Genevieve Zubrzycki, associate professor of sociology, faculty associate at the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan and author of The Crosses of Auschwitz: Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland (University of Chicago Press, 2006), is working on a new book about the ongoing revival of Jewish communities in Poland and the interest non-Jewish Poles are taking in Jewish history and culture.
Last month, Zubrzycki was in Toronto and gave a talk at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre titled “Making sense of the Jewish revival in contemporary Poland.” The event was hosted by the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada and the Canadian Association of Warsaw’s Museum of The History of Polish Jews.
The CJN spoke to Zubrzycki about Jewish revival and Jewish life in today’s Poland.
Will you describe Poland’s Jewish revival and the lead-up to it.
Many Jews emigrated immediately after World War II. Others returned to their homes and later fell victim to pogroms. Others chose to remain in Poland. That was the case for many Jews who survived the war by going east and came back to build a socialist Poland. For that category, religion and ethnicity didn’t matter; they were secular, and their Jewishness was secondary to other identities.
In 1968, there was a significant purge, and many of the Jews who had remained in or returned to Poland after the war were basically expelled from the People’s Republic. Throughout that period, there were also Jews who had survived the war – hidden, under false papers or adopted by Christian families – who either continued to hide their Jewishness for fear of discrimination or because they didn’t know they were Jewish. (Many of them are now rediscovering their Jewish roots and embracing a Jewish identity.)
In the 1980s, during Communism, a small group of people involved in opposition to the Communist regime organized underground courses where people would read all kinds of censored texts, poetry, etc., and a branch of it was created as a sort of “Jewish flying university,” where a small movement of people (mostly of Jewish origin, but also some non-Jews) tried to learn about Jewish history.
After the fall of Communism in Poland in 1989, this became more serious within the mainstream Jewish community. At that time, organizations started to fund Jewish activities in Poland and rabbis from Israel and the United States started coming to Poland. Several philanthropic organizations funded the Jewish revival – these include the Jewish Joint Committee, the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, the Taube Foundation and some that joined later, such as Shavei Israel.
How many Jews currently live in Poland?
According to a census taken two years ago, there are about 7,000 Jews – people who chose to identify themselves as Jewish in the census. We don’t know “how Jewish” they are – for example, halachically, whether both parents are Jewish, one grandparent, if they converted, etc.
The number of Jews in Poland is much larger, however, if one looks at the number of people who maintain some formal ties to Jewish organizations, or the number of Poles who are thought to have one Jewish grandparent. This is why the range is so wide, from 7,000 to 40,000 Jews, depending on sources.
The number of Jews is growing. Many Poles are rediscovering their Jewish roots that were either hidden or ignored until recently, and now embracing their Jewishness and/or Judaism.
What is contemporary Jewish life in Poland like?
There’s a very vibrant set of communities in Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw.
The community is very diverse. It used to be mostly Orthodox, but now there’s also Reform Judaism, which emerged in Poland between five and 10 years ago. You have Chabad, which showed up in Poland after the fall of Communism.
To give you an idea of the range, one community in Krakow is led by a female rabbi.
There are Jewish community centres in Krakow and Warsaw that are primarily secular institutions open to Jews as well as non-Jews interested in all things related to Jewishness – Yiddish and Hebrew classes, yoga classes, cooking classes and Shabbat dinners every Friday.
In Krakow, visitors to the city to visit Auschwitz are invited to the dinners and can go meet Krakow Jews.
There are also about 40 festivals celebrating Jewish culture. Clearly, Jewish revival is a very popular phenomenon that goes way beyond the borders of the Jewish community.
Why are non-Jewish Poles interested in Jewish history and culture?
A number of things have converged to make all things Jewish really present in the public sphere. There’s been a push from Poles in different political and social circles to expand Polish national identity beyond the Catholic Church and therefore embrace Jewishness and Jewish culture.
But it’s also related to Holocaust tourism and people coming to Poland to visit the death camps and industries developing around that, an examination of ethnic Poles’ role in the Holocaust and the opening of Poland to the West and the European Union.
A book published in 2001, called Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, showed the participation of ethnic Poles in a pogrom in the Jedwabne village in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1941.
Poles’ persecution of Jews during and after World War II was not talked about under Communism.
The book created a very public debate about the roles of Poles in the Holocaust and contributed to Poles wanting to understand more about their roles and about Jewish life before World War II.
Was this partly motivated by a sense of guilt on their part?
Not really. It’s not as clear-cut in the Polish case as in the German case. Six million Polish citizens were killed during World War II, so the issue of guilt is very complicated.
Mostly it’s about recovering a past that had been completely destroyed. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews that opened in Warsaw last October has been intended as a museum of life, believing that, to show the tragedy of the Holocaust, you need to understand the world it erased – an entire culture and civilization, villages, urban neighbourhoods, an entire way of life that has disappeared.
So the Jewish revival is also an attempt by non-Jewish Poles to recover the history eradicated by World War II and the memory erased by the Communist system.
Have you seen resistance to the Jewish revival in Poland stemming from anti-Semitism?
Obviously there is some anti-Semitism. You have right-wing groups in Poland for whom the Jew is the enemy. But most Jewish activists and rabbis I talk to say they feel more comfortable in Poland than places like Germany, Italy, France. I’m sure on the Internet you can see a lot of anti-Semitic comments, but there isn’t a real pushback [to the Jewish revival].
The president of Poland is the official sponsor of the festival of Jewish culture in Krakow, the museum was funded with public money. The Polish state is endorsing a lot of the initiatives.
This interview has been edited and
condensed for style and clarity.