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Polish Spring

Binyamin Rose, Warsaw

Lately the world’s focus has been on the Middle East and the “Arab Spring.” But as the Conference of European Rabbis recently demonstrated, Poland, a land once synonymous with anti-Semitism, is enjoying a “spring” of its own — a new era of better relations with both its own Jewish community and the Jewish community worldwide.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Normally it would be disconcerting, or even ominous, to see large crowds of people who are obviously not Jewish massing outside a Jewish cemetery in Eastern Europe.

In this particular case, forewarned was forearmed.

Poland celebrates a national holiday each year on November 1 that citizens commemorate by trekking to the nation’s cemeteries. Immediately following Minchah at Warsaw’s historic Nozyk Shul, Poland’s Chief Rabbi Mordechai Schudrich prepped us for the spectacle we were about to see — the Polish equivalent of kever-hopping.

It was to be a spectacle for the Polish citizenry too. Our delegation — more than 200 participants in the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) convention, headed toward Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery on the same day — was the largest rabbinical gathering of its kind in the city since World War II. Rabbi Schudrich said any positive impression we could make would provide badly needed encouragement for more sridim, remnants of Poland’s ravaged Jewish community, to step forward and reestablish their Jewish identity.

As we trod along a thick mat of fallen leaves splashed with autumn colors, past kevarim with memorial candles flickering inside ruby-red glass, both groups passed each other, exchanging curious glances.

“Some of the people walking through here may be relatives of people buried here,” said Yisrael Spielman, director of the Jewish cemetery. “You don’t always know who people are.”

“You don’t always know who people are” may well sum up the essence of Poland and Polish Jewry today. Once home to more than 3 million Jews and some of its greatest Torah scholars, Poland turned into the land where both the greatest number of concentration camps and the most notorious ones were situated.

Anti-Semitism is present today but is far less blatant. It is generally expressed verbally and in graffiti rather than in actual acts of violence, according to a recently-issued report on Poland by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR).

Poland perhaps deliberately blurs a Jewish identity from surfacing. Its census permits citizens to identify themselves either as a Pole or as a Jew, but not both. Despite this deterrence from declaring anything remotely resembling dual loyalty, each year a few more Jews set aside decades of fear prompted by Nazi and then Communist persecutions, and muster the courage to admit they are Jewish.

Just 30,000 to 35,000 Jews remain in Poland. While an estimated 300,000 Polish Jews survived the Holocaust, many first-generation survivors left.

“The majority that remained gave up being Jewish,” said Rabbi Schudrich. “Their children and grandchildren are just discovering today that they have Jewish roots.”

The community’s very survival is something of a miracle, according to the JPR report, which noted an interesting dichotomy within the community. “[The community] finds itself today internally torn between the attractiveness of Orthodoxy, which was strongly supported in the past by both the community’s own spiritual leadership and external funding ... [and] Reform and secular models of Jewishness, yet [people] struggle to find enough of real substance there.”


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