On solemn anniversary, Jewish life quietly goes on

Letter From Poland by Anthea Gerrie


In a land dependent on its Jews for more than 1,000 years, I am finding it tricky to locate one.

Monuments to a lost community abound, chiselled in Yiddish and Hebrew as well as Polish. Meanwhile herring and pickled cucumber are available in every restaurant. But try to get comment from a member of the tribe and you're up against a brick wall.

It should not be a surprise, of course. It has been 78 years since Germany invaded Poland — the first troops rolled in on September 1 and this is a solemn anniversary — and within six years 90 per cent of the largest Jewish community in Europe, some three million people, had been extinguished. Post-war Polish pogroms prompted most survivors who had not already emigrated to leave. Others assimilated, renouncing religious affiliation in the Communist era.

Yet against overwhelming odds, Jewish life survived. There are synagogues, mikvehs and cheders serving a practising community that some believe may be as large as 100,000 people in cities including Warsaw, Lodz, Cracow and Lublin.

But where are they? Warsaw's Polin Museum, which tells the history of a millennium of Jews in Poland, is my first port of call. However officials tell me the Holocaust survivors they know don't feel up to talking, while other community figures are on holiday.

The few staff I feel able to approach rule themselves out, like Gosia, who explains:  "I consider myself Polish — of Jewish origin, yes, but with no connection to the community."

I move on to Lodz, the city from which my own family emigrated to London and Paris at the turn of the 20th century, using their scrapings from the textile boom to seek a new life. But even here the Jew in a yarmulke I spot outside the former factory of Israel Poznanski, now a fancy boutique hotel, also cannot help. "I'm American," he says. "Though my father-in-law still lives here, he'll be at shul till Shabbes is out, and back there dovening first thing tomorrow."

There's the clear impression that the current Lodz community is religious and somewhat isolated. "I didn't feel I could approach anyone to teach me conversational Yiddish," says Iza, a non-Jew studying the language for a PhD.

"There is a huge revival of interest in the language, and the Warsaw Foundation gives classes so people can read the great literature of writers who have not yet been translated into Polish."

Finally I do find my Jew, at the kosher shop beneath the Nozyk Synagogue used by the Nazis as a wartime stable, but now the hub of today's Orthodox life. (The larger progressive community worships at a new shul, Beit Warszawa.)

"It's not a problem being Jewish anymore," says Jerzy Lipka, whose meat supplies are frozen, as a shochet is brought in only a few times a year, as is the mohel, who may come from as far away as Budapest to perform a Brit.

By "anymore", Lipka is talking of the relatively recent calm coinciding with a revived interest in Jewish culture. Warsaw still puts on Yiddish theatre and publishes a Jewish newspaper, despite the inherent resentment of Jews across the country that dogged the community ever since they arrived in the 10th century.

Perhaps Poland it is still not quite the paradise Jews considered this land during the golden age of the 16th century, but Lipka is relieved for small improvements. "It's no longer fashionable to be antisemitic," he says.

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