When friends and neighbors here in Israel asked me where I would be this year for Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israel Independence Day, they were somewhat taken aback by my answer: Majdanek. Huh? That is not the answer that they were expecting. What they meant was, where would I be doing the holiday BBQ (“mangal”)? Would I be going to the local ceremony ending Memorial Day and ushering in Independence Day with fireworks, music and entertainment? Poland – and certainly the site of the Nazi Majdanek Concentration Camp – was not an expected or acceptable answer.
But Poland was where I was – guiding a group of about 60 Jewish High School students from Baltimore in Poland for 5 days on their way to Israel.
I have been guiding Jewish groups in Poland and elsewhere in Europe for 12 years and this was not the first time that I have celebrated Yom Haatzmaut in Poland.
In 2011, together with an intrepid band of Keshet travelers from Temple Emanu-El of Oak Park, Michigan, I joined the then relatively new JCC in Krakow for a rollicking Yom Ha’atzmaut bash complete with falafel, Israeli music and Polish beer. Israeli flags were flying proudly and openly and hundreds of Jewish and non-Jewish Polish revelers came and went freely, celebrating in an atmosphere of joy and pride.
It certainly did not fit my image of what being Jewish in Poland was like. Since 2004 I had been watching handfuls of Jews furtively enter the Nozyk Synagogue in Warsaw (the only synagogue structure in Warsaw to survive WWII) for Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat services. I watched as they left the synagogue carefully bundling up to hide any outward sign of their Jewish identity before heading out in public. And yet there in Krakow, in May 2011 we were participating in a public, loud and powerful display of Jewish identity and community for all to see and join.
This year – 2015 – we were invited to commemorate Yom Hazikaron and celebrate Yom Haatzmaut at an event organized by the Warsaw Jewish Community and the shlichim of Torah Mitzion at the Nozyk Synagogue. There were over 100 members and supporters of the Warsaw Jewish community there; after the ceremony they had a falafel dinner next door in the courtyard of the Jewish community building.
The day before I had set up a meeting with our Polish travel partners at a coffee shop in the mall across from the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery. As I entered I met a fellow guide from Israel with a group of American Jewish students that she was guiding. As we were chatting, a young man with a kippah walked by. “One of yours?” we each asked each other and then laughed as we realized that he was not connected to either of our groups but it was a sign of comfort with a more public Jewish identity – at least in certain places in Warsaw and Krakow, like across the street from the Jewish cemetery.
We spent Shabbat in Krakow. The Jewish themed restaurants and cafes on Seroka Street in the old Jewish Kazimierz Ghetto were filled with tourists and locals sampling Jewish cuisines and listening to Klezmer music. In addition to the diners at these non-kosher establishments there were others – mostly visitors like us and some locals– passing through wearing kippot or Hassidic garb, adding to the authentic look of this “Jew Town”. (I will address the whole Jewish Tourism issue in a future blog piece).
We held Kabbalat Shabbat services at the Temple Synagogue (dedicated 1860) joined by a few locals and other foreign visitors. We had Friday night Shabbat dinner, Shabbat lunch and Seudah Shlishit at the adjacent Krakow JCC. The JCC was hopping as has become the norm there on Shabbat! In addition to our group there were two other groups of visitors plus the 50 – 70 locals who participate in Shabbat dinner every Friday evening. The windows were wide open, the lights were shining brightly, the Shabbat candles were twinkling and the sound of Jewish song carried to the busy street outside.
To be sure, the current Krakow Jewish community of a few hundred is but a shadow of the over 56,000 strong Jewish community that was destroyed in the Shoa. But it is also not the underground, secret Jewish community of the Communist era or the timid, tentative Jewish community of the immediate post-Communist period of the 1990s and early 2000s. It is alive and vibrant with a new found confidence and assertiveness. (Many question whether Poland is an appropriate place for Jews to live at all today – as a Zionist I tend to ask that same question about Jewish communities in Los Angeles, New York, London and Antwerp etc.)
As per Jonathan Orenstein and Rabbi Avi Baumel (respectively, Director and Rabbi of the Krakow JCC), Jews are coming out of the closet. Just about every week someone comes in having just discovered that they have Jewish roots and family connections and want to learn more about being Jewish. The fact that they are comfortable coming out as Jews publically whereas 10 or 15 years ago they would have been more likely to keep their Jewishness a secret is an indication of the current comfort level that Jews are feeling in Poland – especially in contrast to other countries in Europe.
Anti-Semitism has not disappeared in Poland – or anywhere else in the world. A recent ADL survey shows that an alarmingly high percentage (48%) of the general Polish population holds anti-Jewish views. It would appear however that for a variety of reasons (more on that in my next blog post) it is not currently socially acceptable to express and act upon these anti-Jewish feelings. Many Polish Jews – especially those aged 30 and younger- report relatively little personal experience with anti-Semitic actions or statements.
A telling incident occurred during an encounter between the Baltimore Jewish high school students and a college aged group of Polish Jews in Krakow. When I asked by a show of hands “Who here has personally experienced anti-Semitism” about a third of the Americans raised their hands – and none of the Polish students did. In the follow up discussion, the Polish students – some of whom had grown up not knowing that they were Jewish – described generally positive responses from friends and families to their open embrace of Jewish identity and practice and little negative reaction from their close circles and from strangers. Even if their accounts are colored by rose colored wishful thinking it is a powerful statement of a new attitude of Jews in Poland today.
Back to Yom Ha’atzmaut. The morning after the moving community ceremony at the Nozyk Synagogue in Warsaw we boarded the bus and headed to the site of Majdanek in Lublin. Our celebratory mood of the evening before disappeared as we entered the wooden barracks, shower room and gas chamber and stood in solemn memory at the trenches where the Nazis murdered 18,400 Jews on November 3, 1943. Standing at the dramatic memorial of ash and soil on Yom Ha’atzmaut
I reflected on the horrific consequences of Jewish powerlessness and on the miracle of the rebirth of the Jewish nation in Israel. Standing on that horrible accursed ground stained forever with Jewish blood, the promise of Yom Ha’atzmaut – “Victims No More” echoed more deeply and profoundly than ever in my heart and soul.