Rebuilding Poland’s Jewish Community

In the Middle Ages, when Jews in Europe experienced a wave of persecutions connected to their imagined complicity in the Black Death, King Kazimierz welcomed the persecuted to Poland. It was a golden age of tolerance in the country. Rumor has it that the king even had a Jewish mistress.

I learned all this when I visited the town of Kazimierz Dolny in 1989 with Rachel Zacharia, a Jewish psychologist I’d met in Warsaw. She wanted to show me the traces of Jewish life in the area of Poland known as Galicia: what had existed before the Holocaust destroyed the once-vibrant community. There was the old synagogue, which had been turned into a movie theater. There were the buildings on the narrow streets that had once sported the signs of Jewish shops. The ruins of Kazimierz’s castle stood on a hill overlooking the town.

The culture of tolerance cultivated by King Kazimierz helped to create Europe’s largest Jewish community prior to World War II. Warsaw was the European city with the largest Jewish population. At the same time, a tradition of anti-Semitism existed in Poland before the Nazis arrived – and afterwards as well. Approximately 240,000 Polish Jews either survived the Holocaust or returned to the country when the war was over. Between the end of the war and 1948, about 200,000 decided to emigrate, particularly after a series of pogroms like the one in Kielce in 1946. Another wave of anti-Semitism in 1968, which the Communist regime instigated in a desperate effort to discredit an emerging opposition movement, left only a small Jewish community of about 10,000 in the country. The community was all the smaller because many young Poles did not know of their Jewish lineage for their parents had concealed this fact from them.

Zacharia always knew she was Jewish. Her father, a Party official, read and wrote in Yiddish, and her parents spoke Yiddish with friends. But she didn’t start thinking about her Jewish identify until 1968.

“I felt a need to do something with the Jewish issue for myself, beginning after 1968 and the anti-Semitic campaign,” she told me in an interview in an ice cream café in Warsaw. “That was when my Jewish friends, and not only friends, all left. It was as if the Jewish map of Warsaw had disappeared. I felt like I was living in a desert. I felt that I need something to fill the void, but I didn’t know exactly what or how. I met a lot of people later who told me that they were dealing with the same issue, that they all felt as if they’d been left alone. That was until 1979, more or less.”

In 1979, she and a group of fellow psychologists attended a workshop with the well-known psychologist Carl Rogers. “There were a hundred people at the workshop, including quite a few Jews, maybe 10 of us,” she continued. “There were general meetings and group work. People were divided into groups to work on different issues. Some people worked on the Jewish issue in their groups. But I still didn’t feel satisfied. The group didn’t answer my needs on this issue. On the last day, when we were gathering in the courtyard to leave with our luggage, a few people started to talk about the experience. All of a sudden someone started to sing a Jewish song, maybe it was Hava Nagila. When they started, all of the Jews who were there gathered around them and started to sing. On the way to Warsaw, on the train, we started to talk. We were very open to our emotions because of the workshop. We started to talk about the need to do something on the Jewish issue, something together. We started the meetings that were later called the Jewish Flying University. That lasted about two years, until Solidarity started.”

The rebuilding of the Jewish community in Warsaw began with meetings. “Every two weeks, we had meetings in private homes, each time at a different place,” she remembered. “Sometimes we just talked among ourselves about different things. Many times we invited specialists or people who knew something on specific issues connected to Jewishness, sometimes Jewish people from abroad. We started to learn. Then, somehow American Jews started to learn about us, and began to bring us books. So, we started to learn from books. Sometimes we even gave lectures ourselves from those books. Then we stated to practice things, like holidays: Shabbat and Pesach. People started to begin different initiatives, like the Society for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries and Antiquities. When Solidarity started, everyone started to become involved in Solidarity. So, we stopped those meetings. But the other activities – like the preservation society – continued.”

Jewish history and culture is enjoying a renaissance in Poland today. Jewish cultural festivals take place annually now in Krakow and Warsaw. A new Jewish Museum (pictured above) has opened to great acclaim in the former Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. And Zacharia herself runs tours for visitors who want to see this history.

