Poland – Jewish is the New Cool (Part I)

When my son Jack was in high school, he had two classmates from Warsaw, Poland.  As teenagers they wanted to understand their previously unexplored Jewish identities.  Through a connection between Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, and a fellow Seattleite, they came to Seattle and attended our Jewish High School.  They graduated and went off to college.  I did not keep up with their progress.

But once I decided to visit Poland, I asked my son where these two young men are now.  He said, “I am not sure, but I believe one of them is in Warsaw.”  Well, I found him on Facebook (the all-knowing) and sent him a friend request (accepted).  He is indeed in Warsaw and we will visit with him and meet his parents while we are there.  This is very exciting.

Then, thanks to a recommendation from a friend, I just finished reading an amazing book by Katka Reszke titled: Return of the Jew: Identity Narratives of the Third Post-Holocaust Generation of Jews in Poland (2013).  This book taught me that Jack’s classmates are not alone.  There are many such young Polish Jews, now in their 20’s and 30’s.  Sometimes they found out about being Jewish from a dying grandparent – deathbed confession.  Other times, they found out accidentally.  Others knew they had a Jewish parent or grandparent, but did not think much about it until they were teens.

Reszke’s book details a most fascinating story of resurgence of Jewish life in Poland.   Not just among these young Jews who are creating a Jewish identity for themselves, but also among non-Jews.

It is now “cool” to be Jewish in Poland.  Wow!

Poland has more Jewish cultural events than any other European country. (Id. at 34) All things Jewish are in demand – movies, theater, festivals.  The Krakow Jewish festival lasts a full week and draws thousands of non-Jews to the streets of Krakow to eat Jewish food, hear Klezmer music and dance the hora.  This takes some readjustment to my American Jewish – married to child of Holocaust survivors’ – mentality.

The next two blog post will give you a flavor of what Reszke has taught me.  The first discusses post War events, including Sam and Esther’s attempt to return to Sam’s hometown after the War.  The next post will surprise and delight you with the return of the new Polish Jew and Poland’s obsession with everything Jewish.

******

Ninety percent of the Jews of Poland were murdered during World War II.  After the War, many survivors returned to their homes.  They were met by Poles who, in 1944 and 1945, were not happy with the return of the Jew.

This is what happened to Sam and Esther.

After liberation, they got married and found their way back to Ostow Mavitzyetz – Sam’s home.  Sam’s father had a “Yatzke” – some kind of butcher shop – where he used to sell meat. He reconnected with a Gentile pig farmer named Joseph, whom he had known before the war.  They agreed to do business together in the Yatzke, slaughtering and selling meat.  Sam and Esther lived there for a year, gave birth to a daughter – Fay – and made a good living.

After one year, some Poles came to Sam and wanted to buy his property and his now successful business.  So, he did what all good businessmen do, he consulted his lawyer.  The lawyer was his father lawyer before the war.

It was a Friday, and the lawyer said, “Listen to me, Goldberg, run away today, not tomorrow. Because if you don’t, you won’t be here tomorrow. They are going to kill you.”

Sam went to his partner Joseph and begged him to help him get out of town.  Joseph had a car, but he did not want to help. He was in fear of his life.  His wife, “was a Christian,” Sam explained.  “She begged him – ‘Joseph, please take them tonight.’  So, he took us at night, about 10:00 on a Friday –  100 kilometers to Lodz.  He put his life in danger. While we were riding on the road [other Poles] shot at us without limit to kill us.  But he drove so fast, that we escaped.”

Those that did stay in Poland after the War, assimilated.  Some even assumed “active roles in the Stalinist regime perceived at the time as a promise of a secular paradise free of all forms of nationalism and xenophobia.” (Reszke at 22)   The communist government openly condemned antisemitism and ascribed it to “right wing oppositionists.” (Id.)  “While Jews continued to leave Poland for Western countries or for Palestine and later Israel, anti-Jewish overtones became increasingly manifest in the demonstration of society’s dissatisfaction with the ruling elite.” (Id. at 22).  As a result of anti-Jewish sentiments, 50,000 Jews left Poland between 1956 and 1959.  (Id. at 23) Of the Holocaust survivors that stayed, some “decided to disguise their Jewish identification and similarly made no mention of it to their children.  Others maintained ties with the socio-cultural association and/or with the local Jewish congregation.” (Id. at 27)

Antisemitism grew in Poland in the 1960, reaching a new post-War high after Israel’s victory in the 1967, Six Days War.   “In Poland, the stereotype of Jews as communists, Jews as national nihilists, and Jews as subversive political ‘fifth column,’ were now topped with the new one – that of the Jew as Zionist, assuming Israel as his only true homeland.  Hence, the Jews were now perceived as traitors to Poland and an obstacle on her glorious way to socialism.”  (Id. at 23)

These anti-Jewish threats became government policy in 1968.  The Minister of Internal Affairs waged an anti-Zionist/anti-Semitic campaign.  The internal political wrangling blamed Zionists for crimes of the Stalinist era and expelled more than 20,000 Jews from the country. (Wikipedia) Reszke points out the irony of the expulsion of these “Zionists,” because those Polish Jews that were actually Zionists already left for Palestine or Israel.  (Reszke at 24).

After the 1968 purge, there were a mere 5,000 – 10,000 Jews left in Poland.  During this round of Polish antisemitism, some Poles who did not previously know of their Jewish roots became aware of it.  This “initiated a process of self-discovery, which proved to be of great significance for the next generation.”  (Id. at 24)

Over the next two decades, the government’s 1968 anti-Jewish actions seemed to make being Jewish or being pro-Jewish synonymous with “defying the authorities.”  A semi-clandestine study group, called the Jewish Flying University, was established.  It had 60-80 participants.  It was a way for Jews and non-Jews to study Judaism, Jewish history and Jewish culture.  It was forced to disband under martial law in 1981.  (Id. at 24)   Those Jews who remained after 1968 formed their Jewish identity in early adulthood, as they had no previous knowledge of their Jewish ancestry.  Many of those who stayed joined “anti-communist opposition and the ‘Solidarity’ movement in the fight against the regime.” (Id. at 27)

In 1989, the earthquake that was the fall of the communist regime, shook the earth beneath the feet of Polish Jews.  “The shift in official policy and the spirt of democratic changes prepared the air for new attitudes towards the meaning of being Jewish and the sole idea of being anything other than Polish Catholic.  Whether the young representatives of this third post-Holocaust generation discovered their Jewish ancestry in their teens or had always been aware of it, it generally wasn’t until the 1990’s that they addressed that knowledge and initiated the pursuit of modes of Jewish affiliation.” (Id.)

These young Poles who discovered that they are Jewish or have some Jewish blood are transforming the landscape of Poland.  It is totally unclear as to how many Jews live in Poland today.   It depends on who is counting and who gets counted.  Numbers range from 1,000 to 100,000.  (See various studies cited by Reszke at 28-29).  Chief Rabbi Schudrich said, “‘Over the last 21 years, thousands of Poles have discovered that they have Jewish roots and nobody knows how many thousands they are.’  When asked how many Jews there are in Poland today, he answered, ‘Pick a number, double it.  It is too small.  I don’t know, but tomorrow there will be more.’” (Id.)

SOURCES:

Interviews with Sam Goldberg.

Reszke, Katka. Return of the Jew: Identity Narratives of the Third Post-Holocaust Generation of Jews in Poland.  Boston, Massachusetts.  Academic Studies Press. 2013.

1968 Polish Political Crisis – article in Wikipedia.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968_Polish_political_crisis

 

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