One of the most frequently asked questions about Jewish life in Poland is, “Are there still Jews there?” and when I explain the situation of the community the next question is, “Why would any Jew want to live there?”
Over the years I have asked the same questions, and the answer is not so simple. Yes it is the “land of the Holocaust” and “one big Jewish cemetery” and there is anti-Semitism, but it is their home.
In truth many Jews are still searching for their Jewish identity within their Polish roots. During the Shoah they lost their Jewish identity and when the Communists took over they also lost their Polish identity. After overthrowing the Communists they regained strong patriotic feelings and the retort I’m often given is, “Why don’t you leave the United States?”
Others have a strong Jewish connection but feel it would be wrong to abandon the Jewish heritage of Poland. “If all the Jews leave Poland,” one member of the community said, “who would care for the remnants of Jewish history?” I have been told that yes, the Shoah was horrific but the Jewish history of Poland was not just six years of the Holocaust but a thousand years of active Jewish history. It was not always good; there were restrictions on livelihood and residence at different periods as well as wars. But there were also times of great expansion of Jewish culture that was not possible in other countries. It has also been pointed out to me that Poland is the only country from which the Jews were never expelled as they were in all the European countries.
That is not to say that no Jews want to leave. Jews have been emigrating from Poland almost as long as they have been living within its borders. Some of the largest waves of Jewish immigrants to America came from Poland and a significant number became the founding fathers of Israel.
Corina Berger and Yaakov Finkelstien making a L’Chaim during the opening of the Jewish Agency’s new office in Warsaw.
Since its inception, Zionism has been an integral part of Jewish life in Poland. Many of the major Zionist movements, both religious and secular, have their roots in Poland. Today the Jewish Agency for Israel is again active in Poland in promoting aliyah to Israel. During my recent visit to Poland, Corina Berger, the district coordinator for the Jewish Agency, opened a new office in the tower that stands on the site of the destroyed Great Synagogue of Warsaw.
The Jewish community in Poland, in the past 18 years since the fall of Communism, has seen a rebirth of Jewish awareness and with it a renewal of its connection to Israel. The Jewish Agency, through the work of Corina Berger, coordinator for Eastern Europe based in Hungary, helps those who want to make aliyah. Education programs, literature and assistance is gaining visas are also available.
In a country that had been traumatized by the Shoah, post-Holocaust anti-Semitism, and then years of anti-Israel Communist rule, sometimes it is difficult to be outwardly Jewish, but recently more and more Jews are coming forward. The Jewish Agency is there to tell these people that there is a place to be free and proud and live as a Jew without fear.
According to Ms. Berger about 60 Jews from Poland relocated to Israel last year. These included students that went to study Judaism, families, and even older people, who went to rejoin families from whom they had been separated since the Shoah.
Tadeusz Wolenski, the local representative in Warsaw, works very closely with Yaakov Finkelstien of the Israeli Embassy in all Israel-related events such as Yom HaAtzmaut parties and Israel day fairs.
They work with all sectors of Jewish life in Poland and participate in events at the Nozyk Synagogue. They work with the Chabad group and the Reform, reaching out to anyone who might be interested in aliyah.
At the recent opening of the new Warsaw offices Ambassador David Peleg was present and mentioned how important the work of the Jewish Agency is to Israel. He said the country owes its very existence to the immigrants the organization brought to Israel since its inception. As a mezuzah was attached to the doorpost we all drank L’Chaim wishing much success to the Jewish agency in its new quarters.