But she doesn’t live in Poland anymore. Ultimately she decided to relocate to Israel.

“The reason to go was that I didn’t want to live in a skansen,” she said. “You know what that is? It’s a living museum. It’s a Scandinavian word that means a village that it is not a village any more but you make believe that it’s still there. There are people pretending to live there, pretending to bake bread, and so on. Jewish life here was a skansen. It was not real Jewish life, not a real Jewish society. I wanted to live where people were creating a future life, society, political life, even bread. Something real.”

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember what you were doing and what you were thinking on June 4, 1989?

 

I was very happy, but that’s it. I didn’t do anything specific for the changes at this moment, for the elections. I was somewhere close to it, but I don’t really remember what I was thinking specifically. But I was very happy along with other people. It was not just an individual happiness.

 

What had been your attitude about Solidarity before then?

 

Before that period, I liked it very much. I thought it was the crème de crème, especially when it was still underground. Also I knew about the divisions, but they didn’t seem so important to me.

 

How did you feel about it when it first began in 1980?

 

It was very interesting and very fascinating. In small ways, I took part in it, also in the underground, but on a small scale. I was always doing something. For instance, I was keeping illegal books at home, distributing underground press at the hospital where I was working: not very important things, but something. For a certain period, there were meetings of underground activities happening at my home.

 

When did you finish your studies?

 

Around 1978. I was studying at the University of Warsaw and then I stopped studying before getting an MA. Then I went back to do the MA and finished in 1978. Then I started to work in a hospital, in a psychological health outpatient clinic, and then at the Institute of Neurology and Psychiatry. I was working on the clinical side. That’s where I worked the longest period.

 

When you working with outpatients, did you see how the political situation affected people’s psychological health?

 

During Martial Law, there was real stress. So there were fewer suicides, for example. Also less alcoholism, though I was not dealing with alcoholic diseases. I focused on psychosis and neurosis.

 

People were not more psychotic or neurotic during Martial Law?

 

No. When there is real stress people are less crazy.

 

Did you continue to work in the hospital after 1989, and were there differences before and after?

 

Quite possibly there were differences before and after 1989, and possibly we were aware of it, but I don’t remember.

 

When did you start thinking about Jewish identity questions?

 

A long time ago. I think it was 1979 or 1980. It was a process. I felt a need to do something with the Jewish issue for myself, beginning after 1968 and the anti-Semitic campaign. That was when my Jewish friends, and not only friends, all left. It was as if the Jewish map of Warsaw had disappeared. I felt like I was living in a desert. I felt that I need something to fill the void, but I didn’t know exactly what or how. I met a lot of people later who told me that they were dealing with the same issue, that they all felt as if they’d been left alone. That was until 1979, more or less.

That’s when the psychologist Carl Rogers came to Poland and did a weeklong workshop. There were a hundred people at the workshop, including quite a few Jews, maybe 10 of us. There were general meetings and group work. People were divided into groups to work on different issues. Some people worked on the Jewish issue in their groups. But I still didn’t feel satisfied. The group didn’t answer my needs on this issue.

On the last day, when we were gathering in the courtyard to leave with our luggage, a few people started to talk about the experience. All of a sudden someone started to sing a Jewish song, maybe it was Hava Nagila. When they started, all of the Jews who were there gathered around them and started to sing. On the way to Warsaw, on the train, we started to talk. We were very open to our emotions because of the workshop. We started to talk about the need to do something on the Jewish issue, something together. We started the meetings that were later called the Jewish Flying University. That lasted about two years, until Solidarity started.

Every two weeks, we had meetings in private homes, each time at a different place. Sometimes we just talked among ourselves about different things. Many times we invited specialists or people who knew something on specific issues connected to Jewishness, sometimes Jewish people from abroad. We started to learn. Then, somehow American Jews started to learn about us, and began to bring us books. So, we started to learn from books. Sometimes we even gave lectures ourselves from those books.

