Friday, August 30, 2013

Why I am Going to be a Rabbi in Krakow, Poland

Rabbinic representative of the Chief Rabbi of Poland in Krakow

1. A New Position for A New Reality
Next week I begin teaching Torah and catering to the old and new Jewish community in Krakow. My first reaction when hearing about the position was a typical Jewish North American one —“Why would anyone want to go back to that graveyard? There is only one thing for a Jewish Pole to do—move! Poland is still anti-Semitic and there is no place for a renewed Jewish community there”. Then I did some reading, met some people who live there and learned about how things are a bit more complex than some would present. Indeed burying Poland in a seventy year old sarcophagus is historically wrong and morally objectionable.

I was unaware of the strides taken both by the dormant Jewish community of survivors and by the official government policy over the last several decades. I learned of the remarkable resurgence of Judaism in Poland in general and Krakow in particular. In Krakow the Gminy Wyznaniowej has maintained the Jewish Synagogues, services and connection to the past while at the same time the new Jewish Community Center has reinvigorated Jewish life paving the way for a stronger Jewish future. Old and new are gathering daily and weekly and are re-introducing themselves to Judaism!

To be sure, the numbers are paltry compared to the glorious past but any movement after what they suffered seems to me Herculean! This change is taking place despite the fact that while the Nazis eviscerated 90% of the Polish Jewish population, Communism which lasted for 40 years beyond the Holocaust drove another nail into the remaining Jewish consciousness. Jews who survived did so by assimilating, hiding their Jewish identities and never speaking of their Jewish roots during their lives.

Until the end of their lives.

In the past twenty years thousands of Poles are being confronted with new information about their roots. Rabbi Michael Schudrich, who has been serving the Jewish community in Poland since 1992 and has been its Chief Rabbi since 2004 describes just a few of the stories of revelation (in a TED lecture
“After my grandmother’s death I was searching through her papers and found out that her name was actually Goldberg! When I confronted my mother about it she said it was untrue but then my aunt corroborated the story. I went back to my mother and she confessed, ‘but don’t tell your father he still doesn’t know’…

A woman in her early forties said, I recall grandma made these special pancakes and then one day I bumped into an Israeli tour group which was carrying a box of the same pancakes—matza! She said as a child she remembered her grandmother would not give us milk after meat but never divulged the true secret of her identity…

Children given away during the war to Non-Jews to be saved. One man came to the Rabbi and said at my mother’s funeral I found out that she wasn’t my actual mother. If I was born to a Jewish mother, I want to know what it means to be Jewish…

A young couple in their thirties met in high school and fell in love and get married. Ten years later the wife is told by a relative that she is in fact Jewish. She goes to the Jewish Historical Institute and finds out that both she and her husband are in fact Jewish. She waits for her husband to come home from work and says, Hi honey, dinner is ready and by the way I’m Jewish and you’re Jewish! Now both of them are very active members of the Jewish community of Warsaw…”

Karolina found out she was a Jew just a few years ago. She heard that her grandfather might have been Jewish and employed a genealogist to confirm if he indeed was Jewish. The research was conclusive as there were documents found such as a birth certificate and an original circumcision certificate among other proofs. When she spoke with her mother about the facts she didn’t deny it saying that the prevalent belief was that it would be less dangerous if Jewish identity was covered up. The grandfather survived Auschwitz but vowed to never let his Judaism endanger the lives of his children. These days the mother feels more confident about her Jewish identity but still fears reprisals.

Teens, College students, young families and middle aged—all types of Poles, all walks of life. What is binding them together is a secret revealed and a strong desire to find their roots, and for some to pursue that Jewish identity and integrate it to their lives as Poles.

2. A Government Introspects

These stories and countless like them reflect not just on the individuals whose reaction more often than not is one of shock yet understanding, confusion yet a desire to know more and sometimes do more to come to terms with their Jewishness. They reflect a maturing country which is trying to come to terms with its past and making sometimes courageous steps towards its own identity regarding its Jewish past and present.

