Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. 'Stop seeing Poland as a place of death'
Photo: Visual/Photos

Bitter herbs sweet for Poland's Jews

Polish Jewish community says grounded confidently in its faith, culture. 'We have a generation of young people for whom being Jewish is neither a reason to be proud nor ashamed, but just normal'

The Passover herbs are bitter, but the symbolism is sweet for Poland's Jews, a community which has emerged from the shadow of Nazi German genocide and communist-era anti-Semitism.


As Jews worldwide commemorated the ancient Exodus from Egypt with traditional fare from dry matzah crackers to herbs in saltwater recalling their forebears' tears, those in Poland say they are grounded confidently in their faith and culture.


"Over 20 years ago the situation was quite different. But now it's community building," said Piotr Kadlcik, 49, head of Poland's national Jewish federation.


"We have a generation of young people for whom being Jewish is neither a reason to be proud nor ashamed, but just normal," he told AFP at an annual Passover ceremony.


Beyond the purely religious sphere, Poland's regular, vibrant festivals of Jewish music and literature draw crowds of Jews and non-Jews alike.


Cemetery and synagogue restoration, school Jewish history lessons and flourishing academic research are also helping reclaim the past.


Next year sees the opening of Warsaw's purpose-built museum of 1,000 years of Polish-Jewish history, located in what during World War II was the ghetto set up by the Nazis.


On the eve of the German invasion in 1939, Poland had Europe's largest Jewish community - around 3.2 million people, or some 10% of its population, ranging from the non-religious to the traditionally-garbed Hasidic.


Half of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust were Polish. Most died in camps set up by the Germans in occupied Poland, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau.


In 1946, a year after the war, Poland's Jews numbered just 200,000 according to state data.


Most emigrated amid the creation of Israel in 1948 or anti-Semitic campaigns in the late 1950s and 1968 stoked by power struggles within the communist regime, which crumbled in 1989.


"Before the war, Polish-Jewish relations part of normal, everyday life. Then for 50 years, there weren't any normal Polish-Jewish relations," said Michael Schudrich, 55, Poland's US-born chief rabbi.


"For 20 years, we've been getting back to what it was like for centuries," added Schudrich, whose ancestors hailed from Poland and who arrived here in the 1990s.


Poland's contemporary Jewish community, however, is a drop in an overwhelmingly Catholic ocean of 38 million.


In the 2002 census, 1,133 people declared themselves ethnic Jews, a self-defined category excluding those who see themselves as Poles of Jewish faith.


Overall, no one knows how many Jews there are in Poland. Estimates range from 20,000 to 50,000, far outstripping those who attend synagogue or are active in the community.


'Wrong to think of Poland in terms of Holocaust'

Many Holocaust survivors able to hide their identity during the war decided to keep it that way if they stayed in Poland, to protect the next generation, or didn't pass on what they may not have followed faithfully before.


Kadlcik wasn't raised Jewish.


"But I've known from my early years that I am Jewish. In those days there was no such thing as a Jewish community because after 1968 everything collapsed," he said.


"In the 80s I became involved in the Jewish Flying University -- flying because its illegal meetings were held in various people's homes -- and later I became more and more active," he said.


Others came from mixed families where identity was not hard and fast.


"My father was Jewish, and my mother, Polish. But they were not religious at all," Warsaw publisher Anna Szemberg, 61, told AFP.


Szemberg is not considered Jewish because the identity traditionally passes from mother to child. Her sons were not raised religious, but one has converted.


"I try to understand. Above all, I'm with him. I try to learn as much as possible about the Jewish religion and tradition. But myself, I wouldn't convert. Maybe it's just too late," Szemberg said.


While political anti-Semitism has been pushed to the margins, offensive graffiti, football-terrace chants and hostile stereotypes underline the need to keep battling hate, noted Kadlcik.


"Ten years ago I was fighting very strongly against people saying Poland is an anti-Semitic country and so on. I still do that. But I'm really seeing that there's very good soil for this kind of anti-Semitism," Kadlcik warned.


The community also wants other Jews - notably from the United States and Israel who visit Holocaust sites - to wake up to its revival and even very existence and stop seeing Poland simply as a place of death.


That was echoed by Polish-born Irith Cherniavsky, 64, who emigrated to Israel in 1957 and was visiting Warsaw with her family.


"In Israel, young people only think about Poland in terms of the Holocaust, and that's wrong," she told AFP.



פרסום ראשון: 04.27.11, 14:16
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