Then we stated to practice things, like holidays: Shabbat and Pesach. People started to begin different initiatives, like the Society for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries and Antiquities. When Solidarity started, everyone started to become involved in Solidarity. So, we stopped those meetings. But the other activities – like the preservation society – continued. We started to write articles. Some people started to give lectures in public. It was a period when most activities in Poland happened in churches because of the political situation.

 

In 1968, you were in high school?

 

In university.

 

Do you remember the student protests?

 

That I remember well. My participation was minimal, but I remember. Something was rising up from the underground: unrest, a mood of protest. A few people older than us were engaged in this – like Karol Modzelewski and Jacek Kuron. Then there were other people from my generation, who were much more politically conscious that I was and also felt that changes should happen.

Then there was this performance of Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve) It was a trigger for unrest. It was brewing underground somehow. They started this protest for freedom of speech and thought, not to change Communism to capitalism, but to have a better Communism, a Communism with human face, as they called it. Most of those people, though not all of them, were brought up in leftist families.

 

Did you go to the performance?

 

No. I didn’t hear about it until after the protests started. The protests started because the performance had been forbidden. The protest was at the last performance. Afterwards, with all the protests, suddenly the police were coming to the university and beating people. For us it was a great shock that our police were beating our students. That’s how we children felt. There was an unwritten law that police didn’t go to university. Of course, after a day or two, when the anti-Semitic campaign started, it was another shock that opened our eyes about the Communist system.

 

A lot of people left: about 20,000 Jews. Did you also consider leaving?

 

I considered leaving because most of my friends left. It was the trendy thing to go. But I had the feeling that the government should not tell me where I should live. The situation was very bad but not a reason to leave. That was my feeling then. All my friends left. On the one hand, it was a stupid decision. If I had left then, I could have started my life afresh when I was very young with a lot of help from the Israeli government. Later they didn’t give us as much help as then. But on the other hand, I was right for ideological reasons. When I left it wasn’t because of negative motives but because of positive motives.

 

Many people in Poland didn’t learn that they were Jewish until they were older. But you knew.

 

I knew from the beginning. My parents spoke Yiddish with many of their friends. There were Yiddish newspapers and books from all over the world that my father ordered. The Yiddish Communist press: from America, from Australia, from Canada.

 

Did you learn Yiddish?

 

No. I don’t want why my parents were not interested in teaching me. My father spoke Yiddish fluently, and many people thought it strange that he didn’t teach me. For me, I saw this as a nice language, the language of our people, but I didn’t see any reason to learn it myself. If they had spoken Yiddish at home, I would have learned it. But they didn’t. Of course, I learned some expressions, some words. But I didn’t learn the language. In our home, it wasn’t a secret language. They spoke Yiddish with friends. My father’s Yiddish was much better than his Polish. When he wrote something, it was in Yiddish, then translated into Polish. That was a normal thing at my house.

 

Your parents didn’t consider leaving in 1968.

 

No.

 

Did you keep in touch with the people who left in 1968?

 

Not really. Maybe at the beginning. But then we felt that we had gone our separate ways. It would have been nice to meet from time to time, but it didn’t happen.

 

How many people were involved in the Jewish flying university?

 

About 30 people, sometimes fewer. When Marek Edelman came once to the meeting, more than 30 people came to the meeting. But generally it was between 20 and 30 people.

 

Was there a distinction between cultural and religious identity? Or was it one and the same?

 

One and the same. We knew nothing at the beginning. Everyone knew a little and then we wanted to learn everything, to fill the gap, to fill this void. So we learned the historical and cultural things, and the religion. We started to feel that whatever we do with religion afterwards, this would constitute our nation. But first of all, we had to know what created us. And that is what created us, as parents and grandparents. When we studied the Torah, we started to see the values that we got from our parents, who had gotten them from the religious tradition.

 

Can you give me an example from your own life at that time of a realization?

