Poland’s ‘hidden Jews’ connect with lost culture in three days of praying, singing and eating

The event was set up by Shavei Israel, an organization that has worked for nearly a decade to bring so-called lost or hidden Jews from around the world back into the fold.

“We just want to keep the connection [to Judaism] alive,” said Michael Freund, the chairman of Shavei Israel. “It’s a connection that has survived persecution and repression, and now that the world is opening up so quickly, it’s a connection that in many instances will become endangered.”

“So we need to seize the moment, and to strengthen these people’s sense of connection to the Jewish people.”

Poland was home to nearly 3.5 million Jews before World War II, the largest community in Europe. But the Nazis nearly wiped them out in the ghettos and death camps set up throughout the country after 1939.

During the Cold War, Jews suffered repression and expulsions provoked by the Soviet-influenced communist regime. Many fled, while those who choose to stay often hid their roots, either marrying Roman Catholics and baptizing their children or simply adopting the atheistic ethos of the communist regime.

But since communism fell in 1989, parents and grandparents with enduring memories of their Jewish ancestors have slowly begun passing on the family secret, emboldened by the new tolerance and freedoms that have taken root.

In many cases, it is the young Poles like Kujawa rather than the older generations who seek to reconnect to their Jewish roots, attracted by the culture that is becoming increasingly trendy in cosmopolitan cities like Krakow and Warsaw.

“My grandmother asked me rhetorically, ‘So the whole family is Catholic and you’re Jewish?’ She can’t understand why I do this, but told me to go ahead – just not to be too obvious about it,” said Kujawa, a student of political science who plans to become an officer in the Polish Army.

Each personal story is unique but with common themes: the fear of being exposed as Jewish in a hostile world, the assimilation into the larger Catholic world.

In Kujawa’s case, it was his mother’s maternal grandmother who was Jewish, meaning that he is Jewish under Jewish law, which traces religious status through the mother’s line.

Many other hidden Jews, however, have their roots on their father’s side, and spend years preparing for conversions in order to become real Jews. Others keep up looser ties to Poland’s Jewish community, joining youth groups or taking part in cultural events but without strict religious observation.

Iwona Giermala, a 43-year-old interior decorator, also at the event, believes her mother has Jewish roots, but isn’t sure. She has no papers or witnesses to prove it, so she is studying for conversion to satisfy her growing attraction to Jewish life.

“I’m finding myself with something that feels mine – but I don’t even know how to explain it,” Giermala said.

During the event in Krakow, about 120 participants prayed in the Kupa synagogue, a richly decorated 17th-century prayer house with colorful paintings of Biblical cities illuminated by a chandelier; they enjoyed drawn-out sabbath meals of herring, pickles and gefilte fish in a community center, and held discussions in an exhibition hall
filled with black and white photographs of Polish Jews before the war.

Amid the revival of Jewish life in this picturesque town about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Auschwitz death camp, there are constant reminders of the fraught relations between Jews and their largely Catholic surroundings.

Late Saturday, as an elderly Orthodox rabbi, Edgar Gluck, walked with a group of young Jews through the city, they encountered a young Pole who appeared to be drunk, staggering toward them.

Fearing he would be attacked, the young Jews encircled Gluck. But the Pole instead broke down in sobs, telling the group in slurred speech that it was the Germans – and not the Poles – who carried out the Holocaust.

“It wasn’t the Poles,” he said. “I am so sorry.”

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