A Life Among Ghosts

The Polish village of Parysów (Porisov in Yiddish) is not a large dot on the map of the increasingly popular Jewish heritage tours to Poland. Those with a good sense of Chassidic history, however, will probably associate the name with “the Porisover,” Reb Yeshaya Asher Rabinowitz, zy”a, a son of the Yid Hakadosh, who went on to gain a reputation as a hallowed Rebbe in his own right. Still, the small village, to this day very much physically reminiscent of an old world shtetl, does not attract the crowds you’ll find in Lizhensk, Dinov, Sanz, Radoshitz and many other places associated with better-known tzaddikim of times past.

Avrohom Pinchos Berkowitz points to a matzeivah in the wall of a barn in Porisov.

Yet a brief and well-guided visit to Porisov, about an hour south of Warsaw, tells a great deal about the inescapable imprint of centuries of flourishing Jewish life that remains in modern-day Poland — more than 75 years after the near-complete extermination and banishment of Jewry from within its borders.

A mid-sized nondescript building on a narrow street serves as the town’s library and leaves no obvious clue that, for more than two centuries, it was Porisov’s shul. Two librarians who are on hand on a quiet afternoon, though speaking no English, warmly welcomed a group of about a dozen Jewish visitors from America and, through an interpreter, expressed what seemed to be sincere regret that they know so little of the structure’s past.

A few minutes away stands a street of small, rural houses. In the backyard of one of them, a farm dog scampers around a small stone barn occupied by two chickens. Yet, the quaintness of the scene is quickly muted by the sight of Hebrew letters speckling the barn walls, an unmistakable sign that the structure was largely constructed using matzeivos taken from Porisov’s Jewish cemetery. Apparently, even the bricks that hold the building together were taken from the wall that once surrounded the town’s Jewish graves.

The phenomenon is hardly an uncommon one in a country whose Jewish community of millions suddenly and violently vanished, leaving behind many useful remnants of its centuries of existence in the land.

Within minutes of the Jewish group’s visit to view the remains of the ravaged cemetery, the barn’s owner emerges. A nephew of the man who helped himself to what he felt the town’s mostly murdered Jews would no longer need, the fellow, in his 70s, is every bit the image of the husky, toothless, red-faced peasant that, in most Jewish minds, exists only in tales of a time long gone by. The farmer barks at some members of the group in Polish, makes a seemingly creepy comment to a teenage girl who is on the trip, and through the interpreter asks for 100 zlotys for his hospitality. He gets 20 and the group shuffles back to their bus.

For many Jews, even a brief visit to Poland is an emotional roller coaster. To approach the kevarim of the many tzaddikim left there with forethought and trepidation leaves one with a sense of spiritual elevation that does not wear off quickly.

The remnant of the relatively few shuls, yeshivos, and other remnants of Jewish life remind the visitor of the land’s gloried Jewish past, when it was home to what was arguably the most dynamic settlement of European Jewry.

The path between the fences of barbed wire, the guard’s watchtower in background, in the Majdanek concentration camp, Lublin, Poland.

But the fact that so few of these remain speaks loudly as well. A trip to the sites of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, or one of several other Nazi concentration camps and death camps that dot the nation are the starkest reminders as to why that is.

For anyone with a basic understanding of Holocaust history, even a simple bus ride from one Polish town to another is not free of reminders of past horrors, as any quiet forest scene could well be the resting place of hundreds of Jews, and any railway track over 75 years old could have been used to carry tens or hundreds of thousands to their deaths.

Pushing aside the controversial issue of the level of Polish collaboration in Nazi genocide, a thinking Jewish visitor to Poland cannot escape the fact that he is in a land soaked with Jewish blood.

While the remnants of Polish Jewry and the traditions it represented rose — from the ashes — to rebuild and flourish in America, Eretz Yisrael, and other places around the globe, even after Nazi genocide and more than four decades of suffocation under Communist rule, the Jewish story has not ended in Poland, itself.

More and more Jews from abroad visit the vestiges of its gloried past, and, far more amazingly, the tiny remnant of Poland’s own Jewish community has endured and continues to write its own chapter in a long and tumultuous history.

At the same time, the Polish government’s frequent attempts to control Poland’s place in the Holocaust narrative and the reactions of Israeli and Jewish organizational voices to that effort, have, oddly, continued to closely tie international news coverage of Polish affairs to the Jewish present. It is one of several bizarre phenomena for a nation with an estimated population of only 4,500 Jews; one of several anomalies that still linger in the saga of Jewish Poland.