 

It’s hard to remember. Everything from that time has merged together. One thing I know that’s maybe very personal was that after this process I started to appreciate more the feminine and the masculine, my being a woman and the need to have contact with masculine energy. I started to become more connected to being a woman: don’t ask me, I don’t know why. Maybe I started to appreciate feminine values in Jewish culture, and why there was a need for women and for men together in society, in culture, and in the family.

 

When you were having these sessions, did non-Jews participate?

 

Yes. From the beginning, it was very open. We came from a very open mindset. At first it was especially open to the people who were in the workshop. Then everybody brought their friends, whoever they wanted. It was always open. Of course the people who came were interested in Jewish culture, like Janek Jagielski [the social activist and author of several publications about Jews in Poland], who was there from the beginning.

 

During this period, were you aware of continuing anti-Semitism in Polish society?

 

We always knew about anti-Semitism in Polish society. After the change of government in 1989, we hoped the anti-Semitism would be less, but it wasn’t less. In fact, it was more because it was more in the open, because there was more freedom. When I was at the polytechnic, I saw on the wall a very anti-Semitic slogan. That was when I first began to feel alienated from Polish society, though not completely. After the elections, we had this feeling of being all together. But when I saw this slogan, I realized that we were not all together.

 

After 1989, there was also more contact with Jews from other countries.

 

Also among ourselves, we started to do more things. More books were published. There was growing interest in Jewish culture in Polish society. So, there were these two opposite trends.

 

After 1989, what was most important aspect of the revival for you?

 

The most important thing was the revival of the Warsaw Jewish community that we were all involved in. It was very strange. There was a Union of Jewish Communities in Poland during this entire time. In eight other towns, there were organized Jewish communities: but not in Warsaw. It was like Jews in Warsaw didn’t exist. Of course the Union of Jewish Communities was based in Warsaw. Sometimes they did things also for Warsaw but it was not much. There was a Jewish kitchen in the community center for old people but nothing special.

So, we reopened the Warsaw Jewish community, organized the collections, put together the first board. We were very active. I also worked there for a year or two. We were trying to do whatever we could, organizing holidays.

 

The synagogue was reopened, when was that?

 

The synagogue reopened in 1982 or 1984. Before that it was closed for many years and renovated very slowly. But then the government, after closing Solidarity, wanted to gain international acceptance. So they did a big opening of the Nozyk synagogue. When it was closed, prayer meetings were held in a small room for many years. Then, the synagogue was renovated and reopened.

 

During those years, was it possible to get a minyan?

 

I was there only on high holidays, so I’m not sure. For some shabbats, they could bring in 10 people, but not all the time. Until then, mainly old people came. When the synagogue reopened and we started our activities, young people like us started to come – and then later even younger people.

 

You said that there were eight other communities outside of Warsaw. Did they also have revivals after 1989?

 

More or less, in each one, young people started to come. Otherwise it would have died out – in Wroclaw, Krakow.

 

When you come back today to Poland, what surprises you most?

 

I’m not exactly surprised — because I already knew about it – but I was surprised to hear about how many people left the Nozyk synagogue environment. I don’t know why. I only hear rumors. But it’s a very sad thing because when I left we were all gathered together around this synagogue. There was a strong Jewish Social-Cultural Society. A lot of people gathered around the Nozyk synagogue. It was a nice atmosphere and environment, but many people left. Some are connected with the reform synagogue. Others are just in the wild, neither here nor there. Since I don’t live here it’s only my impression.

 

Twelve years ago you left Poland and went to Israel. You said you left for positive reasons not negative ones.

 

I didn’t leave Poland: I went to Israel.

 

Did that take a long time to decide to do that?

 

About 30 years ago, I felt I wanted to do it. This was at the end of the process of the Jewish revival connected to the Jewish flying university. But out of personal reasons, I couldn’t. I was already packed. I got permission to emigrate, which was difficult to get. But then my mother got very ill, and I couldn’t leave. She was ill for several years. Then she died. I said to myself: I’m too old. So it’s over for me, this idea.

