Rabbi Helps to Rebuild Life From the Ashes of the Holocaust

Michael Schudrich, a New York-born rabbi, has spent the better part of two decades working to revive Jewish life in Poland, particularly in its capital, Warsaw.

But he still feels the need to, if not defend his work, at least explain why he's put so much effort into the very place where the annihilation of Europe's Jews occurred — and where 90 percent of Poland's 3.5 million Jews perished.

In fact, the Yeshiva University-educated rabbi began his April 11 talk at the University of Delaware's Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics by asking a question that he's often confronted with: Why do Jews remain in Poland?

In his lecture, which was sponsored by Hillel and served as the start of Holocaust Awareness Week on the campus, Schudrich explained that roughly 350,000 Polish Jews survived the Shoah, but that, by the end of the 1940s and the establishment of a Communist regime, most left for America, Israel or some other part of the world.

" 'If I want to stay Jewish, it makes good sense to leave Poland. If I want to stay in Poland, for whatever reason, it makes good sense to leave being Jewish,' " said Schudrich, explaining the mentality of the immediate postwar years.

Most did flee, but he said that a significant number — exact figures are not known — stayed, largely hiding their Jewish identity, even from their children and grandchildren. But after the fall of communism in 1989, thousands of Poles discovered — or rediscovered — their Jewish roots.

Schudrich related one story of a young couple who married shortly after high school; at the time, they were involved with a neo-Nazi group. Several years later, the wife — by then, a mother — learned that she was Jewish, and eventually began insisting on having Friday-night Shabbat dinners. Her husband went along with it, according to the rabbi.

But the woman's in-laws strongly disapproved. As it turned out, they were Jewish, but had never told their son. Now the couple are in their 30s and are active members of the city's Jewish community; they've also both become religious. The rabbi joked that he would write a book about them, called From Skinheads to Covered Heads.

Starting From Scratch

Schudrich first moved to Warsaw in 1990 to work for the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which funds Jewish day schools, camps and other programming throughout the former Communist block. In 1998, he left the foundation to serve as religious leader at Warsaw's Nozik Synagogue and, in 2004, he was named Poland's chief rabbi.

Last May, Schudrich made international headlines when, the day before he was to appear with Pope Benedict XVI at a ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau, he was punched and pepper-sprayed by a man who shouted an anti-Semitic slur. According to news reports, Schudrich said he landed a few jabs of his own and wound up chasing down his attacker.

During the question-and-answer session, several audience members pressed the rabbi to provide an accurate reading of the level of anti-Semitism in present-day Poland. He said that the competing notions that country is inherently anti-Semitic and that there is no anti-Semitism in Poland are equally false.

The picture is far more multifaceted. For instance, he said that several top governmental officials sincerely support the nation's Jewish community, though a number of anti-Semites also serve in the government.

In Schudrich's opinion, the overall religiosity of Poland — it is an overwhelmingly Catholic country — makes it easier for some to return to Judaism, he noted. Unlike the former Soviet Union, where many contemplating a return to faith had to wrestle with whether or not they believed in God, a idea that was anathema under communism, the issue for many Poles with Jewish roots is which God.

He offered some positive signs: There are now eight full-time rabbis working in 10 functional synagogues throughout the nation. When he started, Schudrich said he was the only rabbi. At the the daily services held at his synagogue, the 50-year-old also said that he's often the oldest person in the room.

Estimates vary about the number of Jews now in Poland, partly because of the difficulty in counting who exactly is a Jew. Roughly 5,000 are considered active with Jewish organizations, although more than twice that figure might reside there.

"I'm not concerned about counting them," said Schudrich. "I'm concerned with creating an environment that will open the doors for these people when they're ready."

Regina Kerr Alonzo, a University of Delaware alumni and daughter of a concentration-camp survivor, said after the program that she thought the speaker might have downplayed the level of anti-Semitism in Poland. Alonzo explained that she couldn't understand why any Jew had wanted to remain there after the Holocaust, though she applauded the efforts to strengthen the Jewish community.

Her father, Arnold Kerr, a retired engineering professor at Delaware, offered a different take on the same notion.

"I don't think we should be in Poland," said this survivor of a string of brutal work camps in and around Estonia. "They don't deserve us."



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