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Last Updated: Monday, 7 February, 2005, 16:52 GMT
Poles rediscover Jewish heritage
By Adam Easton
BBC correspondent in Warsaw

Tomasz Sierkierski (right) inspects graves
Tomasz Sierkierski (right) helps clean up grave sites
Medieval Krakow is the spiritual home of Poland's Jewish revival.

Today the city is home to only a tiny number of Jews, but it is rich in historical relics, including six synagogues and two Jewish cemeteries.

It also hosts an increasingly popular Jewish culture festival every year.

In the former Jewish quarter in Szeroka Street, there is a row of Jewish-style hotels and restaurants. Tourists come here to listen to the klezmer music and eat fine Jewish-style cuisine.

Joachim Russek is a non-Jewish Pole who devotes much of his time to promoting Jewish culture in Krakow.

He is the director of the nearby Judaica centre.

"It has been for the last almost 20 years an unbelievable adventure," he says over a beer in the Klezmer Hois restaurant.

"I rediscovered something I should have known about in secondary school. Half of my life I knew much more about American Indians than I did about Polish Jews."

Culture classes

Before World War II the restaurant was a mikvah, a Jewish bathing house. The square outside was full of the sounds and smells of Jewish market traders.

But the war almost completely extinguished Poland's rich Jewish life. Ninety percent of the country's 3.5m Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.

I think that most of the non-Jewish Poles interested in things Jewish are doing it out of a sense of responsibility for what used to be a shared heritage
Konstanty Gebert,
publisher

Afterwards, the country's Jewish past became a taboo subject under an imposed communist regime which tried to legitimise itself through nationalist sentiments.

Helping to break that taboo is Krakow's recently opened Galicia Jewish Museum, run by British photojournalist Chris Schwarz. At the moment, it is showing an exhibition of Chris's photos of local Jewish sites.

But it aso promotes Jewish culture in other ways too, Chris says.

"Everything from celebrating the main Jewish holidays and festivals: we do lectures, we do film shows. We also do classes, we've got Yiddish and Hebrew classes here as well."

The class is taught by a Polish woman and the students are young Poles. I asked the students why they were learning Hebrew.

"I'm very interested in Arabic culture and Jewish culture and that's why I'm studying Hebrew and Arabic," says one young woman.

"I've been studying Arabic at the university for three months now and these languages are very similar and I like them very much. This melody, culture and history."

Another student says: "I was in Israel for five years... I want to go back to Israel."

Catholic guilt?

In a forest beside the small town of Skarszewy, not far from Gdansk on Poland's Baltic coast, there is an abandoned Jewish graveyard. Dotted among the pine trees are dozens of gravestones.

Many are broken, some are still lying among the leaves. Just over six months ago this place looked like a rubbish dump.

Last summer, Tomasz Sierkierski, a 30-year-old computer programmer, got a group of teenagers from his old school to come and clean up the place.

"This area is our history. It's not only Jewish or only Polish history in this area," he says.

"I think we shouldn't forget about places like that. Before our project, nobody knew that such a place existed. But now we can find stones on the graves, we can find candles."

With all this enthusiasm about reviving Poland's Jewish heritage, is it motivated at least in part by some element of guilt?

After all, many of the Nazi death camps were located in Poland. Poles were witnesses to the Holocaust. Could there even be a Catholic wish for atonement behind it all?

Jewish cemetery in Skarszewy, near Gdansk
Around 25,000 Jews and people of Jewish descent live in Poland

Konstanty Gebert is a Polish Jew who publishes a monthly magazine on Jewish affairs. "I don't think guilt plays a major role. The camps were located here because that's where the Jews were," he says.

"Hitler couldn't care less what Poles thought one way or the other. I think that most of the non-Jewish Poles interested in things Jewish are doing it out of a sense of responsibility for what used to be a shared heritage and was denied or rejected during the communist period after World War II.

"And although guilt might play a role, it is guilt about the silence, not about the acts. After all, the Poles were victims of the Nazis just as they were powerless spectators to the Nazi Shoah."

Future

Recently in central Warsaw they celebrated the Jewish festival of Hanukkah by lighting a three-metre tall menorah, a nine-branch Jewish candlestick.

The ceremony is a visible symbol of the changes in Polish-Jewish relations in recent years, says Michael Schudrich, Poland's chief Rabbi.

"Polish-Jewish relations were put in the freezer for 50 years," he says.

"The fact that the preservation of Jewish culture is also in the hands of non-Jews here in Poland is a sign of the fact of how close the Nazis came to wiping out the Jewish people. We are grateful that we have our Polish non-Jewish friends who want to help us preserve our tradition and our culture and history here in Poland."

Poland will probably never again be home to a large and prosperous Jewish community. Today, there are around 25,000 Jews and people of Jewish descent living here.

But more and more non-Jewish Poles are interested in their country's rich Jewish past. And now they know about it, they are determined not to let it disappear, either.


SEE ALSO:
Warsaw Jews mark uprising
20 Apr 03 |  Europe
Country profile: Poland
19 Oct 04 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Poland
24 Jun 04 |  Country profiles


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