Then I realized at some point that I was sitting on my valises. Not literally, of course, but I hadn’t unpacked them in my mind. I couldn’t make a decision to stay, definitively. So I decided that if I have an urge to go, I should go, whatever the consequences. It was too late. But I’m happy that I did it.

The reason to go was that I didn’t want to live in a skansen. You know what that is? It’s a living museum. It’s a Scandinavian word that means a village that it is not a village any more but you make believe that it’s still there. There are people pretending to live there, pretending to bake bread, and so on. Jewish life here was a skansen. It was not real Jewish life, not a real Jewish society. I wanted to live where people were creating a future life, society, political life, even bread. Something real.

Around the time that I was discovering these masculine and feminine aspects, I realized that I wanted a partner, a Jewish partner. But there were not many Jewish men here in Poland, and many of the ones who were here were already attached. And that was one of the reasons, too, that I wanted to go to Israel. And I am happy to say that I found just such a man. He is responsible. He has a lot of energy. And he is a mensch.

 

Did you have arguments with people who decided to stay?

 

Everybody treated me like an emissary. People were, I can’t say happy, but supportive.

 

When you use the word “emissary,” it makes it seems like they were waiting to see what would happen to you, and then they would make their decision.

 

No, I was joking. Of course they were also unhappy that I was leaving. The community is very small so everyone who leaves makes a hole. So, that was the feeling of several people.

 

Was there anything surprising in Israel?

 

Everything was surprising. Not everything, maybe, but a lot of things were surprising.

 

What was the most unexpected thing?

 

There are a lot of bad things in Israel. There was a lot of corruption and a lot of crime that had not been there before.

 

You told me at the beginning that it s human nature to have corruption and crime.

 

Yes, it is everywhere. But I was idealistic. Israel is not Eden. It is a very difficult place to live and to make a living. But still, something there is very nice. The people are much more open, more emotional, than in northern countries like America or Poland.

 

Do you spend a lot of time with Polish Jews in Israel?

 

For about 11 years, I didn’t spend time with Polish Jews. But then the people who left in 1968 did something that was phenomenonal in itself, compared to other immigrant groups. After some time, they started to organize themselves, to keep in contact, all over the world, people from Australia, Switzerland, Sweden, Israel, and elsewhere. They created something called Reunion 68. Every four years, they have meetings in Ashkelon. When the Internet started, they created a club. Of course they quarreled a lot. Many people from this first club left and created other clubs on the Internet. I knew about it, but I wasn’t looking for it. I thought, “They left in 1968 so they are in a different place in life from me. Perhaps I shouldn’t make contact with them.” So I didn’t look for them.

Then a friend of mine from childhood found me all of a sudden. She introduced me to the club. I stated to write to them on Internet. It did a lot for me. It was as if I’d returned to childhood, to the world I knew, to people like me. Really it was very important for me. When people visit Israel I meet them. It’s like closing a circle.

Because when they left, the way of life that I knew was cut. And now it is coming together, so it is very nice. Of course there are quarrels, because people have different ideas about everything. Because we are Jews! These are not Jews from mixed families. They are Jewish Jews – some know Yiddish, some like me know just Yiddish expressions. The contact is very easy, even it’s only on the Internet and even if we quarrel. I like it very much. And of course we write in Polish.

 

Warsaw, August 13, 2013

 

 

 


1 Comment

  1. Steven Feldman

    I was moved by the experience of the author. Having recently returned from Europe I have seen some of the remnants of former Jewish communities in Spain and Italy and I have found myself become even more outraged at the treatment of the continental Jewish populations throughout Europe both before and after the Holocaust. And now once again the growing antisemitism threatens us and particularly our youth. I do feel a strong connection to our history and regret the ridiculous blame placed upon us by our still ignorant countrymen. I applaud the courage of the author and wish for her the sense of community she now has apparently found. But I continue to be shocked at how little has changed. And by the resurgence of antisemitism even in the United States where I was born, raised and educated.

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