Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Charedi World

10 Shevat 5759 - Jan. 27, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Jewish Awakening in Poland

by S. Fried

In recent years a limited Jewish awakening has been taking place in Poland, even though there are fewer Jews throughout the whole of all Poland than a single Polish city prior to the Holocaust.

Gesher, the journal of the American Jewish Congress, recently published an article by Dr. Lawrence Weinbaum entitled "Polish Jewry: Not Necessarily the Last Chapter."

"Fifteen years and even ten years ago, all signs indicated that the Jewish community of Poland was dying out." However, today, the situation is very different. There is a vibrant communal activity and a Jewish press. There are classes in Yiddish and Hebrew, classes in Jewish studies, and educational institutions for the youth.

In Dr. Weinbaum's opinion, the Jewish attitude toward Poland is nearly the same as that toward Spain after the Expulsion. Jews don't forget Poland's collaboration with the Germans, the establishment of death camps, and the pogroms after the liberation from the Germans. The antisemitic campaign of the Communists caused a decline in the Jewish population of Poland and gave rise to the feeling that it is a country where Jews cannot live.

Nonetheless, a new Jewish community is now being created in Poland. "Jewish" he writes "is a very vague definition regarding the Jews of Poland. Therefore it is hard to estimate their numbers. It may be assumed that there are between 10,000-15,000 Jews in Poland, but not all of them are Jews according to halacha."

After the Holocaust, which destroyed 90 percent of the Jews of Poland, some tens of thousands of Jews still lived there. Among those who remained in Poland, were those who reached senior positions in the government and the security services.

There were those who considered emigration but could not find the energy to get up and leave. There was another group which remained not due to conscious choice. These were the Jewish children in the custody of Catholic families, who knew nothing of their Jewish origin. Despite the intensive efforts of Jewish organizations to locate those children, to rescue them and to return them to their Jewish environment, thousands remained in non-Jewish hands. Among them were Jewish children from Hungary and Greece, and children who had been thrown from cattle cars on their way to the death camps.

After the war, the Communists tried to relocate the Jews in the regions from which ethnic Germans had been banished.

The reasons for this policy of resettling are not difficult to surmise. The Jewish homes and assets were seized either by Polish neighbors or by the government or were destroyed in the war. In the areas which the Soviet Union annexed there were no homes to which to return. But in the eastern regions there was an ample amount of abandoned German property and settling the Jews there did not involve uprooting the Poles.

Out of 300,000 Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust, nearly two-thirds had left after 1947. By the middle of 1951, there were 57,000--80,000 Jews in Poland. In 1956-1958, 20,000 Jews who had lived in the Soviet Union returned to Poland, but most of them remained there only briefly. As soon as emigration to Israel (or to other destinations) was permitted, they got up and left. Other Jews also took advantage of the opportunity and left, including the majority of the religious Jews. Among those who remained, the incidences of intermarriage rose steadily. Within a brief span of time, the Jewish community which remained there could have totally disappeared.

The Six-Day War resulted in a sharp wave of anti-Jewish sentiment. The Polish Interior Ministry founded a special department for locating Jews, even among assimilated families. Some 30,000 Jews and half-Jews left Poland then, many to countries other than Israel.

But amazingly, by the end of the 1970s, a Jewish awakening began, almost underground. Jewish intellectuals began to organize study groups in order to familiarize themselves with their roots.

The victory of the Solidarity party and liberalism in Poland paved the way for open interest in Judaism. The Polish government began to encourage Jewish activity in an effort to acquire the "heart, and American money." It allowed organizations like the Joint to begin functioning among the Jews, especially the elderly.

There is no doubt that the new and most dynamic factor is the Lauder Fund, which has done more than any other body to restore Jewish life in Poland and other Communist countries in eastern and central Europe. Ronald Lauder, who had once been the American ambassador to Austria, and the heir of a large business concern, believed in the possibility of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, and placed an emphasis on returning young assimilated Jews to their roots. "If Jews want to live in Poland," Mr. Lauder explained, "we will help them. If they want to go to Israel, we will help them too."

Today, there are communities with synagogues in Warsaw, Wraclov Krakow, Katovitz, Lodz, Gdansk, Czezin, and Lagnitza. There are smaller communities which function as branches of these communities in Beilskobiala, Bitum, Glivitza. Poznan, Lublin and a number of cities in Silesia.

A number of Jewish journals are currently published in Poland, some in Polish and Yiddish. Some of the elderly Jews of Poland still speak Yiddish, but the official language of communication is English. Antisemitism has not disappeared. Surveys show that antisemitic tendencies fester even among the educated elite. Antisemitism manifests itself by attacks on Jews and Jewish property. The incidence of vandalism during the recent period includes a number of cases of arson, such as the burning of the synagogue in Warsaw on February 1997, the burning of a kosher restaurant, the desecration of a number of cemeteries, as well as the many verbal attacks against Jews, including tourists.

The return of Jewish assets and the possibility that Jews will regain their own property have strengthened these antisemitic tendencies. In Lodz, where many Jews filed lawsuits, there were many incidents of antisemitism, including an attack on a synagogue while Jews prayed there. All these attacks are attributed to the return of Jewish property. As a result, the Jews of Lodz are very concerned about their personal safety.

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