he added, "It also helps send the message to the town that we have not forgotten, that the Jewish nation and Piotrkower Jews survive and remember and do not want to forget or have their past in this place forgotten."