Legnica, Poland — The seder tables at 12 Chojnowska St. were filled last Friday night.
At the headquarters of the Jewish community in this industrial city of 100,000 in lower Silesia, on a street in the heart of Legnica’s prewar Jewish neighborhood, about three dozen women, men and children — virtually the entire Jewish community — attended the seder I led on the first night of Passover.
At a time dominated by reports of increasing anti-Semitism caused by the recently enacted law that bars putting the blame for the Holocaust (specifically concentration camps located on Polish soil) on Poland or Poles, no one here expressed fear about taking part in the annual highlight of Jewish life here.
None of the participants said they had second thoughts about going to the celebration, whose second day coincided with Easter, often a time for anti-Semitic violence in earlier centuries in this part of Eastern Europe, said Anna Lazarek, leader of the community. No police officers or soldiers were posted outside the building, or needed to be, Lazarek and several people at the seder pointed out; that is not the case in many Western European countries.
“Whomever will come [in other years], will come,” said Alicja Kulacz, a native of Poland who participated in the seder with her husband Robert and the couple’s two small children. The Kulaczes, both of whom grew up Jewish in Poland and made aliyah before returning to their homeland seven years ago, own a store a few blocks from the Jewish community building that sells Dead Sea cosmetics.
They said the current controversy over the Polish legislation had not given them pause about going to the seder, normally a prime social event on the calendar of the Jewish community of Poland and other Jewish communities in the former communist Eastern bloc.
Legnica (pronounced Leg-NEE-tsa) has one of the smallest Jewish communities in Poland today.
The seder here, a few blocks from Janusz Korczak Street (named for a Jewish hero of the Holocaust in Warsaw), was attended by a mix of generations, mostly retirees; most were Holocaust survivors or their children. A roomful of Jaroslaws and Jerzys, Angieszkas and Krystynas.
They showed up in jeans and dress jackets, skirts and pantsuits, schmoozing with each other while nominally paying attention to the Haggadah reading.
The seder was held in a small meeting hall whose walls were decorated with sketches of old rabbis and photographs of survivors who became leaders of the city’s post-war Jewish community.
At one table sat James Nollet, a retired chemistry professor from Boston, who, as a convert from Catholicism, is known as the community’s unofficial ‘rabbi” and is active in interfaith activities.
Legnica’s mayor, Tadeusz Krzakowski, in an interview in his office on the eve of Pesach, took pains to stress that he does not belong to the nationalist PIS party that sponsored the recent Parliament bill. He said the increase in anti-Semitism in Poland is largely the work of highly visible, highly vocal nationalists who are concentrated in large cities like Warsaw, and are relatively scarce in rural areas like Legnica.
The mayor, who is spearheading a communal effort to renovate the city’s (Legnica.eu) centuries-old Jewish cemetery, called Legnica an example of cordial relations between Polish Jews and the country’s majority Catholic population.
“The street will tell you the truth,” Krzakowski said — in other words, no signs of anti-Semitic graffiti, no reports of anti-Semitic vandalism or attacks.
He mentioned that the city hosted a reunion six years ago of Jews from Legnica who left the country following a government-led anti-Semitic outbreak 50 years ago, and also hosted a recent academic conference on the anniversary of the Jewish exodus. The city’s monthly magazine carried a story on the anniversary.
“The street will tell you the truth.”
Polish Jewry, which has experienced a country-wide revival since Communism fell a quarter-century ago, turned out in its usual large numbers for communal seders in 13 locations, said Michael Schudrich, the Long Island-born chief rabbi. “Thousands” of people who affiliate with the Jewish community attended the communal seders, in addition to those who went to home seders.
Rabbi Schudrich said the number of Jews who attended the communal seders last week was up “slightly” from last year, a sign that the controversy over the recent legislation did not cause alarm.
