A Jewish Revival Quietly Takes Root in Poland
Since communism's fall, Jews have rediscovered their heritage -- restoring landmarks, studying Hebrew
KRAKOW, POLAND — A STROLL through Krakow's Old Town, featuring the formidable Wawel Castle and well-preserved Baroque architecture, gives visitors a feeling for Poland's proud past.
But the picture wouldn't be complete without a visit to Krakow's Kazimierz district. Nestled in a bend of the Vistula River, set apart from the architectural sights of Old Town, Kazimierz was once one of Poland's major centers of Jewish life. But after the horrors experienced by Jews during the last 50 years, the neighborhood -- which served as a backdrop for the movie ''Schindler's List'' -- is crammed with crumbling buildings.
Before World War II, there were about 3.5 million Jews in Poland, roughly 10 percent of the country's population. The Holocaust killed 3 million Polish Jews, and most of those who survived the Nazis felt compelled to emigrate because of the anti-Semitism practiced by Poland's post-war Communist rulers. Today only an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Jews remain.
Despite this, communism's collapse has helped spark an effort to revive Poland's Jewish culture. Cemeteries and synagogues are being restored, accompanied by a reawakening of Judaism. The situation is similar in other Central European nations, particularly Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.
Significant barriers remain for the Jewish revival, including not-so-latent anti-Semitic feelings still held by many Poles, who are predominantly Roman Catholic. There is also a shortage of funds. But many are determined to overcome the hurdles.
In the early 1980s, Zygmunt Nissenbaum launched the Nissenbaum Foundation, which concentrates on preservation and restoration of Poland's Jewish legacy, devastated by Hitler's attempt to completely erase Judaism from Europe.
''Of course we weren't welcomed with open arms'' Mr. Nissenbaum says of the foundation, ''but we have finally made it.... We just try to make the best of the situation.''
Over the past decade, the foundation has completed more than 80 restoration projects at an estimated cost of $1 million. But the work is far from over, he says. There are 636 preservable Jewish cemeteries in Poland, and the goal is to restore all of them.
Other organizations are trying to foster a recognition of Jewish identity. The US-based Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, for example, teaches Hebrew and offers religious instruction for Polish Jews of all ages searching for their roots.
Rabbi Michael Schudrich, who heads the Lauder effort in Poland, thinks there are many more Jews in Poland than current estimates would indicate. Many older Jews hid their religious origins to escape communist-era discrimination, Rabbi Schudrich explains. One of the foundation's immediate goals is to reawaken their religious sense.
It is not easy to spot signs of Poland's Jewish revival, but the Kazimierz district confirms it is slowly taking place. Although the neighborhood is in a generally dilapidated state, a few smartly remodeled Jewish cafes and a bookstore stand out. The Jewish cemetery has also undergone renovation. In addition, the Lauder Foundation has opened a youth center, and another group, the Judaica Foundation, is operating a cultural center.
THE neighborhood's Jewish community now numbers a hundred or so -- down from a prewar total of 70,000. But bookstore employees say that many customers are Poles, wanting to rediscover part of their country's almost-lost heritage.
''Poland, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries, was one of the most important Jewish centers in Europe,'' says Prof. Tadeusz Chrzanowski, an architectural specialist involved in the Kazimierz restoration effort.
Poland may now be trying to overcome an anti-Semitic image. But in the 16th century -- with Western Europe gripped by the Spanish Inquisition as well as religious conflicts sparked by the Protestant Reformation -- Poland was considered a bastion of tolerance. It was a magnet for Jewish immigrants seeking to escape persecution in the West.
In subsequent centuries -- even though Poland lost its full independence in 1795 -- the region remained a primary center of Jewish life. The Jews, in general, maintained close-knit communities, such as Kazimierz, and were reluctant to assimilate with the Polish and Ukrainian communities. Anti-Semitism, however, didn't pose a real threat until the outbreak of widespread pogroms in the 19th century, exacerbated by the social upheaval stirred by the Industrial Revolution.
The inter-war period of 1918-1939 saw Poland fight a losing battle to preserve its regained independence. It was also a time marked by virulent anti-Semitism. Yet despite the prejudice, Jews made significant contributions to contemporary life, especially in the fields of medicine and law.
Today's Jewish revival could be an important to Poland's overall effort to reestablish its political and economic independence following more than 40 years of Soviet subjugation, says Slawomir Kapralski, a sociologist at Central European University in Prague. If the country is to reconnect with its past, Mr. Kapralski adds, it is essential to restore a mood of tolerance.
''A full renaissance of Jewish heritage would be a very good indicator that a civil society is being built in Poland,'' he says.
Judaism's reawakening is just one aspect of the push for greater tolerance, however. Increased efforts must also be made to reduce anti-Semitic sentiment, many involved in the Jewish revival say.
Professor Chrzanowski says anti-Semitism is still widespread, and some Poles view Jews as somehow responsible for the economic upheaval characterizing Poland's transition from communism to market democracy.
''It is really surreal when you consider it. How can you be an anti-Semite when there are almost no Jews in Poland?'' Chrzanowski says.
''Anti-Semitism in Poland and Central Europe is simply a metaphor used by people who do not like what's going on now. Some people just want to find a scapegoat,'' says Kapralski, referring to the economic changes.
The growth of tolerance would send a strong signal that Poles are feeling more secure about their economic future, he adds.
Before World War II, 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland, 10 percent of the population. Today 5,000 to 10,000 remain.