Navigate to Community section

Poland’s Real Jewish Revival

Their parents and grandparents hid their Jewishness, but now some Poles are converting back to Judaism

Denise Grollmus
November 26, 2012
Photoillustration IvyTashlik; original photo Shutterstock
Photoillustration IvyTashlik; original photo Shutterstock
Photoillustration IvyTashlik; original photo Shutterstock
Photoillustration IvyTashlik; original photo Shutterstock

On a recent Tuesday night in Warsaw, more than 30 people gathered around Rabbi Gil Nativ for the second weekly session of “Judaism Step by Step,” a yearlong course offered by Beit Warszawa, one of the city’s two Reform congregations. The group included homemakers, students, lawyers, and retirees, ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s. Some men wore kippahs; some women donned Star of David pendants on their necklaces. A few spoke English, but many did not, so the Israeli-born Nativ, who gave his talk in English, was accompanied by a Polish translator.

As everyone settled into a haphazard circle, Nativ carefully reminded the group that this was a class for anyone interested in learning more about Jewish life and culture. It was not a conversion class, he asserted—before segueing into a history of Jewish conversion.

It was a hot topic among the group, disclaimers aside. After all, among those attending that night were nine students—coincidentally, all women—from the previous cycle of “Judaism Step by Step,” eight of whom would soon be leaving for Krakow, where they would sit before a beit din, submerge themselves in the country’s only mikveh, and formally become Jews. While one of those women was planning to convert because she’s marrying a Jewish man, most of them, only coincidentally all women, were part of a current trend in Poland, where people are rediscovering their hidden Jewish roots and converting back to the religion of their parents and grandparents, who often kept their Jewishness a secret for fear of postwar anti-Semitism.

Jonathan Ornstein, executive director of Krakow’s Jewish Community Center, refers to this trend as Poland’s “Jewish Jewish revival,” where people are embracing the religion cast off or hidden by their ancestors. “You are talking about a community that was frozen. It went underground,” Ornstein said. “And now it’s reemerging.“

Nativ agrees, and his course plays a key role, not only in educating non-Jewish Poles about Judaism, but also in helping Jews reconnect with their lost heritage. “We are a small people, and we have not recuperated from the Holocaust,” Nativ told me in an interview. “There are less Jews in the world today than there were in December 1939, so we should welcome everyone who comes and says, ‘I want to join the Jewish people.’ ”

At Nativ’s “Judaism Step by Step” session, the women who were preparing for conversion took the floor and told their personal stories about their journeys back to Judaism. Among them was Sylwia Kędzierska, a sophisticated, fast-talking 34-year-old attorney whose story echoed those of most seated under the fluorescent lights of the conference room at the Austrian Culture Center, located next door to the old Warsaw Ghetto buildings on Próżna Street. “This has been a dream of mine since I was 5 years old,” Kędzierska said.

Like many Polish Jews who remained in Poland after the war, Kędzierska’s paternal grandfather abandoned his Jewishness for secular atheism, keeping his Jewish identity a secret in favor of the utopian dreams offered by Communism, under which many Polish Jews hoped they would find equality with their non-Jewish comrades. Neither her grandparents nor her father spoke of their family’s Jewish heritage.

Kędzierska’s situation was not unusual, according to Paweł Śpiewak, director of the Jewish Historical Institute, as well as a sociology professor at the University of Warsaw who recently published Żydokomuna, a book whose title is an old Polish slur meaning “Judeo-Communist.” He told me, “I think that most of us, 80 or 90 percent, were born in Communist families, leftist, atheist, even Catholic families.” The son of Holocaust survivors, Śpiewak acutely understands the fear under which Jews lived in Poland after World War II. As a child, Śpiewak observed his father obsessively compose poems about survivor’s guilt, while he also watched friends and relatives leave in droves during the Communist expulsion of Jews in 1968. “For me, Jewishness meant only fear,” he said. “After the war, those who stayed in Poland were often people who worked for the state, the Polish intelligentsia who felt an obligation to stay, or people who simply didn’t want to leave their home. They felt they could survive in Poland only if they could conceal their past, so they changed names, they changed their family documents, baptized themselves. The anti-Semitism of the late ‘40s, it was a very real experience, not just a slogan. People had reasons to really be afraid.”

Over naleśniki and tea at Café Prożna, an intimate noshery located in the old Warsaw Ghetto buildings, Kędzierska told me after the “Step by Step” session that, despite her family’s silence, she had the sense that she was Jewish from a very young age. She was raised in Muranow, the prewar Jewish area of Warsaw, and she remembered her father taking her to the Nozyk Synagogue when it was first refurbished in 1983. “Ninety percent of my parents’ friends were Jewish, and my father makes the best gefilte fish you’ve ever tasted,” she said. “Still, we never talked about our own family history. It was a strict don’t ask, don’t tell policy.”

It wasn’t until Kędzierska was 15 that her suspicions were confirmed, when her grandmother gave her a copy of the memoir written by her grandfather, who had died when Kędzierska was 5. That’s when she discovered that her great-grandmother had been one of the few to survive Treblinka and that her grandparents had met in a Communist group whose membership was largely Jewish. “It all came together,” Kędzierska told me. “I was finally vindicated, you know? I had always felt so alienated from my school friends, who were all Catholic, and I always identified more with my father’s family.”

