Two weeks ago I returned from an arduous yet fulfilling journey to Poland, sponsored by National Ramah. It has been on my mind for many years, as a Jew living today in the post Holocaust era and as a Jewish educator, to see the European Jewish communities that were destroyed by the atrocities of World War II and to witness the resurgence of Jewish life in Europe today. The trip was powerful; it was emotional; it was impactful.
The trip was very intense. Our arrival in Warsaw was immediately followed by a tour of the old Jewish cemetery where many famous Jews and many other Jews are buried. The cemetery itself is a bit of a mess. What was most profound, for me, was watching a non-Jewish family cleaning up one of the areas surrounding a dismantled Jewish grave. When I asked them why they were cleaning the graves , they unabashedly responded by telling me “it is the right thing to do.”
Next on our itinerary, something I most dreaded, were three concentration camps. The entire group felt tremendous sadness, loss and grief. Gradually, we stepped away and transitioned into the current state of Polish Jewish communities with a first stop at the Great Synagogue in Warsaw. Its rabbi, the chief rabbi of Poland, was ordained at JTS and has Ramah Berkshires connections . He spent time with us after Shacharit on the second day of the trip. He told us that almost on a daily basis there are people who come to him telling him that they think that they are Jewish. They reveal stories of grandparents occasionally spouting Yiddish phrases, not knowing the meaning. One person even recalled eating specially prepared foods every year that uncannily corresponded to a Jewish holiday.
We moved on to visit the JCC in Krakow. It is a beautiful and new space serving the young and the old. Many of their members might not be considered to be Jewish by our standards but are now discovering Judaism and their Jewish roots for the first time. Amazing! Incidentally, the JCC in Krakow boasts of its 50 non-Jewish volunteers.
I learned that the Polish government and donors from around the world recently enabled the opening of the new great museum in Warsaw celebrating almost 1,000 years of Jewish life in Poland.
This month we will be celebrating Hanukkah. It is a holiday that commemorates our victory over evil but also reminds us of the tragedy that befell the Jews. It is a time of optimism and joy. I cannot help but think that though we must always remember the horrific actions taken against our people during the Holocaust, it is encouraging to see the rejuvenation of Jewish life in Poland and to understand that people are connecting for the first time with their heritage.
As we celebrate Hanukkah this year I will remember my trip to Poland and recall the dark past and pray for a bright future.