Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Poland: Why Catholic Poles are discovering Jewish roots they don’t even have

Sarah Glazer via Air Mail News:
[...] The nation that many American Jews look upon as a Holocaust graveyard (only 10 percent of the more than three million Jews there survived) has been experiencing a highly visible, if small-scale, revival of Jewish life. But more surprisingly, young, non-Jewish Poles are becoming fascinated with Jewish culture at the same time that the country is experiencing an equally visible revival of open anti-Semitism. […]

During a recent week-long visit to Poland, the young people I met who were volunteering at Jewish community centers or considering conversion to Judaism often mentioned their disillusionment with the Catholic Church in Poland, currently the focus of a child-sex-abuse scandal, and being repulsed by anti-Semitism. But more often I heard about a nostalgia for a culture they never knew or a desire to explore a more distinctive identity than they see around them.

“There would be no Jewish revival in Poland without non-Jews,” Kaja Siczek, who coordinates Jewish teen activities at the Warsaw Jewish community center, told me. Partly this is because there just aren’t enough Jews to staff all the festivals, Jewish-holiday dinners, and Jewish community centers.  […]

“I think we’re interested in Jewish culture because Jewish people were part of Poland’s history and culture and suddenly they disappeared,” said Zuzanna Porębowicz, 34, a Montessori teacher who took a course in Hebrew in Warsaw. She said many of her contemporaries were learning Hebrew, visiting Israel, or searching for Jewish family roots. “A lot of us younger people feel that something is missing, and we are looking for that part that is missing.” […]

The fact that the history of Jews in Poland was suppressed so long under Communism has also added to its mystique. Janusz Makuch, founder of the Kraków festival, who was born in 1960 and raised under Communism, says he was shocked to learn that his hometown of Pulawy had once been one-third Jewish.

Makuch was a university student when he first met Jews in Kraków’s old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. He began to learn Hebrew and Yiddish in an informal study group that also celebrated Jewish holidays. In an interview laced with Yiddish and Hebrew, he told me that though he comes from a “half-Catholic, half-Communist” family and never converted, “I’m one of you.” (His address to a group of American Jews visiting the festival was so conversant in Jewish humor and references that he sounded like a Borscht-belt comedian.)  
“Without Jews we [in Poland] are no one. My identity is like an empty vessel,” said Makuch, who dons a kippah (Jewish skullcap) to introduce the closing concert. The festival, he said, is “building the Polish future in Kraków”—a future for Jewish and Christian Poles together.
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