Soon after discovering the truth, Kędzierska did her best to start practicing Judaism. In 1991, she bought herself a Haggadah, started to “kosherize” her meat—which for her meant salting her mother’s roasts—and began observing the High Holidays. She read every book on Jewish life and culture she could find. Still, because her mother wasn’t Jewish, Kędzierska worried that she’d never be accepted into the Jewish community. “The most difficult thing for me was, I was afraid of Jewish people not recognizing me,” she said. “But when I thought more about becoming properly Jewish, I knew it would feel like a homecoming, not like I was changing faith, because I never had another faith. Plus, I wanted to choose, because you can choose your identity. And I wanted to choose full Jewishness. Not half, not this or that. But I wanted to completely embrace my identity.”

Kędzierska made her first attempt at conversion in the mid-’90s. She wrote a letter to Rabbi Pinchas Menachem Joskowicz, who was then the Chief Rabbi of Poland and head of Warsaw’s Nozyk Synagogue. She told him her story and asked how she could begin the conversion process. Joskowicz never responded; Kędzierska can’t be sure he ever got her note, but regardless, she began to lose hope.

“The Nozyk Synagogue was only accepting people born into Jewish families,“ Śpiewak said. “You had to be willing to be fully Orthodox, which was not an option for most of those of Jewish heritage in Poland, many of whom were part of the intelligentsia, who had complicated biographies.

When Ornstein moved to Poland from Israel in 2001 and then helped open Krakow’s JCC in 2008, people were already talking about a Jewish renaissance in Poland; it was largely a movement carried by non-Jews who wanted to celebrate and preserve Poland’s rich history of Jewish life and culture. Quickly, however, Ornstein started meeting more and more Poles of Jewish origin, people like Kędzierska who wanted to return to their ancestral faith without becoming Orthodox. “The first stage was the non-Jewish interest, but, now, we’re in the second stage,” he said, where people with Jewish backgrounds rediscover their own heritage. “It’s fantastic, because regenerating Jewish communities in Europe has, for the most part, not been a positive experience, but ours is. Poland is the only country in the world where it’s safer, easier, and more accepted to be Jewish every single day.”

Exactly how to reabsorb these crypto-Jews back into the greater Jewish community, however, has been a huge source of puzzlement for religious leaders like Nativ. Because so many Poles of Jewish origin were raised without any Jewish education, were often baptized Catholic, and, in many cases, are not halakhically Jewish in the Orthodox sense, conversion has become, for even the most liberal rabbis, a crucial part of the rebuilding process.

While Ornstein acknowledges that conversion is a divisive and touchy subject within the Jewish world, he points out that the situation for many of those converting in Poland is unique. He’s careful to clarify that the goal of places like the JCC Krakow is not to convert non-Jews, but to give Poles of Jewish origin a place to be Jewish. “Jewish life is starting to become normal. It’s no longer novelty, but something real and everyday. Now we’re focused on building the normal Jewish institutions one needs to sustain such a community. And this is a process that takes time. But, even in five years, the change is unbelievable.”

When he was first asked to come to Poland, Nativ was skeptical that any Jewish life existed here. He and his wife Ziva only arrived in Warsaw in August, and immediately they were pleasantly surprised. “I thought there really was nothing here, but there is an interest,” he said. “There is a fire here, and all the people converting and getting interested in Jewish life is also exciting, because it is different from what we always experienced inside or around an established Jewish community. This is starting from, in one way, scratch, which is truly incredible.”

But how to start from scratch has been bewildering for everyone, from the country’s most Orthodox rabbis to Nativ, who was ordained at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and has served both Reform and Conservative congregations all over the world for more than 30 years. Because almost 90 percent of Polish Jews living in Poland were not raised Jewish, Nativ believes that conversion is required even for those who are halakhically Jewish. “Throughout their childhood, if they got no Jewish education whatsoever, and especially if they got a Catholic education, then the fact that the mother was formally Jewish means very little,” he said. “If you’ve had no Jewish upbringing, which many here don’t, then you need the conversion process to solidify your Jewish identity.”

For Kędzierska, converting finally became a real option in July 2011, when Beit Warszawa offered the “Judaism Step by Step” course for the first time. For the past year, she’s spent every Tuesday night learning how to read ancient Hebrew, bake Passover cakes and challah, light Shabbat candles, and sing Jewish songs. She’s also offered her services as a translator for the revolving door of rabbis, none of whom have been Polish, at Beit Warszawa, which first opened in 1995 and now boasts a membership of more than 250 people, according to Marta Pilarska, the synagogue’s administrative assistant. “When I first started lighting Shabbat candles 13 or 14 years ago, I felt like I was playing a role—like I was faking it,” Kędzierska said. “I always thought: Is this really mine? Now, it’s more and more mine. And every time I do it, I think of all the women in my family who lit those candles before me, and I feel that much more connected.”

Earlier this month, on Nov. 13, Kędzierska’s dreams finally came true. Unlike the other eight women from the first “Step by Step” cycle, Kędzierska decided not to go to Krakow for her conversion, but opted for Los Angeles instead, where she preferred to be converted by a Conservative beit din that included Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, the former rabbi of Beit Warszawa under whom Kędzierska did most of her studies. “It worked out,” she wrote me in an email, her euphoria absolutely palpable. “I’m now fully Jewish. Still can’t get over it, feels like a dream.”

Denise Grollmus is a writer and Fulbright scholar currently living in Warsaw.