Forgotten Sentinels

Nożyk Synagogue in
Warsaw. (Pko)
Inowlodz synagogue has
been turned into a shop.

Though a smattering of Jews remain in dozens of Polish towns and cities, Warsaw forms its most vibrant community, offering an array of religious and cultural activities under Jewish auspices. Its Nożyk Synagogue is the only one of its hundreds of shuls to have survived the war. It was spared from demolition after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, since the German army was using the building as a stable for horses at the time. It now houses one of the city’s two daily minyan.

Piotr Lentowicz, who lives in Warsaw and works for the recently opened government-sponsored Warsaw Ghetto Museum, said the experience of davening in the cavernous shul symbolizes today’s Polish-Jewish experience.

“To be what remains of such a glorious part of Jewish history is a strange, overwhelming feeling,” he said. “We pray in Nożyk every day, but we are the only ones in the city, and we struggle to put together a minyan. The other reminders that are still here are mostly cemeteries; most of the rest has been destroyed. The world forgot about us, but to be the ones left here still feels like a huge responsibility.”

The post-Communist rebirth of Jewish life in Poland was largely initiated by the legendary Rabbi Chatzkel Besser, zt”l, who, together with philanthropist Ronald Lauder, began to establish its foundations in the early 1990s. Since that time, Rabbi Michael Schudrich has played a leading role in this effort, serving first as Rabbi of Warsaw and Lodz, and as the nation’s Chief Rabbi since 2004.

Focusing on the living as well as on preservation of cemeteries and many other sites of Jewish significance, Rabbi Schudrich says that while the ruins of Poland’s past are ever-present, they need not confine the lives of its present Jews.

“A Jew living here can’t help but be overwhelmed by 1,000 years of the glory of what Jews built in Poland. No matter what your Jewishness looks like, its roots likely began and flourished in Poland. We also can’t forget the horrors of the Holocaust and that the largest amount of its destruction happened here. We are overwhelmed by all of it, but we cannot be paralyzed by it,” he said. “It’s just not Jewish to give up, so no matter what Poland went through — the great and the horrible — we have to do what we can to keep Yiddishkeit alive for the Jews that remain here.”

In addition to the Holocaust and decades of Communist rule, other events came mightily close to completely extinguishing Poland’s Jewish presence. In 1946, a pogrom in the city of Kielce killed 46 people and convinced the vast majority of Jews who were considering restarting life in Poland to flee the country. In 1968, an “anti-Zionist” campaign led by the Communist party led to the departure of some 13,000 Jews out of what was then a population of 25,000 to 30,000.

“I reminisce a lot about the past and think about how my life here as a Jew would be different if certain things would not have happened,” said Max Jackl, a Warsaw native who studied at the Lauder-affiliated yeshivah in Berlin and Yeshivah University before returning to his hometown, where he is currently pursuing a degree in cognitive science. “It comes down to even very practical things. Even after the Holocaust, if 1968 wouldn’t have happened, I could have had a lot more Jewish friends here.”

In the face of challenges that marked Poland’s increasingly tortured relationship with the Jewish people and the deep-rooted anti-Semitic sentiments that they bespeak, most of the handful of Jews that chose to remain in Poland went to lengths to hide their Jewish identities — many not even telling their children that they were Jews.

Dr. Adam Ciszewski, who serves as director of Warsaw’s National Ethnographic Museum, said that he was unaware that he was Jewish until he was 20, when his mother informed him of that fact. He said that his story is far from uncommon, further complicating the experience of being a Jew in modern-day Poland.

“We all have a gap between our connections between the past and today,” he said. “I grew up not knowing about my Jewish identity, but as an adult when I started to learn about my Jewish ancestors, it began to beg the question of what it all means to me now.”

Rabbi Schudrich said that the fact that many Jews in Poland learned about their Jewishness late in life often overpowers their need to deal with their complex part in Poland’s Jewish narrative.

“Before dealing with the glory or the horrors is the discovery,” he said. “So many did not know that they were Jewish. Some may have known that they had Jewish roots, but with that, they still may not have even known what Yom Kippur is. So when a person realizes, ‘OK I’m also Jewish,’ they then have to decide what, if anything, that means to them. So the story of how they fit into the tale of the reemergence of Judaism in Poland pales against the personal experience of ‘Who am I?’”

