In Poland, a Jewish Revival Thrives — Minus Jews
KRAKOW, Poland — There is a curious thing happening in this old country, scarred by Nazi death camps, raked by pogroms and blanketed by numbing Soviet sterility: Jewish culture is beginning to flourish again.
‘Jewish style’ restaurants are serving up platters of pirogis, klezmer bands are playing plaintive Oriental melodies, derelict synagogues are gradually being restored. Every June, a festival of Jewish culture here draws thousands of people to sing Jewish songs and dance Jewish dances. The only thing missing, really, are Jews.
‘It’s a way to pay homage to the people who lived here, who contributed so much to Polish culture,’ said Janusz Makuch, founder and director of the annual festival and himself the son of a Catholic family.
Jewish communities are gradually reawakening across Eastern Europe as Jewish schools introduce a new generation to rituals and beliefs suppressed by the Nazis and then by Communism. At summer camps, thousands of Jewish teenagers from across the former Soviet bloc gather for crash courses in Jewish culture, celebrating Passover, Hanukkah and Purim — all in July.
Even in Poland, there are now two Jewish schools, synagogues in several major cities and at least four rabbis.
But with relatively few Jews, Jewish culture in Poland is being embraced and promoted by the young and the fashionable.
Before Hitler’s horror, Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe, about 3.5 million souls. One in 10 Poles was Jewish.
More than three million Polish Jews died in the Holocaust. Postwar pogroms and a 1968 anti-Jewish purge forced out most of those who survived.
Probably about 70 percent of the world’s European Jews, or Ashkenazi, can trace their ancestry to Poland — thanks to a 14th-century king, Casimir III, the Great, who drew Jewish settlers from across Europe with his vow to protect them as ‘people of the king.’ But there are only 10,000 self-described Jews living today in this country of 39 million.
More than the people disappeared. The food, the music, the dance, the literature, the theater, the painting, the architecture — in short, the culture — of Jewish life in Poland disappeared, too. Poland’s cultural fabric lost some of its richest hues.
‘Imagine what it would mean for the culture of New York if all Spanish-speaking New Yorkers disappeared,’ said Ann Kirschner, whose book, ‘Sala’s Gift,’ recounts her mother’s survival through five years in Nazi labor camps.
Sometime in the 1970s, as a generation born under Communism came of age, people began to look back with longing to the days when Poland was less gray, less monocultural. They found inspiration in the period between the world wars, which was the Poland of the Jews.
‘You cannot have genocide and then have people live as if everything is normal,’ said Konstanty Gebert, founder of a Polish-Jewish monthly, Midrasz. ‘It’s like when you lose a limb. Poland is suffering from Jewish phantom pain.’