Reporter-activist relishes Polands Jewish revival

Konstanty Gebert used a medical metaphor to describe Poland’s tumultuous history with the Jews.

“In surgery there is the concept of phantom pain,” he said, referring to the phenomenon of experiencing sensation in a limb that had been amputated. “Poland still suffers from Jewish phantom pain.”

Gebert spoke at a Feb. 9 breakfast meeting, held at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and hosted by the American Jewish Comm-ittee and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life. Later that day, he spoke at Stanford Uni-versity.

A reporter with Poland’s largest daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, and a longtime Jewish community activist, Gebert played a role in Poland’s astonishing Jewish renaissance over the last 25 years. He secretly studied Judaism during the dark days of communism, and helped build up the infrastructure of the country’s decimated Jewish community after the fall of the Soviet empire.

Konstanty Gebert photo/dan pine

Poland’s Jewish community today — at 8,000, tiny compared to the 3.4 million before the Holocaust — is on the upswing, though it wasn’t easy to revive Jewish life. Most of Poland’s Holocaust survivors immigrated to Israel or elsewhere. Thousands more were banished in communist purges. Those who remained were, Gebert said, “the least Jewish.”

But thanks to a core of committed Polish Jews, and with outside help from foreign Jewish organizations, institution building began in the 1980s. Today the country boasts several synagogues, Jewish day schools, community centers and cultural organizations, such as the popular Krakow Jewish Music Festival. Gebert said these institutions not only bolstered the Jewish community, they brought about an unexpected side benefit.

Anti-Semitism, once so virulent within Poland’s Catholic majority, is in marked decline, Gebert said.

“Vatican II came late to Poland; not until the 1970s,” he said, referring to the groundbreaking Papal decree that, in part, undid the centuries-old tradition of blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus. “But then it went deep. There was Jewish culture week in parishes to help parishioners understand Jews. It was social change pushing through slowly, but consistently.”

The effort to rid Poland of anti-Semitism got another boost when the late Polish-born Pope John Paul II declared anti-Semitism to be a sin. Immediately, Catholic Poles went to church and confessed. Today, Gebert said, “absolutely no institutional discrimination” against Jews exists in Poland, and in its place there is “a genuine interest in things Jewish in Polish civil society, and not just in the chattering classes in Warsaw.”

Gebert, who wears a kippah, found a way to learn about his heritage at a time when such study could have landed him in jail. He organized the Jewish Flying University, which helped Polish Jews learn about their religion. Now he is the scholar-in-residence at the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Warsaw.

At one point, Gebert had to go underground for his political activism with the once-banned Solidaity movement. His work on behalf pf Polish Jews met with some initial hostility, despite the fact that Poles did develop a hardy respect for Israel, especially after the Six-Day War. “Non-Jews discovered we were on the same side,” Gebert said. The Solidarity trade union movement in the ’70s and ’80s further embraced Jewish support.

Once Poland’s Jews were fully free to live Jewish lives, they didn’t quite know how. That’s when groups like AJC and Chabad came in and helped establish institutions, such as schools. Over time, as new generations came up through the educational ranks, the “children ‘Judaized’ their parents,” Gebert said. “The younger generation taught the older generation.”

Gebert concluded that Poles have put in a lot of “hard work” to come to terms with their complicity in the Holocaust. The payoff is reflected in the peaceful relations between Jewish and non-Jewish Poles, and more importantly, a revived Jewish community.

Said Gebert, “We had Nazis. We had communists. They’re gone. We’re still here.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at