Poland's Jews rebuild their community


WARSAW, Poland - Leslaw Piszewski was 16 when he started "suspecting something" about his family: "There were too many secrets. I started asking questions and did not get answers."

The urge to know the truth grew when he was 23 and his daughter was born. "I thought, I must tell my child who I am, who my parents are, who my grandparents are and where we come from," he explains.

Pressed again for answers, Piszewski's father finally revealed a fact he had been hiding since World War II: He is Jewish.

Today, the younger Piszewski is a leader of Poland's small but increasingly vibrant Jewish community, composed largely of people like himself who had lost or nearly lost all sense of Jewish identity.

Still hanging in the balance is whether this growing community will be able to sustain itself as younger members make decisions about marriage, emigration and the education of their children.

"I had the choice to go to Israel," says Piszewski, 41, deputy director of Warsaw's Jewish community organization. "But I want to stay in Poland, to show that Hitler did not achieve what he wanted. We are still here."

About 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland before World War II - 10 percent of the population - and Warsaw was the world's second-largest center of Jewish life after New York City.

Then an estimated 3 million Polish Jews were killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust. Scattered pogroms after the war prompted many Holocaust survivors to flee, while Communist-directed purges in the late 1950s and late 1960s led to further emigration.

By 1970, Poland's Jewish population was estimated at 6,000. During the next two decades, it appeared that Jewish institutions might not survive the passing of the prewar generation.

But today the number of Polish Jews, including people who are rediscovering their roots, is estimated at about 30,000.

Warsaw's Jewish community has a kindergarten and a combined elementary and middle school that will grow to include a high school as its students get older. There is resurgent attendance at Sabbath and holiday services at the surviving synagogue.

A major project is under way to renovate historic buildings on the only street in Warsaw's Jewish ghetto that escaped Nazi destruction; a kosher restaurant is in one of the structures. There are also plans for a $50 million museum of Polish Jewish history.

The future of Jewish life in Poland will be built by people like Joanna Goldstein. The 16-year-old sports a punk-style hairdo - part black, part blond - at a holiday camp organized by the Warsaw branch of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, an international organization that finances activities aimed at strengthening Jewish life in former Soviet-bloc countries.

Discovering her Jewish roots initially gave her a "schizophrenic" feeling, Goldstein says.

"When I was 8, I told my dad an anti-Semitic joke," she says. "My dad made a strange face, and I asked him whether Jews were bad. Then my dad told me that I am Jewish."

Goldstein comes from the once heavily Jewish city of Lodz in central Poland, where today fans of one soccer team routinely disparage players for a cross-town rival as "Jews," using the word as a general term of insult.

"I think that if I didn't learn I was Jewish, I could have become an anti-Semite," she says. "I could have been a real racist."

The Lauder-sponsored holiday camp is held outside Warsaw in a wooded town that was a favored Jewish vacation spot before World War II. It welcomes families during school breaks for a mixture of fun, religious services and Torah study, as well as workshops on music, dance, drama, arts and crafts.

Because the Jewish community in Poland is small and focused largely on survival, Orthodox, liberal and secular Jews - as well as people simply exploring their roots - are thrown together at the camp in a way seldom seen elsewhere.

A room still decorated with Communist-inspired wall paintings serves as a makeshift Orthodox synagogue, complete with a white curtain dividing the men's and women's sides.

Efforts to rediscover roots and ensure the survival of Jewish traditions and institutions are taking place in many former Soviet-bloc states, often with help from the Lauder Foundation. But Poland remains a special case because its prewar Jewish population was so huge and the destruction of Jewish life here so nearly complete.

"You've got 60 years of deliberate destruction, to varying degrees, of Jewish life in this country, and roughly 10 years of the beginning of putting it back together again," says Yale J. Reisner, director of research and archives here for the foundation.

"I think there are some very significant signs of hope on the horizon. There's an opportunity for there to be future generations of Polish Jewry, and that almost didn't happen."

At Warsaw's synagogue, attendance is up sharply; the average age of those attending has dropped.

"If you could have visited the synagogue 10 years ago, there were only old people there," says Eleonora Bergman, a researcher at the Jewish Historical Research Institute in Warsaw. "Now there are kids and young people."

The steadily growing Lauder Morasha School, launched by the foundation in 1994, has 170 students. It will continue to add one grade each year as its students get older. The school is open to non-Jews as well and uses Polish as the language of instruction, but students also study English and Hebrew.

During Purim celebrations in March, students dressed in costumes and celebrated the scriptural story of Esther. Because of the Holocaust, the story carries particular resonance here.

"The Book of Esther is about an attempt to completely wipe out the Jews of the Persian Empire of the time - to physically exterminate the entire Jewish people," explains Reisner.

"It didn't work then and it didn't work in the 1940s and it hasn't worked at any point in history. That's the tale of Purim: We are still here. Everyone who wanted to destroy us lost."

Michal Zybert, 19, was brought up as a Roman Catholic, the religion of his mother, and her relatives still don't know his father is Jewish. His parents want nothing to do with Judaism, but he is an active member of the Polish Union of Jewish Students.

"My great-grandfather was a Hasidic Jew, and he was the last one in the family to be so religious," Zybert says. "Then there was the war and everyone died, and my grandmother created this illusion that she is Catholic."

On a trip to Israel, Zybert discovered that even there the question of identity can be difficult for people like himself.

"Someone asked us where we were from, and we said that we are Polish Jews," he recalls. "And then there was this surprised look: 'Oh, I thought there were no Jews in Poland.' For those in Israel we are not really Jewish, because if we were we would live there. I don't think that's right. I am a Polish Jew."

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