An annual Jewish film festival; a week of performances by world-class klezmer acts; the construction of a $26 million Jewish museum in the country’s capital; “Tot Shabbat”: This is the stuff of Jewish communal life in many American cities.
But when all this is happening in contemporary Poland, it is cause for ... what exactly?
“An Evening of Hope: Jewish Revival in Poland” was the cautiously optimistic event that attempted to answer this difficult question. An audience of 500 packed the sanctuary at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino on May 26 to hear from rabbis, cantors, high-profile Polish officials and others about Jewish life in present-day Poland. Part public diplomacy effort, part travelogue, part sermon and part commemoration, the evening was more complicated than most Jewish events.
The inspiration came last November when Andrzej Folwarczny, a former member of Poland’s Parliament, approached Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis looking for a way to advance Polish-Jewish dialogue.
Folwarczny is the founder and president of the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, a Warsaw-based nonprofit that works to improve Polish-Jewish relations. Since its founding in 1998, the Forum has brought American Jewish leaders to visit Poland and has taken groups of non-Jewish Poles to visit Jewish communities around the United States. The Forum arranges meetings between Polish high school students and Jewish youth groups visiting Poland from the United States, Canada and Israel, and has also launched programs aimed at teaching Polish students about their country’s rich Jewish past.
Folwarczny found a willing partner in Schulweis. In his superb, carefully worded speech, Schulweis said, “I have a right to hope in the possibility of the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland.”
About rapprochement, however, Schulweis is more hesitant, especially with what he called “the disappointing data of residual anti-Semitism” in Poland today. Which is why, when Folwarczny approached him, Schulweis found himself torn. “My father’s voice came to me,” Schulweis said in a conversation following the event. “And he said, ‘What are you doing? These are Polackn.
They’re all anti-Semitic.’ “
Although hope was the evening’s theme, some in the audience remained skeptical. “Jews do not have a desire to go to Poland,” said Moshe Melnick, a retired Jewish educator who was born in Poland and immigrated to the United States before World War II. Melnick had been curious enough to attend the event, but was not convinced of Poland’s transformation. “It’s the worst place in the world. It’s hell,” he said.
Folwarczny is familiar with voices like Melnick’s. On a Polish parliamentary visit to Israel in the late 1990s, Folwarczny was told that he would meet an Israeli group interested in Polish-Jewish dialogue. “I was still naïve enough to believe that many such groups existed,” Folwarczny recalled in an interview.
The group consisted of Israeli Holocaust survivors from Poland, and they did not hold back. “It was the first time I had heard such stories,” Folwarczny said. “Stories about Poles killing Jews, about Jews coming back to their towns and finding Poles living in their houses.” After an hour, Folwarczny felt “there was no chance for reconciliation.” But the meeting continued. “After four hours, there were tears in their eyes. On the one hand,” Folwarczny said of the survivors, “they hate Poland. On the other hand, they miss it and even love it.”
And, standing on the bima opposite the American, Israeli and Polish flags, the succession of speakers talked of all that there is for Jews to love about Poland today — from the thousands of non-Jews who come to Krakow every summer to listen to klezmer music, to the Purim parties in “hip Warsaw clubs,” to the growth of Jewish congregations across the country.
“Every day that I serve in Beit Warszawa, I say Shehechiyanu,” said Rabbi Burt Schuman, who heads up the synagogue that has been home to the Progressive Jewish community of Poland for more than a decade.
Most of the speakers took Schulweis’ hopeful tone but maintained an awareness of the troubling aspects of contemporary Jewish life in Poland. “Yes, there is anti-Semitism in Poland,” said Gosia Szymanska, an assistant director at the American Jewish Committee in Los Angeles. Szymanska grew up in Lodz and only learned of her Jewish roots at age 12. “But nothing like what many people think. It is marginal, and whenever it rears its ugly head, the government responds to it quickly and forcefully.”
“You have anti-Semites in Poland,” Folwarczny echoed from the pulpit. “You have people who do not get it. You have people who do not care.”
Perhaps the best expression of the evening’s theme came from someone who wasn’t even in the room. “ ‘Twenty years later,’ ” said Polish Consul General Joanna Kozinska-Frybes, quoting from a recent op-ed by Polish-Jewish journalist Konstanty Gebert, “ ‘this is what we have become: a normal Jewish community, with people attending one kind of services, and certainly not the other kind, or davka, never going to pray. Not because there is no shul. Not because they are afraid. Not because they would not know what to do once they are there. Just because it is their Jewish pleasure to do it their way.’ ”