Examining the Past, Present and Future of Polish Jewry


After Jewish identity was driven deep underground, could there be a rebirth of the Polish Jewish community?

Before the Nazis invaded in 1939, Poland was home to 3.3 million Jews — 10 percent of the country’s population. Today, no one knows what the Jewish population is, although most estimates list it as being between 3,000 and 25,000. As Rabbi Alan Iser puts it, the magnitude of this genocide would be like if most of the black American population was wiped out today.

“Suffice to say, on the eve of World War II, Poland had one of the great Jewish populations of all time,” said Iser, who discussed the life, death and possible rebirth of the Polish Jewish community on Jan. 10, at Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood.

Iser, formerly a pulpit rabbi and currently an adjunct instructor at Villanova and St. Joseph’s University, was a scholar in residence at Beit Warszawa Synagogue in Warsaw in August. He visited Poland for a week, accompanied by his wife, Sharon Liebhaber, whose family lived there for generations before the Holocaust.

“It was emotional for her because most of her father’s family was killed there,” he said. “It was a voyage of discovery, a life-changing experience.”

Iser said many people believe Poles were anti-Semites because all of the concentration camps were in Poland. However, this is a misconception, he explained. It was simply easier for Germans to transport Jews to Poland.

Many Jews fled to the Soviet Union after the war, leaving about 369,000 in Poland. For those who returned, their fortunes were not improved — Polish gentiles, worried that the Jews were returning to claim their homes, killed countless survivors.

Things proceeded to get worse. On July 4, 1946, The Kielce Pogrom, an outbreak of violence against the Jewish community, resulted in the deaths of 42 people.

After this, the pace of Jewish emigration quickened until, by 1947, only 80,000 remained. Then in 1967 and 1968, Jews were expelled from Poland, as they were accused of begin “ruthless and cosmopolitans.”

“That was the end until recently of the Polish Jewish community,” Iser said. “Jewish identity was driven really deep underground.”

Poland began to see a Jewish renewal during the past 20 years, he said. As communism ended, people were now able to live openly as Jews, and many began rediscovering their Jewish identity.

“I think American Jews probably have a dark picture of Poles and don’t realize it’s more complicated,” he said. “A lot of Poles saved Jews. I don’t think a lot of people are aware how many Poles were killed by Germans.”

Iser told the Jewish Exponent he was pleasantly surprised by the revival taking place in the Jewish community in Poland. While the number of synagogues has decreased from thousands to around 10, shuls are slowly being rebuilt, he noted. Chabad has a large presence in Poland, with four shuls in Warsaw, one in Krakow, one in Wroclaw and a few others.

Jewish tourism is beginning to grow as well, he told the audience. There are kosher restaurants, coffee shops and Jewish-themed stores in Warsaw and Krakow.

“I was very impressed — even though it’s [Krakow] a small community — by how much they have going on,” he said. “Krakow is like a little Jewish Disneyland.”

Iser explained that growth is happening largely without government assistance, through the local community and non-governmental organizations. “I think there is a lot of potential — there is much curiosity about Judaism among the people who are discovering they have Jewish roots, but staff and resources are needed to reach out to these people,” he added.

Avivah and Gabriel Pinski of Wynnewood, who went to Poland two years ago, with a Holocaust study group through Gratz College, attended the talk, but disagreed with Iser’s assertion about the revival of the Jewish community there.

“That’s why we’re kind of skeptical reading about the rebirth of Jews in Poland,” Gabriel said.

Contact: jcohen@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0747


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