Rebuilding Poland's Jewish Community

04/26/2015 04:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2015

In the Middle Ages, when Jews in Europe experienced a wave of persecutions connected to their imagined complicity in the Black Death, King Kazimierz welcomed the persecuted to Poland. It was a golden age of tolerance in the country. Rumor has it that the king even had a Jewish mistress.

I learned all this when I visited the town of Kazimierz Dolny in 1989 with Rachel Zacharia, a Jewish psychologist I'd met in Warsaw. She wanted to show me the traces of Jewish life in the area of Poland known as Galicia: what had existed before the Holocaust destroyed the once-vibrant community. There was the old synagogue, which had been turned into a movie theater. There were the buildings on the narrow streets that had once sported the signs of Jewish shops. The ruins of Kazimierz's castle stood on a hill overlooking the town.

The culture of tolerance cultivated by King Kazimierz helped to create Europe's largest Jewish community prior to World War II. Warsaw was the European city with the largest Jewish population. At the same time, a tradition of anti-Semitism existed in Poland before the Nazis arrived -- and afterwards as well. Approximately 240,000 Polish Jews either survived the Holocaust or returned to the country when the war was over. Between the end of the war and 1948, about 200,000 decided to emigrate, particularly after a series of pogroms like the one in Kielce in 1946. Another wave of anti-Semitism in 1968, which the Communist regime instigated in a desperate effort to discredit an emerging opposition movement, left only a small Jewish community of about 10,000 in the country. The community was all the smaller because many young Poles did not know of their Jewish lineage for their parents had concealed this fact from them.

Zacharia always knew she was Jewish. Her father, a Party official, read and wrote in Yiddish, and her parents spoke Yiddish with friends. But she didn't start thinking about her Jewish identify until 1968.

"I felt a need to do something with the Jewish issue for myself, beginning after 1968 and the anti-Semitic campaign," she told me in an interview in an ice cream café in Warsaw. "That was when my Jewish friends, and not only friends, all left. It was as if the Jewish map of Warsaw had disappeared. I felt like I was living in a desert. I felt that I need something to fill the void, but I didn't know exactly what or how. I met a lot of people later who told me that they were dealing with the same issue, that they all felt as if they'd been left alone. That was until 1979, more or less."

In 1979, she and a group of fellow psychologists attended a workshop with the well-known psychologist Carl Rogers. "There were a hundred people at the workshop, including quite a few Jews, maybe 10 of us," she continued. "There were general meetings and group work. People were divided into groups to work on different issues. Some people worked on the Jewish issue in their groups. But I still didn't feel satisfied. The group didn't answer my needs on this issue. On the last day, when we were gathering in the courtyard to leave with our luggage, a few people started to talk about the experience. All of a sudden someone started to sing a Jewish song, maybe it was Hava Nagila. When they started, all of the Jews who were there gathered around them and started to sing. On the way to Warsaw, on the train, we started to talk. We were very open to our emotions because of the workshop. We started to talk about the need to do something on the Jewish issue, something together. We started the meetings that were later called the Jewish Flying University. That lasted about two years, until Solidarity started."

The rebuilding of the Jewish community in Warsaw began with meetings. "Every two weeks, we had meetings in private homes, each time at a different place," she remembered. "Sometimes we just talked among ourselves about different things. Many times we invited specialists or people who knew something on specific issues connected to Jewishness, sometimes Jewish people from abroad. We started to learn. Then, somehow American Jews started to learn about us, and began to bring us books. So, we started to learn from books. Sometimes we even gave lectures ourselves from those books. Then we stated to practice things, like holidays: Shabbat and Pesach. People started to begin different initiatives, like the Society for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries and Antiquities. When Solidarity started, everyone started to become involved in Solidarity. So, we stopped those meetings. But the other activities -- like the preservation society -- continued."

