We came to Poland expecting to find death. And death we found in the death camp of Majdanek. It was situated with prewar homes and parks all around it, as if it were just any business in full view of the town’s population, which could never claim innocence.
We found death in touching the few pieces of the remaining wall of the Warsaw Ghetto, where thousands suffered while spending their last days.
And we surely found death in the depths of the haunting children’s forests, mass graves of thousands of children shot, some of whom were buried alive. Small Israeli flags surround the borders of these mass graves; small dolls, toys, balloons and kites tied to the perimeter in an attempt to comfort those young souls who perished there. But in reality they were only slightly comforting to those of us who desperately needed comfort upon witnessing such a horrific scene. Besides saying Kaddish, we sang “Hamalach Hagoel,” the song sung to children before going to sleep, assuring these innocents of protection by God’s angels, protection that they hopefully had in death since they surely did not have such protection in life.
More than 90 percent of Polish Jewry — some 3 million souls — was murdered between September and December 1942 in Nazi death camps. Four months was all it took to wipe out an entire world, which is forever gone.
Although prepared for the expected death we found, I was unprepared for the Jewish life we also found.
One morning after praying at the main Warsaw synagogue, the chief rabbi of Poland joined us. Rabbi Michael Schudrich, originally from Long Island, spoke with us about the phenomenon of Jews discovering their roots every day. After the war, 300,000 Jews remained in Poland. Many left when the Communists came to power, but many Jews remained and went “underground,” as it was best and safer not to tell their children about their Jewish roots or heritage.
But in the past few years, within in a more open Polish society, a common phenomenon is that those Jews who remained and are on their deathbeds are telling their children and grandchildren: By the way, we never told you, but you’re Jewish, or one of your parents is Jewish.
As these young Poles are finding out about their own heritage they are searching out their roots and figuring out what being a Jew means for them today.
The chief rabbi’s response to the question of how many Jews there are in Poland today is simply, more than yesterday.
In Krakow we visited the JCC, a beautiful new facility in the heart of the old Jewish historic district where seven pre-war synagogues still stand. We met with its founder and director Jonathan Ornstein, a Queens native.
He and his staff don’t ask questions about one’s Jewish roots, whether one is halachically Jewish or not. Everyone is accepted. He has created a thriving, vibrant JCC with children’s programs, Hebrew classes, conversion classes and weekly Friday night dinners that draw well over 100 participants. Sixty members recently attended the Polish Limmud conference in Warsaw.
The JCC has an annual 50-mile bike ride, described as celebrating and supporting the miraculous rebirth of Jewish life in Poland today. It sounds surreal but the route goes from Auschwitz to the JCC. It’s a journey, not just in distance or time but through different Jewish eras and realities, a journey in the transformation of Polish Jewish life.
But what they are most proud of at the JCC, which has 50 non-Jewish volunteers, is that they do not have a security guard. (Could that be said of any JCC in the U.S.?) They do not lock their front door and have never had an incident of graffiti, vandalism or verbal assault.
Ornstein says that with public displays of anti-Semitism more and more common throughout Europe, Poland is a great place to be Jewish. “This is the only place in Europe where it’s easier and safer and better every day to be Jewish, and all of this is happening an hour’s drive from Auschwitz. … It’s a story that needs to be told.”
Both of these men — Rabbi Schudrich and Jonathan Ornstein — are in Poland because they view their mission as one of kedusha, that of recovering lost Jews. Their work would be analogous to going back to Spain and Portugal in the late 1500s and recovering the tens of thousands of lost Marrano Jews only one or two generations out.
We went to Poland to find death. Those haunting memories of what we found will always be with me. But I had also witnessed a miraculous and unimaginable rebirth among Polish Jewry.
Hugh Pollack, president of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, was part of a Ramah leadership mission to Poland last fall.