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Around the Jewish World: Polish Jews Aim to Overcome Discord in Building Community

February 3, 1997
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A joke told by Polish Jews describes how if the last remaining Jew leaves town, 20 other Jews go to the station to bid him goodbye.

Two speakers at a recent conference of Polish Jews referred pointedly to that joke when describing the current situation of Jews in Poland.

The conference, sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, gathered more than 150 Jews of all ages late last month in Warsaw for five hours of sometimes heated debate about the future of Polish Jewry in the coming decade.

The meeting proved a vital indicator of Polish Jewry’s resolute intention to survive into the next millennium.

But it also highlighted organizational and generational conflicts that complicate the building of that future as the Holocaust survivor generation gives way to a generation of Jews now claiming its Jewish identity with few concrete links to the traditional past.

A Jewish future in Poland seemed unthinkable less than a decade ago. In the eyes of some, including some Polish Jews themselves, it is still far from certain.

Nearly 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland before World War II. More than 3 million were killed in the Holocaust.

Most survivors emigrated after the war, in the wake of anti-Semitic attacks by Poles.

An anti-Semitic campaign by the Communist government in 1968 forced another 20,000 Jews to emigrate, including most of the Jewish intelligentsia.

Today, some 10,000 to 15,000 Jews live in Poland, though only a few thousand are actively affiliated with the community.

Particularly since the fall of communism seven years ago, there has been an explosion of interest in Judaism, especially among younger people from the postwar generations who only recently discovered that they are Jewish or only recently became involved in Jewish activities.

New organizations have been founded and new Jewish programs have been initiated, including clubs, youth groups, publications and leadership training programs.

A new Jewish day school in Warsaw run by the U.S.-based Ronald S. Lauder Foundation boasts 70 pupils.

“Ten years ago, the common question was: When will the last Jew in Poland be buried?” said Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Poland director of the Lauder Foundation, which sponsors many of the new educational and youth activities.

“Five years ago, the common question was: Are there any young Jews in Poland? Today, we don’t have this type of question.”

Nonetheless, tensions between the older generation of Holocaust survivors and the younger generations of emerging Jews have hindered the community’s development.

Sociologist Pawel Spiewak described a tendency for the older generation to question the Jewishness of the younger Jews, even going as far as to set up barriers to their entering the traditional Jewish fold.

He described a parallel tendency among young Jews to ignore or reject the views, needs and traditions of the elderly.

“The young can’t find leaders in the older generation,” he said.

As an example, he cited how Chief Rabbi Menachem Joskowicz, a white-bearded Chasid, appeared to emphasize generational barriers by making pronouncements in Yiddish — a language spoken by the old, but not the young.

“The young live beside the elderly, but they live alone,” Spiewak said. “They seek their own identity.”

Jerzy Filipowicz of the Union of Polish Jewish Students spoke out on behalf of the younger generations’ interests.

“The future is in our hands,” he said. “We are the ones who will create it.

“I hope that all Jewish organizations can see the need of involving young people to create a mutual society, that they can see that young people are the future. It is worthwhile to invest in this community.”

How to resolve the generational conflict — and the related conflict between older Jewish organizations and new groups — dominated debate at the conference.

Concerns over the weakness of the community and the lack of unity and cooperation among its factions were apparent.

Although there were calls for unity and cooperation from all generations, no concrete solutions emerged.

The conference marked the first time that representatives of all major Polish Jewish organizations, old and new and representing all generations, were gathered together formally to discuss a common Jewish future.

Organizations represented at the gathering included the Jewish religious community, mainly consisting of elderly members, and the secular Jewish Socio- Cultural Association, which is the largest Jewish organization in Poland, but is seen by many in the younger generation as a tainted holdover from the Communist era.

Also participating were representatives from the newly formed Union of Jewish Students and organizations such as the Jewish Historical Institute, Hidden Children of the Holocaust, Association of (Wartime) Combatants and the Jewish Forum, a new association linking adult professionals and businesspeople.

Most of the overflow crowd appeared to be from the post-World War II generations. Some participants traveled hundreds of miles from such cities as Szczecin, Krakow, Katowice and Wroclaw.

Most speakers, old and young, stressed that the future of Polish Jews would ultimately depend on themselves.

Stanislaw Krajewski, president of the Jewish Forum and Poland consultant for the American Jewish Committee, described two basic, sharply differing approaches.

The first, he said, espoused mainly by older people and members of traditional organizations, concentrated on using funds for support of these groups and their mainly elderly members.

The second approach involved concentrating on outreach.

“We have considerable potential, but we have to make the Jewish organizations attractive to the unaffiliated,” he said. “For the majority of the postwar generation, their Polish identity is a given. Gaining a Jewish identity is an effort.”

Manlio della Riccia, Poland country director of the JDC, which is a key funder of Polish Jewish welfare, religious and educational activities, said he found that the conference itself, with all its discussions of the community’s future, provided ample reason for optimism.

“I strongly believe that the fact that we are here today is the answer to those who wanted to destroy the Jewish people,” he said.

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