The Belated Re-Discovery

Museum faces the Memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. (mamik/fotopolska.eu)

The reawakened interest in Poland’s Jewish past is not limited to Jews. Since the fall of Communism, a growing number of Polish gentiles have also sought to learn more about their country’s centuries of Jewish history. This interest has led to the development of Jewish studies programs at multiple universities, a plethora of new books, and most prominently the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which began operation in 2013 in Warsaw. Over the past few years, the state-of-the-art museum has received an average of 1,000 visitors per day.

Against this backdrop of formal endeavors, many individuals have embarked on private projects to preserve and perpetuate the abundant signs of Jewish heritage that remain in Poland.

Krzysztof Bielawski, a historical archivist by profession and photographer by hobby, began photographing and cataloging Jewish cemeteries in 2005. His website on the subject contains information on several hundred of them around the country.

“If you live in Poland, it’s hard to talk about history seriously without learning about the Jews. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but before the War there were many, many towns that were 40-60% Jewish,” said Mr. Bielawski. “It wasn’t something that we spoke about for many years under Communism. The little that existed were small collections of random Jewish items in old synagogues; it all had to do either with religion or the Shoah. If you learned anything about Jews in Poland, you walked away thinking that they were all like the pictures of old Jews with long peyos, and that they all died in the Holocaust and no longer exist.”

Mr. Bielawski’s work led him to author a book on the destruction of Jewish cemeteries in Poland. He says that based on records, more than half of the nation’s Jewish headstones have been removed from their gravesites.

“There is a myth in Poland that the cemeteries were all destroyed by the Germans. Now it is true that they destroyed some of the cemeteries, but many more were destroyed by the Communist government and by local people who took the stones for themselves,” he said.

Mr. Bielawski joined the aforementioned group on its trip to the barn in Porisov, and several items in his collection of photographs document how widespread the phenomenon is, referencing other locations where bridges, roads, and an array of buildings also bear the chiseled names and epitaphs of deceased Jews. A photo exhibit by photographer Łukasz Baksik titled “Matzevot for Everyday Use” toured Eastern Europe and was shown in the United States in 2016.

Attempts by non-Jewish Poles to study and teach about their country’s Jewish past take several forms.

In 1990, a group of seven people in Lublin began work on what would become the Grodzka Gate — NN Theatre Museum. This unique museum holds few traditional exhibit items, but its stark walls are lined with files — one for each of the 43,000 Jews who lived in Lublin before the Holocaust, nearly 35% of the city’s population. Located at the gate that was once the conduit between the Jewish and non-Jewish area of the city, by searching archival records, the team is slowly filling up more and more of the files — thousands of which still remain empty.

Witek Dabrowski, who serves as director of the Gordzka Gate, spoke passionately about the museum’s origins and mission during a private tour of the collection.

“Thirty years ago, like all Poles, we knew nothing about the Jewish city that was here — so we started to ask questions,” he said. “The entire Jewish section of the town was destroyed by the Nazis street by street; nothing remains. It only exists in our heart and in our minds; our job is to preserve the memory of the people that lived here.”

Piotr Kowalik serves as Chief Specialist in Jewish Studies and Methodology at the Polin Museum and is a member of Warsaw’s Jewish community. He said that the rising level of interest in Poland’s Jewish heritage among non-Jews comes from a more sophisticated understanding of the nation’s past.

“All over, you have non-Jews that volunteer to take care of a local cemetery or to open the kever of a tzaddik for visitors; academics write more about Jewish topics, and our museum’s success tells an even bigger part of the story,” he said. “More and more, Poles feel pride in their country’s Jewish heritage and they feel it is part of their heritage.”

The more things change…

Scene at Przeworsk Catholic cemetery.

While Polin’s popularity tells an undeniable story of broad interest in Poland’s Jewish past, it also provides a window into the complexity of dealing with that very matter in modern-day Poland.

In 2018, the museum featured an extensive exhibit on the anti-Zionist campaign of 1968. Its last section featured a room where anti-Semitic rhetoric of the time was shown alongside similar statements made in present-day Poland, culled from media and internet — some of it attributed to ultra-nationalist politicians and pundits.

This minor part of the exhibit proved controversial and drew a glare of disapproval from some leaders of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party toward Polin’s director, noted scholar Dariuz Stola — who himself is not Jewish. After a sustained campaign against Dr. Stola waged by some influential members and supporters of the populist nationalist party, despite his popularity with patrons and museum staff, his contract was allowed to expire. While the matter remains in limbo, most are skeptical that the government’s Minister of Culture, Piotr Gliński, will give his required approval to return Dr. Stola to his post.