Jewish history and culture is enjoying a renaissance in Poland today. Jewish cultural festivals take place annually now in Krakow and Warsaw. A new Jewish Museum has opened to great acclaim in the former Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. And Zacharia herself runs tours for visitors who want to see this history.

But she doesn't live in Poland anymore. Ultimately she decided to relocate to Israel.

"The reason to go was that I didn't want to live in a skansen," she said. "You know what that is? It's a living museum. It's a Scandinavian word that means a village that it is not a village any more but you make believe that it's still there. There are people pretending to live there, pretending to bake bread, and so on. Jewish life here was a skansen. It was not real Jewish life, not a real Jewish society. I wanted to live where people were creating a future life, society, political life, even bread. Something real."

The Interview

When did you start thinking about Jewish identity questions?

A long time ago. I think it was 1979 or 1980. It was a process. I felt a need to do something with the Jewish issue for myself, beginning after 1968 and the anti-Semitic campaign. That was when my Jewish friends, and not only friends, all left. It was as if the Jewish map of Warsaw had disappeared. I felt like I was living in a desert. I felt that I need something to fill the void, but I didn't know exactly what or how. I met a lot of people later who told me that they were dealing with the same issue, that they all felt as if they'd been left alone. That was until 1979, more or less.

That's when the psychologist Carl Rogers came to Poland and did a weeklong workshop. There were a hundred people at the workshop, including quite a few Jews, maybe 10 of us. There were general meetings and group work. People were divided into groups to work on different issues. Some people worked on the Jewish issue in their groups. But I still didn't feel satisfied. The group didn't answer my needs on this issue.

On the last day, when we were gathering in the courtyard to leave with our luggage, a few people started to talk about the experience. All of a sudden someone started to sing a Jewish song, maybe it was Hava Nagila. When they started, all of the Jews who were there gathered around them and started to sing. On the way to Warsaw, on the train, we started to talk. We were very open to our emotions because of the workshop. We started to talk about the need to do something on the Jewish issue, something together. We started the meetings that were later called the Jewish Flying University. That lasted about two years, until Solidarity started.

Every two weeks, we had meetings in private homes, each time at a different place. Sometimes we just talked among ourselves about different things. Many times we invited specialists or people who knew something on specific issues connected to Jewishness, sometimes Jewish people from abroad. We started to learn. Then, somehow American Jews started to learn about us, and began to bring us books. So, we started to learn from books. Sometimes we even gave lectures ourselves from those books.

Then we stated to practice things, like holidays: Shabbat and Pesach. People started to begin different initiatives, like the Society for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries and Antiquities. When Solidarity started, everyone started to become involved in Solidarity. So, we stopped those meetings. But the other activities - like the preservation society - continued. We started to write articles. Some people started to give lectures in public. It was a period when most activities in Poland happened in churches because of the political situation.

In 1968, you were in high school?


In university.

Do you remember the student protests?

That I remember well. My participation was minimal, but I remember. Something was rising up from the underground: unrest, a mood of protest. A few people older than us were engaged in this - like Karol Modzelewski and Jacek Kuron. Then there were other people from my generation, who were much more politically conscious that I was and also felt that changes should happen.

Then there was this performance of Dziady (Forefathers' Eve) It was a trigger for unrest. It was brewing underground somehow. They started this protest for freedom of speech and thought, not to change Communism to capitalism, but to have a better Communism, a Communism with human face, as they called it. Most of those people, though not all of them, were brought up in leftist families.

Did you go to the performance?

No. I didn't hear about it until after the protests started. The protests started because the performance had been forbidden. The protest was at the last performance. Afterwards, with all the protests, suddenly the police were coming to the university and beating people. For us it was a great shock that our police were beating our students. That's how we children felt. There was an unwritten law that police didn't go to university. Of course, after a day or two, when the anti-Semitic campaign started, it was another shock that opened our eyes about the Communist system.

A lot of people left: about 20,000 Jews. Did you also consider leaving?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.