Jews in Poland fight to keep the past alive | Europe | News and events from across the continent | DW
The small piece of wall seems somehow lost in the middle of the part of town that AirBnB owners present as Warsaw‘s Old Town. You have to approach to see the inscription “Ghetto Wall 1943”. Behind this wall was an area of about 400 hectares (988 acres), housing some 500,000 Jews who were locked up by the Nazis in 1940.
After three years, on April 19, 1943, hundreds of survivors rose up against the Germans when they entered the ghetto to carry out the last wave of deportations. The Jews knew they couldn’t win. They were too few in number, too tired, and they were not properly armed. But the uprising was an expression of freedom.
Today, a red Coca-Cola advertisement adjoins the old ghetto wall. In the distance you can see gray precast concrete buildings and a church. Several monuments recall the dramatic events that took place here 75 years ago.
“I don’t know exactly where the ghetto was, somewhere over there,” said a local, pointing to the south. It is difficult to see where exactly the borders of the ghetto were. It was demolished under German occupation; later, the architecture of the Communist era changed the entire cityscape.
Read more: 75 years later: the Warsaw ghetto uprising in cinema
This piece of wall is a small remnant of the Warsaw ghetto
The girl with the earring
But a small group of Warsaw residents are trying to keep history alive and revive the cultural heritage of Jews in Poland. One Friday evening in April, a young woman with a kippah sings Hasidic songs. She heads the service for the community “Beit Warszawa”, in a residential building on the outskirts of Warsaw. Founded in 1999, the group has many young people among its members. “Before the war there were a lot of progressive communities in Poland, but today we are practically the only ones,” said an older man.
It could well be New York or London, where a more emancipated form of Judaism dares to organize such unorthodox services. Most of the people present at the service in Warsaw did not grow up Jewish and do not know much about their Jewish past.
“Everyone here is learning, it’s about learning by doing,” said Anna, one of the community leaders. Before she was 12, she knew nothing about her grandmother’s Jewish origins. Then one day she found an earring with a menorah in her basement. His grandmother reacted angrily when she saw him and threw the earring out the window. Anna went to find it, however – she still has it today. When she carefully asked questions about what had happened to her family in the past, she only received bits and pieces of information. Then her grandmother passed away and, like so many young Poles, Anna found herself with a mystery.
Read more: Echoes of the 1968 anti-Semitic campaign haunt Poland 50 years later
Three years ago, Anna converted to Judaism. She says that many people in the “Beit Warszawa” community and across Poland are uncertain whether they are Jews. “They have a feeling but there is no way for them to know for sure. That is why Judaism is about making a decision and then practicing the faith,” said Anna.
Many visitors to “Beit Warszawa” would like to learn more about the culture that has been lost in Poland. A man says he often goes out out of interest. He wears a kippah and holds the glass during the wine blessing. He has no Jewish roots and does not intend to convert to Judaism.
In many ways, “Beit Warszawa” is a heirloom from the 1990s in Poland. During this time, thousands of Poles began to research their origins and convert to Judaism. Many liberal-minded people of non-Jewish origin have supported the idea of resuscitating a culture that has hundreds of years of history in Poland. A century ago, some 3 million Jews lived in Poland – more than in any other European country.
When communism collapsed in 1989, interest in this cultural heritage increased, especially among young liberal Poles. The Orthodox Jewish community did not attract a large number of people, so a group of friends founded a more progressive community. Over the years he built Jewish schools and a sports club. There are also a number of international Jewish organizations active in Poland. A small, diverse Jewish community has established itself. Today, it has 7,000 members. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 people of Jewish origin live in Poland today, although there are no precise figures.
Controversial commemoration policies
But the new interest in Judaism in the 1990s did not really resonate with the Polish government. The first uncomfortable debates on anti-Semitism were sparked by Polish intellectuals, with little public understanding. In 2015, the mood changed with the election of the Law and Justice party, or PiS. Nationalist conservatives have made the politics of remembrance – the Holocaust included – a priority, but in a way that many perceive as dangerous. Recently, the government passed a law that provides for prison terms for anyone accusing Poland or the Polish people of the Holocaust.
The Jewish community in Poland is worried. “It is no longer about Polish citizens, but about Jews and the good Poles who saved them,” said a member of the progressive Jewish community in Warsaw. The government is now planning a new museum to commemorate “the love between these two peoples,” according to a government spokesperson.
But the debate now being pushed by the government has greatly worsened the mood among members and friends of the Jewish community, a man said as the Shabbat meal in “Beit Warszawa” drew to a close.
He says he is preparing for things to get even worse, but adds that Poland is his home and he has no plans to leave.
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