Warsaw, Poland — Konstanty Gebert likes to compare this city’s fledgling Jewish community to a sapling cut from a tree, replanted, and now forging its own identity.
What this journalist and Jewish community leader doesn’t like are Jewish critics who state that Poland’s struggling Jewish community is irrelevant or dead.
Like the famous Mark Twain quip, Gebert insists that such reports are highly exaggerated.
“I’m alive. My child is alive,” declares the bearded man during a Shabbat Kiddush at the Warsaw Jewish Community Center. It sits next door to the Nozyk Synagogue, the last functioning Jewish prayer house in a city that thrived with Jewish culture before the Holocaust.
Gebert was addressing a group of Long Island Jews who had come to this city on their way to delivering the first new Torah to Auschwitz.
As evidence of a rebirth, Gebert points out the community’s growing kindergarten and Jewish day school programs.
Gebert and other Warsaw Jews are struggling to re-establish a Jewish community while fighting the deeply held perception that Poland is the place of Jewish death while Israel is its site of rebirth.
They are dismayed that many Jews don’t want to adjust that perception and recognize the achievements and needs of the Warsaw community.
In short, their efforts continue to labor in the huge shadow of the Holocaust, and the extermination of Poland’s three million Jews in the Nazi death camps.
For example, a Brooklyn doctor, informed last week of the Warsaw Jews and their need for financial support responded this way: “They shouldn’t be there. The land is tainted with blood. I wouldn’t help.”
The Warsaw Jews are extremely sensitive to any criticism. For example on this day, a critical article in a small partisan ultra-Orthodox American publication consumes their thoughts.
Even a question of how many Warsaw Jews there are today is a sensitive issue. There were about 350,000 Jews here before the Holocaust. Now there are estimated anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 — the latter number representing Poles who are discovering for the first time that one of their parents or grandparents may have been Jewish, and seeking to explore the faith.
But Gebert does not try to hide the community’s problems. He explains that anti-Semitism is clearly alive in Poland, and a threat to the sapling.
He wonders aloud whether the norm of 1,500 years of virulent European anti-Semitism can ever truly be eliminated.
“It’s a complicated relationship between Jews and Poland,” says Yale Reisner, a transplanted American Jew who is director of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation Genealogy Project.
Reisner and associate Piotr Rytka-Zandberg are doing invaluable work helping Poles discover their Jewish roots, American Jews unearth the legacy of their ancestors, and preserving archives and artifacts.
Reisner points out the new room being built at the community center to accommodate new kindergarten students.
But a visitor also notes that the renovated synagogue is also struggling to fill the wooden benches on a Shabbat evening without the input of tourists.
The question for the future is whether a tree will ever grow from this sapling.