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Op-Ed: Don’t call Polish Jews ‘hidden’

WARSAW, Poland (JTA) – Among the events at celebrations in Lublin of the Siyum HaShas, or the completion of the Daf Yomi Talmud study cycle, was a session billed as a seminar for “hidden Jews” of Poland.

About 30 Jews from Poland took part in the Lublin events last week, joining scores of other Jews who had gathered in this city in eastern Poland from abroad — and thousands who marked the Siyum HaShas elsewhere around the world.

It was a great occasion and emblematic of the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland since the fall of communism more than 20 years ago.

But hidden Jews? Where are we hiding?

The term was coined by the Shavei Israel organization, an Israel-based group that reaches out to “lost Jews” around the world and organized the Lublin seminar.

Following the 1989 fall of communism, truly hidden Jews began emerging from the shadows and started to reestablish Jewish life in Poland. I was one of them, and I well remember those difficult and uncertain times. But the term scarcely characterizes the Jewish experience in Poland today.

Shavei Israel’s Daf Yomi seminar was just one of dozens — maybe even hundreds — of Jewish seminars, classes, courses, lectures, workshops, conferences, festivals, study groups, summer camp sessions and other events held in Poland throughout the year.

What’s more, the Siyum HaShas events in Lublin took place in the historic Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva, whose founder, Rabbi Meir Shapiro, established Daf Yomi more than 80 years ago.

For decades after the Holocaust the building was used by Lublin’s Medical Academy, but our Jewish community received the building back in 2003. We restored it and rebuilt a synagogue and mikvah there that were dedicated in 2007. The building now stands proudly as the focal point of a tiny but vibrant Jewish community in Lublin.

We did this by ourselves, funding it with our own resources — obtained through property restitution — without any financial assistance from abroad.

We have been striving to rebuild Jewish life in Poland for more than 20 years; I would say we have accomplished a lot.

Of course, we have not done it alone.

I have tremendous respect and gratitude for organizations such as the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and World Jewish Relief, which helped us so much when help was needed the most. I likewise honor the Taube Foundation and individuals such as the philanthropist Sigmund Rolat, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, who are making such valuable contributions today. Shavei Israel’s help in bringing rabbis to Poland also has been very important. 

But we are not in hiding; no way. We are visible, we are confident, we are part of society. I call on outside organizations to reflect the reality of Polish Jewish life in their materials and statements.

Today, indeed, we have a whole new generation of Polish Jews. They are adults or young adults who have grown up in Jewish environments, participated in Jewish children’s or youth camps, studied in Jewish schools or at university Jewish studies courses, interacted with Jews around the globe.

They are Jews like my own children, for whom being Jewish is neither a traumatic experience nor a special reason for pride. They are Jews — and that’s it.

I am aware, of course, that somewhere in Poland there may be thousands of people of Jewish origin, still truly hidden Jews. But they are not the ones who would have attended a Daf Yomi Lublin seminar.

They need to make a first step, to recognize that they are Jewish — if they want to — and try to become a part of Jewish society. It can be difficult, for them and for us, to help them make a conscious choice.

Still, something seems to be working. Ten years ago, after the national census, some 1,100 people acknowledged that they are a part of the Jewish national minority in Poland. In the most recent census, just completed, the result was more than 7,000.

We are well aware that Jewish life in Poland will never approach the richness and complexity of the era before the Shoah, when more than 3 million Jews lived here.

But hidden Jews? Not us!

(Piotr Kadlcik is president of the Jewish Community of Warsaw and the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland.)

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