The rabbi said the widely reported rise in anti-Semitism, prevalent in right-wing, nationalist circles, is nonetheless “of special concern” to many Polish Jews. “It’s certainly the topic people talk about all the time.” But he added that few members of the community have seriously discussed leaving the country.
The controversy, he said, had not affected participation in other communal events like last month’s Purim celebrations.
In Legnica, where Jews are a respected but tiny part of the population, there are few signs of the city’s Jewish past.
Known as Liegnitz while it was under the control of Prussia, then Germany, between 1742 and the end of World War II, the city, a center of the copper and nickel industry, is located in the southwest corner of Poland, on the Kaszawa River, near the German and Czech borders.
After 1965, most parts of the preserved Old Town, with its town houses, were demolished, the historical layout was abolished, and the city was rebuilt in modern form. Some of the medieval architecture preserved in several buildings, including a Baroque Town Hall.
The city is best known to historians as the site of a major 1241 battle between the Mongol Empire and the combined defending forces of European fighters.
Its Jewish community dates back to, according to available evidence, the end of the 12th century or beginning of the 13th. As happened to many Jewish communities in their early years, in the 1400s, the Jews in Leignitz experienced pogroms, a near-total expulsion, and the burning of Jews at the stake. In 1447, a dispute arose between Dutchess Elizbiata and Jewish bankers who demanded that she repay a loan; afterwards the Jewish district was set ablaze and the Jewish community experienced a pogrom.
A few Jews were allowed to live here in the 1500s, but under severe restrictions.
By the 19th century, more Jews were slowly moving in. The city’s Jewish population in 1905 was about 1,000. Between 1854 and 1920, the Jewish community was substantial enough to employ its own rabbi and cantor; the community maintained a convalescent home, a mikvah, charity groups, a free loan society and an artisans’ association.
The size of the Jewish community decreased in the early years of the 20th century as many Jews in this part of the world sought better opportunities in the West, and in larger Polish cities. During Kristallnacht in 1938, Nazi sympathizers burned the synagogue and vandalized the cemetery. By 1939, only 188 Jews remained here; in 1941 they were transferred to Theresienstadt.
The city, located 15 miles from the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, was only partly damaged in WWII; afterwards, all of the Silesia region east of the Neisse River was transferred to Poland following the Potsdam conference, and the German population was expelled.
About 2,000 Holocaust survivors temporarily settled here after the war, eventually leaving for the West.
From 1945 to 1990, during the Cold War, several units of the Soviet Army were stationed here, influencing the life of the city, which had limited sovereignty and was divided into Polish and Soviet areas, with the latter closed to the public. The Russians called Legnica “Little Moscow.”
Like many Jewish communities in Poland, Legnica’s experienced a further, precipitous decline in size after the 1968 anti-Semitic outbreak.
And like many, the Jewish community here has gone through a mild revival since Communism ended in 1993 and freedom of religion was restored; a kosher kitchen was established and regular worship services began to be held.
In 2009, the Jewish cemetery sustained significant damage during a hurricane; the grounds still contain about 500 graves, the oldest of which dates back to the mid-1800s.
Jankiel Kulawiec has seen all the changes in Jewish life here.
At 94, he is former longtime leader of the Jewish community. Walking with a pair of canes up the 26 stairs to the small suite that houses the community headquarters, he came to the first-night seder, as he does every year.
The possible anti-Semitic threat caused by the recent Polish legislation would not keep him away, he said. And he plans to keep coming. Next year in Legnica.
“Bis a hundert zvanzig,” he said, using the traditional Yiddish blessing for long life — till 120.
Staff writer Steve Lipman traveled to Legnica under the auspices of the Chief Rabbi of Poland. He led the seders at the Legnica Jewish community using supplies donated by Daniel Levine of J. Levine Books and Judaica, Chanan Furman, B2B Supply, and friends Lisa Levy, Shulamis Blokh, Debby Caplan, Michal and Rebecca Witter, Simi Eisenstat, Thea Wieseltier and the family of Linda and Heshy Friedman.