Bucking Dark Historical Trends, Jewish Life in Poland Revives
by David M. Schizer
This summer is replete with stories of the end of Jewish life in Europe. In the backdrop are major anniversaries of the Second World War: D-Day, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, and the beginning of the defeat of the Nazis.
The four-year period between the summer of 1941 and the summer of 1945 was the bloodiest in human history, especially for Jews. Of the six million murdered by the Nazis, half came from Poland.
So when I visited the country last week for the first time, the experience was an emotional roller coaster: it is excruciating to contemplate the experience of Polish Jews during the Holocaust, and inspiring to see the revival of Jewish life there today.
I was moved by the work of Emmanuel Ringelblum, a historian working for my organization in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation. Ringelblum and 30 colleagues created a secret archive to memorialize the experience of Jews in the Ghetto. To keep a record of Nazi brutality and Jewish resilience, they buried thousands of documents in boxes and large metal containers, so they could dig them up after the war.
Tragically, the Nazis murdered Ringelblum and almost everyone working with him, but three members of the team survived. Searching the rubble of post-war Warsaw, they recovered most of the material. I saw one of the metal containers used to hide this sacred archive.
As I touched bricks on the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto, I also thought of Ringelblum’s colleague and mentor in my organization, Isaac Giterman. As the director of our work in Poland when the war began, Giterman helped to fund and organize the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Sadly, he did not live to see it; the Nazis murdered him three months before the uprising began.
This history is especially meaningful to me because my grandmother was born in Poland. Although she came to America almost forty years before the Holocaust, many of her relatives remained in her home town of Bialystok.
In her final years, my grandmother often spoke of relatives murdered in the Holocaust. Many Jews from Bialystok were deported to Auschwitz, so it is likely that members of my family were among the 1.3 million people murdered there. I thought about them as I stood near Auschwitz’s Gas Chamber №3 and said Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning.
Because of this unfathomably dark history, the revival of Jewish life in Poland today is all the more remarkable. I understood this miracle all the more deeply when visiting projects my organization has launched during its decades-long work in Poland, starting after WWI.
For example, I visited the vibrant Jewish community center opened five years ago in Warsaw. It is bursting with activity, from coffee gatherings for students at the nearby university to family days on Sunday and celebrations of Jewish holidays. The JCC’s main challenge is that it is not large enough to accommodate the growing numbers of people who want to spend time there. Together with the JCC Krakow, which we also helped found and is visited by tens of thousands each year, they are flagships of a Jewish landscape teeming with life.
I met with the directors of the summer camp for Jewish children in Poland, which is fittingly called Camp Atid, the Hebrew word for “future.” I met with a group of busy young professionals who take off time from work every summer to help run the camp. They all take on this commitment for the same reason: When they were children, the camp changed their lives, offering them their first real Jewish experience. They want to give this gift to the next generation.
We know that this gift is received enthusiastically. Monica, whose nine-year old son was a camper last summer, told me that he cried inconsolably when it ended. He did not want camp to be over, and can’t wait for the next session to begin in a few days.
The revival of Jewish life in Poland can touch people of all ages, sometimes when they don’t expect it. I met a 65-year old man named Piotr, who jokes that he is “a young Jew, even though I am not a young man.” Piotr discovered his Jewish identity only twelve years ago.
When hiring him as a freelance photographer, my colleague asked him why he had a Hungarian middle name, Tibor. Piotr explained that his mother was a Hungarian survivor of Auschwitz, who met his Polish father in a DP camp, married him, and moved with him to Poland. When my colleague told him that the Hungarians in Auschwitz were Jews, Piotr said that this couldn’t be true, at least in his mother’s case.
But when Piotr asked his mother about this, she told him for the first time — when he was fifty-three years old — that she was Jewish, and that he was as well.
In the weeks after this conversation, Piotr’s mother, who had concealed her Jewish identity for decades, came to realize how much she missed it. She regretted that she did not have more years, going forward, to live as a Jew again.
Piotr took her words to heart and decided to live as a Jew. “I have more time left than my mother,” he told me, “and I am going to use it.”
Now Piotr works as a Jewish communal professional and is an active member of Warsaw’s Jewish community. His daughter taught Sunday School, and his granddaughter loves to call him every Friday to wish him a good Sabbath.
Because of the tragic history of Poland’s Jews, building a Jewish future there is complicated. But reviving Jewish life in Poland is another fitting way to honor the memory of those we lost.
The best way to counter darkness is with light.
David M. Schizer is the CEO of JDC, the global Jewish humanitarian organization.