I recently returned from a jam-packed 10-day trip to Poland as a guest of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture, on whose advisory board I am honored to serve. The trip was more than I was prepared for in so many ways, and I’ll be processing the experience for weeks and months to come.
Trying to capture the “essence” of how I feel is not easy, but overall the trip left me feeling more inspired about Jewish life today than ever. Strangely, spending time in a place that many think of as the biggest Jewish cemetery in the world intensified my appreciation of Jewish life and community today.
Poland was once home to the largest Jewish population in the world. Today there are small communities in Warsaw, Krakow, Lodz and a few other places, led by dynamic young people who are remaking Jewish life with the same level of passion and innovation we see here in the Bay Area.
Poland has a deep history of anti-Semitism, much of it encouraged by historic Catholic Church doctrine, and for centuries Jews — particularly those in the upper echelons — converted in large numbers, though many maintained some level of Jewish tradition and ritual.
Every day more young Poles uncover Jewish roots. We met one young woman who learned of her Jewish background just before college; as a child, she thought every family had matzah ball soup for Christmas dinner just like her grandmother served.
One night in Krakow I walked to a community Shabbat dinner for 650 people with the charismatic chair of the Institute of Jewish Studies at Jagiellonian University. Founded in 1364 (more than 300 years before Harvard), Jagiellonian is one of the oldest surviving universities in the world. Today more than 120 students major in Jewish studies at Jagiellonian, only three of whom self-identify as Jewish.
We heard stories often of the interest among Poles in Jewish history and culture. In Warsaw I visited the owner of a trendy contemporary art gallery who I had met earlier this year at the Frieze Fair in New York. She noticed I was carrying my Taube Jewish Heritage Tours tote bag and mentioned she was studying Yiddish and Hebrew — for fun.
In Krakow we attended the 27th annual Jewish Culture Festival. While I had heard for years about this series of concerts, films, lectures, etc. — which drew thousands of non-Jewish Poles each year — I was a bit dubious. Yet each night, in packed concerts held in the gorgeous Tempel Synagogue, and amid thousands on the streets in the old Jewish quarter for the finale, I was dazzled by brilliant world music and enthusiastic young audiences.
It finally dawned on me, as I recalled my own background as an East Asian studies major at Columbia. I studied Chinese for years; read great literature from China and Japan; lived in Hong Kong for six years; and still appreciate every type of cuisine from China and other East Asian lands.
So what’s strange about non-Jews finding beauty in Jewish history, culture, literature and language?
In the end, I landed on a deep sense of pride in my Jewish heritage, history, culture and practices in the most unlikely place: Poland.
In Warsaw I found the greatest evidence of the richness of prewar Jewish life in the strangest of places: the Jewish cemetery. For reasons not known, the Nazis did not touch the cemetery, which is just outside the boundaries of the ghetto. The more than 250,000 monuments and gravesites are magnificent. Many were carved by important artists, and stately trees have now grown tall on the 80-plus acres.
Truthfully, I had not been looking forward to visiting the cemetery, and was concerned that we were scheduled to spend nearly two hours there. Once I relaxed and took in the scale and beauty of the place, I finally felt a tangible sense of the centuries of Jewish life in Warsaw: the artists, scholars, actors and musicians, businesspeople and philanthropists who were the fabric of a vibrant urban community.
In Oswiecim, the town that the Germans renamed Auschwitz, there is a lovely café and cultural center in the building that previously housed the last Jewish resident of the town, who died in 2000. The facility is run by a charismatic young man who is dedicated to preserving the town’s prewar Jewish history. We stopped in after a physically and emotionally exhausting day visiting the nearby Birkenau and Auschwitz camps.
Like other Jewish community spaces we visited in Warsaw, Lodz and Krakow, this was a safe place that encouraged sharing and dialogue. It was a place that respected and celebrated the Jewish tradition of learning and of constantly questioning.