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Up close and personal with Poland’s Jewish revival

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Winnipeg Peretz School graduates in front of the grave of Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz in the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery. From left to right: Yvette Perlov, Saul Perlov, Carol Sevitt, David Perlov

In a most unexpected scenario, I, the daughter of Holocaust survivors who was born in a DP camp, was sponsored by the Polish Foreign Ministry to visit Poland. Back in 1945, after experiencing the destruction of their beloved community, my parents would not have been able to imagine such an invitation.

I went to Poland as part of a group of 14 Jews on an intensive, six-day study tour entitled Restoring Memory Symposium: Past, Present and Future of the Jewish Community in Poland.

Organized and led by Krakow native Magda Koralewski Rubenfeld (the wife of actor and former artistic director of the Toronto Summerworks Festival,Michael Rubenfeld), the trip was a journey into memory and a chance to gain insight into the Jewish revival that’s been happening in contemporary Poland.

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Having herself spent time in Canada, Magda realized that many Canadian Jews have a negative image of Poland and no desire to visit the country where millions of their ancestors perished. Magda feels attitudes might change if Canadian Jews see Poland firsthand and experience the efforts being made by Jews and non-Jews alike to remember and honour the country’s lost Jews. And so, she approached the Foreign Ministry with a proposal to bring over a group of Canadian Jews with connections to the local community.

The Ministry gave the green light and so, we found ourselves in Warsaw. We participants paid for our flights, but everything else was covered by a grant, no strings attached.

The yeshiva in Lublin, once the pride of European Jewry, is today a luxury hotel

Poland was once home to Europe’s largest Jewish community before the war but now, because of the murder of three million Jewish citizens by the Nazis, it has one of the smallest. Although most survivors might struggle to imagine it, 70 years after the Holocaust there is a renewal of Jewish life occurring in Poland. Cities such as Warsaw and Kraków host exciting Jewish artistic and cultural events, and a variety of Jewish organizations such as the JCC and the Lauder Morasha Jewish School have sprung up to serve the growing community.

We began our whirlwind tour with a visit to the extraordinary Polin Jewish Museum of the History of Polish Jews, where we met with the institution’s dynamic director Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblet. Originally from Toronto, Kirshenblatt-Gimblet has been planning and overseeing the museum’s core exhibit since 2006.

The museum was built on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto and across from the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes. It was extremely moving for us to first pay our respects to those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and then tour the museum, with its excellent multimedia displays, to get a sense of what life was like for Jews living in Poland for 1,000 years.

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Walking around the site of the ghetto, the synagogue and the Jewish cemetery, we learned about the extraordinary history of this Warsaw, as well as the heroism of some of its inhabitants, the tragedies that abounded, the work being done today to memorialize those who perished and the efforts of the community to meet the needs of the current Jewish population.

In Lublin, we toured with American photographer Jason Francisco, whose haunting photographs of post-Holocaust Poland are on display in the Galicia Museum in Krakow. Before the war, Lublin was renowned as a centre of Jewish learning and home to about 45,000 Jews – 40% of the city’s then total population. In 1930, a newly built yeshiva in Lublin was one of the largest in all of Europe. My mother’s cousin, Laib Fink, was among the yeshiva bochers who perished along with the other Lublin Jews. I mourned his death as I visited the small synagogue within the yeshiva building that is, today, a luxury hotel.

I was moved by the groundbreaking work being done at the Brama Grodzka Museum (named after the Grodzka Gate that separated the Jewish and Christian districts in Lublin). In this little known gem of a museum, non-Jewish Poles have taken it upon themselves to remember and honour the Jews of Lublin by collecting and displaying photographs, documents, stories, taped voices and oral histories.

Visiting Majdanek concentration camp, on the outskirts of Lublin, was for me the most painful part of the trip. The display of thousands of shoes was a haunting reminder of feet – both small and large – that ended their journey at that very spot. The most gut-wrenching sight was the mausoleum containing an urn filled with an enormous pile of ashes and bones of the victims of this genocide – a powerful reminder of the horrors that occurred there.

In the rural town of Markowa, we toured the recently opened Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II. The central part of the exhibition comprises a model of the home of the Ulmas, a family of eight who lived in a tiny farmhouse and hid a family of five Jews in their attic. Walking through the recreated farmhouse with its original furniture and photographs, I admired the Ulma family’s heroism. Tragically, someone ultimately betrayed the Ulmas and they were shot along with their hidden Jews. Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma were posthumously honoured with the Righteous Among the Nations title in 1995.

Our visit concluded in Kraków, where we toured synagogues, the old town, and the Jewish district of Kazimierz. We had a memorable musical Shabbat service and dinner with Rabbi Tanya Segal and other community leaders. Rabbi Tanya, who’s originally from Russia, has an infectious smile, a warm greeting for all, and a lovely singing voice, with which she leads the community in celebrating Shabbat.

A highlight of the trip was interacting with various dynamic young Jewish community activists and leaders who are trying to recreate a vibrant Jewish community in Poland. Their personal stories are often complicated, as many didn’t discover their Jewish roots until they were teenagers or young adults. Despite this, they are passionate about living as Jews and building a better society for themselves and others.

The trip elicited many emotions, and all of us participants came away with a deeper understanding of the complexity of being a Jew in today’s Poland. With our presence, we honoured those who perished, witnessed the gaping hole left by the extermination of so many Jews, and both laughed and cried with the young generation of Polish Jews.

A special moment for me was Skyping with my mother and her two sisters (all Holocaust survivors who are in their 90s) in Magda and Michael’s Kraków apartment. Through technology, these survivors returned to Poland after 77 years to celebrate Havdalah alongside our group. It was a magical way to end the whirlwind trip and create new memories of the amazing people we met on our journey – people who are working hard to breathe new life into this once glorious Jewish community.


Carol Sevitt is a freelance writer and retired instructor of business communications at Ryerson University in Toronto.