|DON'T WRITE US OFF JUST YET
Conventional wisdom has it that Polish Jewry is dead. Those who did not perish in the Holocaust-or so the reasoning goes-were first oppressed, and finally expelled by the post-war Communist regime. All that remains of the one thousand years of the history of Polish Jewry is Poland's contemporary antisemitism, paradoxical in a country where no Jews remain. Right?
Wrong! To address the last issue, I find it somewhat surprising that anyone, and Jews in particular, considers antisemitism "without the Jews" more paradoxical than in the other case. Does anyone still believe that antisemitism is a reaction to what Jews do, and is not a product of how some non-Jews think?
Second, a remnant of Polish Jews still maintains its presence, life and institutions in Poland today. Though we are not even a pale shadow of the great Polish Jewish community of before the war, we still believe that the reports on our death are premature. This is all the more so, as the community is actually growing: young Polish Jews, often coming from families who had rejected and denied their Jewishness a generation or two earlier, today are reclaiming their Jewish heritage. Hundreds have flocked to summer and winter camps sponsored by the American Lauder Foundation. A new monthly, Yidele, published by and for young Jews, has created quite a stir. The Warsaw Jewish kindergarten, started two years ago, has to turn down applications for lack of space. Maccabi Warsaw, the Jewish youth group, will be opening a new section this fall.
Alongside this flurry of new activities, the old institutions remain and are still vital. The Union of Jewish Congregations runs half a dozen synagogues across the country, and it is no longer an oddity to see young people there. When on the High Holy Days the synagogue is full, do not expect-as in previous years-that most of those present are Israeli or American tourists. You would be surprised at whom you would meet. The Jewish Socio-Cultural Association still maintains a Yiddish theater and a network of clubs, where young people are increasingly involved. And last but not least, the Jewish Historical Institute has recovered from the terrible blood-letting of the 1968 exodus and from the bleak years that followed. it has increasingly become a center for all kinds of Jewish activities, and has once again become a respectable academic institution.
All of this flies in the face not only of common wisdom, but also of a certain Jewish vision of Poland as a place of doom, demolition and despair. It is as if it were wrong for Jews to con tinue living in this accursed country, and especially to try and rebuild something akin to a normal life. in my encounters with Jewish visitors, I have run into this attitude time and time again.
I reject this vision. it belittles what my friends and I are trying to accomplish, and, moreover, it reduces the one thousand years of Polish Jewish history to a mound of ashes. It is only too true that one cannot think of Jews in Poland without thinking of the Holocaust, but this is not what all of our history here should be reduced to.
There is, of course, no possibility of rebuilding a thriving Jewish community here; the num bers are against us, to say nothing of the long and ever-present tradition of antisemitism in Poland. Nor will it be easy for people whose ties with Jewishness were severed two genera tions ago to rebuild a Jewish identity, be it religious, national, cultural, or based on some thing else. But do not write us off just yet.
Nevertheless, one must also face the realities of being a Jew in Poland today. First, Jewishness is obviously a collective endeavor. A lone Jew is a contradiction in terms, and yet many Polish Jews fit that definition. Not only those especially unfortunate ones who are the only surviving Jews in the cities they live in, but even those who do have at least a circle of Jewish friends to fall back on. in Lublin, once renowned for its Yeshivot, (Rabbinical semi naries) there is no minyan (prayer quorum) today, in Cracow there is a minyan only for Shabbat and holidays, and so forth.
Numbers are against us more than anything else. The obvious question-how many Jews are there?-elicits a different answer depending on who is asking whom, when and why. One can take one's pick beginning with the base-line of five thousand. This is the total number nation-wide of the members of the two existing Jewish organizations: the secular SocioCultural Association and the Kehillah. The numbers run through the fifteen thousand once mentioned by the Minister of the Interior (I tend to trust him; he has the files), to an optimistic thirty thousand, based on participation in the new Jewish camps and clubs. And then, you also have to define your terms of "who is a Jew."
The problem of antisemitism, though probably less acute than it is perceived of in the West, is also not going to go away. According to recent polls, some 24% of the population harbor antisemitic opinions, while 44% are opposed to them. This does not mean, however, that one Pole in four is out there to get you. in the last elections the antisemitic parties failed to secure even one seat in Parliament. What it does mean is that antisemitism is widely tolerated. From the sale of the Protocols through antisemitic innuendos in some right-wing publications to antisemitic graffiti, it is present, more than a fringe phenomenon, though less than an overt threat.
Possibly, however, the biggest burden is dealing with the past. From physically living on a graveyard, like those who inhabit the houses built over the rubble of the Ghetto, to having to confront the stark reality that a few thousand cannot be heir to three million no matter how hard they try, our Jewish existence is deeply rooted in the events of the last six decades. This immersion in history, incidentally characteristic for Poles and Jews alike, at times clouds our vision of the present and of the future.
And yet this present and future do exist, and have a life of their own, independent of the horror and glory of what was. Should our kindergarten be kosher? How do we go about setting up a Jewish school, and what exactly will "Jewish" mean in that context? How do we raise our children? What about those who have become successfully assimilated: should they be brought back to the fold?
For too long the past was our main reference point. Then, in the late 1970s, with the setting up of the Jewish Flying University (underground seminars for young assimilated Jewish intellectuals), we turned to the present and future and have been immensely helped in our endeavors by the American Jewish community. Finally, as the free Poland which emerged from the break-through of 1989 re-established ties with Israel, the Jewish State started playing, in our collective consciousness, a much larger role. Aliyah is small, but Israel looms large. And, in a country which has a substantial diaspora of its own, our relationship with the Jewish state is probably less controversial than elsewhere.
At a Lauder Foundation summer camp, a group of teenage girls kept the visiting American rabbi awake long into the night, firing volleys of questions. Finally the rabbi, very tired, said that the question period is over, that it is time to go to bed. One of the girls replied, "But you don't understand! We are the next generation of Jewish mothers in this country! We must know everything!" Whatever one thinks of the conclusion, in her plea lies our promise.