Does Poland’s new Jewish museum reflect the rebirth of Jewish life in the country, 70 years after the Nazis?
By Gabriel Rom and Yoni Wilkenfeld
Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews is a brilliant glass structure that makes it difficult not to feel optimistic about Jewish life in Poland. At the recent opening of its core exhibition, museum chairman Marian Turski declared: “Mir zenen do – we are here!”
A resurgence of young Jewish life is taking place in Poland. Jews, some of whom only recently discovered their roots, are finding new ways to become involved. Arek Dybel, creative director of audiovisual content at the museum’s core exhibition, has spent much of his artistic career dealing with questions of Jewish identity. In one project, he juxtaposed old photographs of Polish synagogues with video of their interiors, now repurposed for secular use. “The young Jewish community is now very fresh and powerful,” Dybel said.
Despite this new energy, discussions within the community remain fragmented. Some establishment community leaders downplay fears of anti-Semitism and complain about excessive media coverage on the subject. But for some, this amounts to apologetics. “I think it’s quite interesting, among the Jewish leaders, who are saying there’s no anti-Semitism in Poland,” said Anna Makowka-Kwapisiewicz, president of the Czulent Jewish Association in Krakow. “I think it’s quite dangerous.”
Others are pessimistic about demographics. Jan Spiewak, who ran for a seat in Warsaw’s recent municipal elections, was a founding member of the Polish Jewish Youth Organisation. “Every year,” he said, “I see fewer and fewer Jewish marriages, fewer Jewish brit milahs – and the synagogues are empty. Unfortunately, the community is not growing. And not growing, in a certain sense, is dying.”
These divisions are largely irrelevant to a country of 38 million, of whom fewer than 25,000 are Jews. Rather, there’s a general curiosity about Jewish culture and traditions. In Warsaw, one can find alternative musicians drawing on Kabbalistic motifs and designer handbags with Yiddish typography. Gil Nativ, rabbi at the Beit Warszawa synagogue in Warsaw, has converted 29 people to Judaism in the past two years.
“It’s a great mystery,” Nativ said. “Why, in a country that is 98 percent Catholic, would people want to be identified as Jews?” While some in Poland may see Judaism as an exotic fashion – what Nativ calls a “strange folklore” – for others, their interest is rooted in Poland’s recent history.
Before the Second World War, Poland was among the most diverse countries in Europe; afterwards, it was one of the most homogenous. In 1945, one occupation was replaced by another. The communist regime stamped out any traces of Polish ethnic identity. Being Jewish in Poland became something to hide out of fear. But as communism faltered, there was a resurgence of interest in Poland’s past – one that included Jews.
Activists in the solidarity movement, which eventually toppled the communists, saw the rich history of Jews in Poland as a refutation of the regime and its purge of Polish identity. “What this is really all about is Poland getting back in touch with itself, with what it had always been throughout history – a multi-ethnic, multicultural state,” said Konstanty Gebert, a Polish-Jewish journalist and activist.
This all has little to do with actual Jews in Poland. “It’s mainly about the imaginary Jews,” Gebert said. “It’s not a Polish-Jewish thing, but a Polish-Polish thing, to which Jews are central, but as a part of Poland.” Put another way, the revitalisation in things Jewish is not the same as a revitalisation of Jewish life.
When communism fell, many Poles started investigating their heritage, and a new wave of Jews emerged. The task of supporting this community – many of whom know little about Judaism, or may require official conversion – remains a work in progress. At the opening of the museum, Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, called this the “fundamental challenge”. He added: “How do you open the door for people to come back to an identity that is lost?”
This past Yom Kippur, Schudrich led a crowded Nozyk synagogue in Kol Nidre services. One elderly man, among the few Jews who had not left Poland by the late 1960s, walked slowly up to the pews and was met by a group of middle-aged congregants. Gracefully, they fetched him a prayer shawl and led him to his usual seat, what the Talmud calls a makom kavua.
Some of the men were members of the generation that took part in a Jewish ‘renewal’ of their own during the 1980s. The youngest in Nozyk were the children of that generation, and they represent something rare in today’s Poland – a Jewish future. The museum hopes to support the growth of the community. “One of the things it does is stand tall, it stands proud, it speaks loud, and it speaks clear: that there’s nothing to fear, nothing to be ashamed of, and much to be proud of,” said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, programme director of the core exhibition.
What does it mean for a community to thrive? If all that’s needed is attention, Polish Jews are certainly thriving. But if what is required is genuine acceptance – when one’s Jewishness is not all that defines them – the answer is unclear. The centre of Poland’s Jewish life is now a museum dedicated to the past. The museum is so public, and yet the community it represents is tiny. Nevertheless, Jews in Warsaw and Krakow – and Lodz, Wroclaw, and Gdansk – continue to build small communities in the country where more than half of the world’s Jews have roots.
With the new museum, there is now a tangible bridge between their history and their future. “The opening of the museum is like opening a Pandora’s box of Jewish history,” said Miriam Gonczarska, a Warsaw native studying for a rabbinical ordination in New York. “It’s too early to know what’s in that box. But my hope is for Jews and Poles to understand themselves and the human experience better.”