This summer I will be participating in a very special trip to Poland organized by the Cantors’ Assembly. In addition to visiting important historic sites and meeting with Polish dignitaries, we will be taking part in the 19th Annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow. The festival is the largest of its kind and attracts attendees and performers from throughout Europe, the United States and Israel. But as thrilled as I am to take part in this very special event, I am even more excited to reconnect with the Jewish community of Poland.
As many of you already know, this will not be my first visit to Poland. I was lucky enough to visit, perform and study there on three separate occasions (1988, 1991 and 1994). On the last of these visits I did research on developments among the Poland’s remaining Jewish population beginning with the Solidarity period. Contrary to popular belief, there are still some Jews in Poland (though their numbers will never again reach the 10% of the country’s population that they represented before the Shoah). During the communist period most of these Jews lived with little or literally no knowledge of their Jewish identity. But as part of the political and social foment that accompanied the Solidarity movement, a group of young Jews founded the “Jewish Flying University,” a clandestine group that met to share holidays and learn more about their Jewish heritage. With the downfall of the communist regime, as government intrusion in religious and civil life waned, this tiny community began to expand. Many Poles learned for the first time of their families’ Jewish background and began searching for a connection to their roots. By the time I was there in the mid 90’s, the community had found an outside sponsor in the Lauder Foundation and a day school was just being opened in Warsaw.
What struck me so much about the people that I met was their incredible hunger for Jewish learning and observance. It was humbling to see the efforts they would go through in order to enjoy the basic level of Jewish observance that we take for granted here in the United States—traveling great distances to join in community observances, undergoing adult circumcision, even mastering one or more foreign language in order to have access to Jewish literature. It was truly awe inspiring to me that, despite Nazi genocide, communist oppression and their own families’ silence and denial, the desire to live and worship as Jews still burned so brightly in these young people.
I know that much has changed in Poland—the day school has continued to grow, the community has developed its own local leadership, there are even multiple kosher catering options in Krakow—but I hope to still find the same passion and inquisitiveness that so impressed me during my studies there.