Tad Taube assumes most people are familiar with the six years of Polish history when millions of Jews died in the Holocaust. Now he wants everyone to know about the preceding 1,000 years, when Jewish life in Poland thrived.
The founder of the Belmont-based Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture recently launched Poland Jewish Heritage Tours. What travelers get is a 12-day taste of Poland’s vanished Jewish past — it once was home to 3.5 millions Jews, Europe’s largest Jewish population — and its reborn Jewish present.
“The Holocaust was such an overwhelming act, it tends to blind people to everything else,” said Taube. “Most of the contributions by the Jewish people to philosophy, science, math, theater, every facet of human endeavor, actually developed during that 1,000 years in Poland. It’s a huge contribution to the culture of the Western world.”
Tours will be scheduled year-round, but the first official Poland Jewish Heritage Tour departs this summer.
Itineraries can be customized, but most will include sites of Jewish historical significance in Polish cities, as well as day trips to the mountains. Participants also will engage in meetings with Jewish leaders, politicians and the media, and will go on outings to cultural events, synagogues, restored Jewish cemeteries and, yes, former concentration camps.
But Taube insists the emphasis will not be on the Holocaust. “The emphasis of these tours,” he said, “is to expose those that join us to the incredible changes taking place in Poland.”
He cited the government’s sponsorship of the new
$90 million Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, being funded in part by the Taube and Koret foundations. The Festival of Jewish Culture, which takes place every summer in Krakow and will be included on some tours, is one of the largest of its kind worldwide. Moreover, Poland remains a staunch ally of Israel.
Shana Penn and Ron Wexler are playing key roles in organizing the Poland Jewish Heritage Tours, along with a team of Jewish educators, scholars and experts. Penn is the executive director of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture who has done extensive research on modern Poland; Wexler is a scholar of Jewish history with 30 years of experience in the cultural tourism industry.
“You don’t really get to understand the dramatic and positive changes in Poland,” said Penn, “unless you actually go and see the places where these 10 centuries of Jewish life existed.”
With large numbers of American Jews tracing their ancestry, at least in part, back to Poland, Penn said the tours will offer a genealogical component, with trained Polish genealogists on hand to help participants retrace the steps of their forebears.
Working with distinguished Polish educators and historians, Taube and Penn tried to make sure they did not launch a glorified travel agency. Rather, Penn said, “We look at this as a much-needed educational resource and a new kind of cultural tour experience.”
Early converts to the importance of such tours include Skip and Linda Law, a South Bay Jewish couple that traveled to Poland in 2005 on a Taube-organized trip.
It was “a profound experience,” said Linda Law. She said highlights included “Theodore Bikel singing in the 900-year-old temple, conversations with participants, small group discussions — especially with Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich.” The trip “gave me a deeper understanding of and connection to Judaism.”
That’s exactly the type of reaction Taube hope others will experience on a Poland Jewish Heritage Tour.
“It’s very negative to have a disconnect in history that stops in 1945,” Taube said. “So we’ve been working on putting back the pieces.”
For more information on Poland Jewish Heritage Tours, call (800) 355-9994 or visit www.PolandJewishHeritageTours.com