As far back as Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Auschwitz in 1979 to Lech Wałęsa’s visit to Israeli parliament to speak at a special session in the Israeli Knesset in 1991, these and many more scenarios speak of the beginnings of change which would traverse several decades and all the subsequent presidents of Poland until today. Here is just a sampling of some official speeches and quotes by the country’s leaders:

A speech by then president Aleksander Kwaśniewski, at Yad Vashem underscores the official position Poland has taken in recognizing its difficult near past and attempting to build avenues for reconciliation and Jewish-Polish rapprochement:

Efforts are currently being made in Poland to preserve the material heritage of the vibrant world of Polish Jews for future generations, and to commemorate their history for the benefit of all visitors to our country. A Museum of the History of Polish Jews testifying to over eight hundred years of Jewish presence in Poland is being built with the support of public and private funding on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto. We can rest assured that it will be a unique world–class institution, a remarkable site of remembrance and meditation, like the memorial opened a year ago on the site of the former Nazi death camp at Belzec.

As President of the Republic of Poland, and a friend of Israel, I am pleased with the very favorable development of relations between our two countries. Dialogue, better understanding and closer ties between Poles and Jews are bearing the desired fruit. Thanks to the multitude of projects involving Polish–Jewish history (such as the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow or the activities of the Shalom Foundation), we in Poland are now happy to witness a growing interest in Jewish culture, especially among the younger generation. This allows us to look to the future with optimism. I am therefore convinced that meetings of Polish and Israeli youth have a great part to play in overcoming the unfounded stereotypes which have not yet been eradicated in our societies.

The late President Lech Kaczynski who died tragically in 2010 was grieved by Israel and Jews in Poland at having been a great friend to the Jews and a strong supporter of rebuilding relations between Jews and Poles. He was courageous in official steps taken to honor Polish Jewish heritage. According to a news report, he was the first Polish president to attend a service at a Polish synagogue, the first to celebrate Chanukah at the presidential palace and the first Polish leader to provide support for a Jewish history museum on Polish soil (

Current President Bronisław Komorowski has continued the official position of visiting Auschwitz, has cultivated warm relations with Prime Minister Netanyahu, recently meeting with him in Warsaw and attending Auschwitz museum together. He wrote in the book of inscriptions there the following quote:

“The enclosure of the former camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau has been designated a place on Earth where those who visit should say out loud: ‘This shall not be repeated!’ Our common goal is to make this symbol to the fall of humanity a warning for all time, a sign of opposition against evil, crime and the destruction of human dignity. At the same time, it would be a cry to take care of the most important values and human rights”.(

3. The Job at Hand

To be sure, anti-Semitism still exists in Poland, though on a much smaller scale than years past and certainly on a smaller scale than some Western European countries. For some to speak of the end of European Jewry seems quite far-fetched; moreover, to claim there is no reason to grieve over the loss of ANY Jewish community seems un-Jewish! Don't get me wrong, I would love it if Jews all over the world heeded to the ancient Biblical and prophetic call to come home and rebuild their lives in God's chosen land. But it doesn't look like it's happening so fast, so why single out Eastern Europe?

For some writers to imply that Eastern Europe, specifically Poland, is worse than the west is tenuous at best. Barring a mass-exodus to Israel our mission as Jewish leaders is to cater to any Jews searching for their past, their identity. Krakow is just one shining example of a Jewish community re-emerging, a city acknowledging its Jewish roots, a University (Jagiellonian) dedicating a department to Jewish studies, Polish children learning about their Jewish neighbors in museums like the Galicia History, a thriving annual Jewish festival and much more. It is our duty and privilege to serve any Jewish community in the world, how much more so in the home of the Rema, Tosfot Yomtov, the Bach and so many more Jewish personalities who have graced the city with their presence.

There is work to be done. Building bridges and combatting anti-Semitism is a slow process but it can be done when both parties show they are interested in working towards these goals. We clearly have seen gestures from the Polish government, should we not play our part as well?
I will be serving the Jews in Krakow, old and young, traditional and modern, those who maintained their Jewish identity for the generations of turmoil and those who have just uncovered their hidden identity. I will pray in the Synagogues of old, visit the museums and cemeteries and then enter the new JCC and teach Torah, sing songs, talk about Israel, share Friday night dinners and ultimately join the team of leaders who are facilitating the re-emergence of a vibrant Krakow Jewish community.