In Other Words

Poland Rediscovers Judaism

Midrasz. Pismo Zydowskie (Midrash. A Jewish Magazine), May 2000, Warsaw In the early 1990s it was clear to Konstanty Gebert, then a political commentator at Poland’s major newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, that something very interesting and quite unforeseen was happening in his country. A half century earlier, the Nazis chose Poland, once the homeland of much ...

Midrasz. Pismo Zydowskie (Midrash. A Jewish Magazine), May 2000, Warsaw

In the early 1990s it was clear to Konstanty Gebert, then a political commentator at Poland’s major newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, that something very interesting and quite unforeseen was happening in his country.

A half century earlier, the Nazis chose Poland, once the homeland of much of European Jewry, as the place where Jewish history was to end. The few Jews who survived either left Poland after the war or were reduced to tentative, semiclandestine existences. Traditional Polish anti-Semitism continued, at least in some segments of Polish society, despite the fact that the Poles were the closest witnesses of the Holocaust. At the same time, Communist authorities either denied the existence of Jewish groups in Poland or tried to rouse anti-Jewish sentiment in order to sow division and mistrust within the society. The mood of quiescence and insecurity within the Polish-Jewish community lingered even after the fall of Communism.

But Gebert noticed things starting to change. Younger generations of Poles, Jewish and otherwise, began to show an interest in Jewish history and culture. And as it turned out, many people of Jewish origin were completely unaware of their heritage — either children of devoted Communists, carefully sheltered from ethnic and religious "superstitions," or children whose families perished in the Holocaust, and who were adopted by Christian (predominantly Catholic) households. Suddenly, there was a whole new group of people both intrigued and confused by their rediscovered roots.

In 1997, Gebert launched Midrasz. Pismo Zydowskie (Midrash. A Jewish Magazine) to provide these "reclaimed Jews" with some kind of orientation in the vast Jewish tradition, to convince them that "it is interesting to be a Jew." Part newspaper, part glossy magazine, part intellectual review, Midrasz tries to be as eclectic as its presumed readership. The May issue includes a broad discussion of Jewish eschatology and a column by Gebert about the controversy over the membership of Israel’s humanitarian organization, Red Star of David, in the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. (The federation still refuses to acknowledge the Red Star of David.)

Particularly interesting, though, is a historical section devoted to the largely unknown activities of Jewish organizations in Europe during the Nazi period. German historian Michael Kreutzer writes about the Herbert Baum Group, considered the largest Jewish resistance group in Hitler’s Germany. Herbert Baum, a Communist, believed he could consolidate the anti-Nazi underground and spark a civil war against Hitler. Those plans, says Kreutzer, proved tragically miscalculated. From the very beginning, Baum’s organization operated in almost total isolation from the rest of German society. Its only public action — an attempt to set fire to a Berlin propaganda exhibit in May 1942 — prompted brutal reprisals and the quick destruction of the movement.

Elsewhere, Albanian author Artan Puto talks about plans to resettle Jews from Germany, Poland, and Bohemia to Albania shortly after Hitler’s rise to power. Puto suggests that Zionists approached Albania in 1934 hoping to establish a kind of way station for European Jews immigrating to Palestine. The Albanians, in turn, saw an opportunity to gain access to Jewish capital. "Of course, Albania has no need for additional labor force, or clerical personnel," wrote the Albanian minister of economy to the League of Nations high commissioner for refugees, "but it appears that we can create some possibilities for people with capital, who are ready to invest in agriculture, industry, or other branches of the economy." Puto believes that the plans were finally canceled because of opposition from the Italians, who controlled Albania’s foreign policy and were weary of Tirana’s increasingly direct contacts with foreign governments and international institutions.

Gebert’s magazine, which sells about 2,000 copies per issue (half of them to non-Jews), is part of a broad renaissance in Polish-Jewish culture. Today in Poland, there are several Jewish kindergartens and two Jewish schools, a Jewish book fair, and a well-attended annual festival of Jewish culture in Kraków. Still, according to official data, only 6,000 people in Poland belong to various Jewish organizations. Gebert believes that at least 14,000 more identify themselves as Jews, but even that is a tragically small number compared with the approximately 3 million before World War II.

For Gebert and his colleagues from Midrasz, however, Jewish identity in today’s Poland "is not a noun but a verb." It is about becoming, exploring, and seeking new definitions in the new era. It is a long-term project, of which the magazine wants to be both a chronicler and a catalyst.

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