This is one of many issues that have drawn the ire of many in world Jewry toward PiS. In 2018, controversy erupted over Poland’s National Memory Law, which threatened jail time and fines for blaming the nation of Poland for Nazi genocide. More recently, in what was seen as an effort to shore up fringe support, the party’s leaders made a series of bombastic statements washing Poland’s hands of responsibility regarding restoration of property to former Jewish owners.

Despite the frequently combative position from many in the international Jewish community toward PiS’ actions, not all agree this is the most beneficial approach.

Duvid Singer is a Boro Park resident who has been involved in attempts to restore and preserve kivrei tzaddikim and other Jewish heritage sites in Poland since the 1990s, as well as leading tour groups in the country. He said that looking beyond what he sees as largely symbolic battles with the government and adopting a more pragmatic approach has been far more profitable for tangible Jewish interests in the country. He also stressed a message he said he heard often from his father, Rabbi Yosef Singer, z”l, who served as Rav of a Galician town before emigrating to America just before the outbreak of World War II.

“The Torah says that you shouldn’t turn away a Mitzri, because they gave Jews a place they could stay during the famine. That means, after they enslaved us and threw our babies in the river, you still have to have hakaras hatov for what they did. The fact is that Jews were in Poland for over a thousand years, and for most of that time they lived better than they did almost anywhere else in Europe. Of course there were Poles who murdered Jews and stole from them, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to be grateful for the rest of the story. Not only do I think it’s the right thing to do, at the end of the day it’s the best approach to get them to support our efforts to preserve the heritage that we have all over the country,” he said.

It is not that PiS is overtly anti-Semitic — or even guilty of charges of Holocaust minimization — as some governments of other Eastern European nations have been accused of. PiS’s leaders proudly boast of Poland’s celebrated Jewish past, and at times they speak passionately about the horrors of its brutal destruction. They are happy to honor those Polish “righteous among the nations” who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Yet mea culpas, or even acknowledgments of the untold numbers of Poles who collaborated with the Nazis in an effort to hasten the “final solution” or to appropriate Jewish property, are not forthcoming, and a tight watch is kept on any public attempt to tell that story. Reports abound of scholars who have been squeezed or even fired from government-supported jobs over research into these increasingly taboo topics, and historical institutions that are not solely committed to telling a story of Polish wartime heroism have found themselves losing government funding.

Many in Poland’s Jewish community feel that these and other related issues place them in a tough spot. That position is made all the more complicated by several prominent Israeli politicians, quick to use incendiary rhetoric to push back against Poland — a move some feel is motivated not only by a zealous effort to defend Holocaust history but by the desire to cozy up to the vehemently anti-Polish Russian President, Vladimir Putin. Still, not all feel that these controversies play a major role in the life of Jews in the country.

“When the National Memory Law was passed, we were all put in an awkward position, which didn’t really get better after they agreed to roll it back with Israel’s blessing to some of the points our government wanted to push,” said Mr. Jackl. “I cannot say that it is the government of my dreams, but it does not affect my daily life. I am at a university where people in general are more open-minded. Even beyond that, the fact that there are so few Jews in Poland makes Jewish issues less important to a lot of people.”

Mr. Ciszewski said that in addition to what he sees as the government’s regrettable approach on Holocaust history and related matters, a general anti-Semitism among much of the populace has remained a constant.

“Little has changed over the years,” he said. “When I went into graphic design many years ago, I knew not to advertise that I was Jewish … now when my son came back to Poland after years in yeshivah abroad, he was not able to hide his Jewish background and had a very hard time getting a job here. It is better here than in a lot of places in Western Europe, but I do not feel that it is so safe to walk the streets of Warsaw with a kippah.”

Mr. Bielawski agreed that anti-Semitism remains deeply rooted in many geographic and social corners of Poland, but said that he saw hopeful signs for the future. He referenced a recent conversation with a woman who told him that his work and that of others to delve into Poland’s Jewish past had made the term “Zhid,” the Polish word for Jew — which usually carries a pejorative connotation — “a word we could use,” in a positive sense.

“I understand Jews who say that after all that has happened here that Poland is a closed chapter,” he said. “But more and more, the younger generation has a different attitude. They grow up in a way that exposes them to more things in the world and they are more open to new ideas — including new ways of thinking about Jews and how Jewish history fits into Poland’s story.” n

“Little has changed over the years. When my son came back from yeshivah, he was not able to hide his background and had a very hard time getting a job.”

“The world forgot about us, but to be the ones left here still feels like a huge responsibility.”