It’s been nearly a quarter century since the fall of Communism, which began with the Revolution of 1989 in Poland. The crumbling of the Soviet Union gave those who did not fit into Poland’s homogenous population permission to finally reemerge and rediscover their heritage.
But the change was not immediate, and it has taken the last 25 years to see a significant transformation that arguably could not have been possible without, at least for Poland’s Jews, the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
The JDC works in more than 70 countries and in Israel to alleviate hunger and hardship, rescue Jews in danger, create connections to Jewish life, and provide immediate relief and long-term development support for victims of natural and man-made disasters. The JDC’s work in Poland over the last 20 plus years has been especially significant. In places like Warsaw and Western Poland (which, prior to 1945, was a part of Germany), the efforts of the JDC have been focused on revitalization by developing the community infrastructure, leadership, and educational resources necessary to ensure a Jewish future.
Since the democratic opening of the region, pilgrimages to Poland have mostly centered on connecting with the sadder part of Jewish history in places like Warsaw and the Auschwitz concentration camp.
“They really come for Jewish death, not Jewish life,” said Karina Sokolowska, the JDC’s Poland country manager, who visited Seattle earlier this week.
Karina has been working with the JDC for the last 20 years and has seen the changes both in the organization and her home country as progress has rapidly been made in conjunction with the now thriving Jewish communities in Poland. “I have definitely lived and led the transition,” said Sokolowska.
Sokolowska draws a direct correlation between what she calls a “natural link between people who are interested in the genealogical side of the Jewish story and Poland and Polish-Jewish history,” she told JTNews. “I think what really brings their interest now is the Jewish renewal in Poland.”
Given how Poland’s Jewish population, at one time one of the largest in the world, was decimated during the Holocaust, the country “is not really seen as any kind of a place for the Jewish community to be thriving,” Sokolowska said, “and that’s exactly what it is, from my point of view, and this is the story that I’m sharing.”
Sokolowska’s job is not only to put forth efforts toward the revitalization of the Jewish communities in Poland, but she also shares that narrative with other Jewish communities around the world. Her Seattle visit included audiences with the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and the Jewish Genealogical Society of Washington State.
“Most American Jews — and this is certainly the case in Seattle — came from Eastern European roots, which include territories that are Poland today and former Poland that grandparents and great-grandparents emigrated from,” said Michael Novick,the JDC’s executive director of strategic development.
Sokolowska focuses much of her attention, both while in Poland and when she visits the States, on sharing the present and future of Polish-Jewish life, rather than delving too deeply into the past.
“We’re trying to not get involved in teaching Holocaust,” said Sokolowska. “But it’s unavoidable. For us, it’s figuring out a way to deal with it. It’s very hard.”
With the JCC Warsaw having just opened its doors in October and turnouts of nearly 1,000 Jewish Poles at the Limud Keszet education conference outside of Warsaw in late November, it’s becoming apparent that Poland’s Jewish identity is resurfacing and a resurgence is slowly but surely occurring.
“For three years running, Limmud Keszet Poland has been the largest gathering of Polish Jews in the country since the late 1960s,” according to the JDC. Having just run its sixth program, Limmud drew Polish Jews who ran the gamut of Jewish identification and demographic backgrounds for a weekend of learning and entertainment.
The goal of the JDC’s efforts in Poland is twofold, according to Sokolowska: First, it wants to be able to create an opportunity for people to be Jewish in Poland, whatever that may mean.
“I want my kids to be able to have a Jewish identification that I was not able to have,” said Sokoloska, who grew up under Communism.
Second, though this may still be years down the road, the Polish-Jewish community hopes to be self-sustaining and less reliant on the efforts of the JDC to coax those who may still live in fear or ignorance of their Jewish heritage. The change has certainly been extraordinary in a place where, “quite honestly, I could not have imagined 20 years ago it happening,” Novick said.