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Europe

Poland's Jewish Renaissance

Home of Europe's largest Jewish community before the Holocaust, Poland is currently witnessing a renaissance of Jewish life. Now congregations struggle to find rabbis who can speak their language.

Jews are deported from the Warsaw ghetto in 1943

More than 60 years after their deportation, Polish Jews are becoming more visible again

More than 60 years after the Holocaust Jewish life in Poland is thriving with new diversity.

Before its occupation by Nazi Germany, Poland was once home of Europe's largest Jewish community, and Warsaw was the continent's largest Jewish city.

Poland's Jews were almost wiped out by the Nazis during World War II, while the heroic rising of Warsaw's Jewish Ghetto against the militarily more powerful Nazis marked a tragic end of an era.

But a new era is beginning. Reformed Jews are planning to build communities all over the country where until a few years ago what remained of Jewish life in Poland was either orthodox or completely secular.

Lively community

Warsaw's market square

Warsaw's market square

Beit Warszawa, the reformed community in Warsaw, started up with only two members in 1999. In the meantime its membership has risen to some 200, and for the last year it has even had its own full-time rabbi, Burt Schuman.

Rabbi Joel Oseran, the associate director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) in Jerusalem, said that during a recent visit, he met a lively community of people, many of whom had only discovered their Jewish identity a few years ago.

"We're open for all those who are looking for something," Oseran said.

Representatives of the reformed community in recent months have therefore been trying to establish contact to events addressing Poland's Jewish heritage or inter-religious dialogue.

"No matter whether it's Zielona Gora, Gdansk or Lublin -- time and again people approach us who say initially they're just curious and then slowly admit that they're actually of Jewish origin," Schuman said.

Hidden heritage

Rendering of a new Jewish museum in Warsaw

A new Jewish museum is scheduled to open in Warsaw in 2008

Many Holocaust survivors were too traumatized to pass on their Jewish heritage to their children or grandchildren, and anti-Semitic incidents in postwar Poland also meant that many remained silent over their Jewish identity.

Religious traditions were revived only after the fall of communism, mainly through the activities of Jewish foundations from the United States, such as the Lauder Foundation.

"I would have told Lauder to diversify," Schuman said, because with the exception of Beit Warszawa all Jewish religious communities in Poland are orthodox.

Limited recognition

A computer generated image of an exhibition showing a typical 19th century Jewish street in a Polish town, to be shown inside the planned Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

The museum is expected to include a recreated street scene in a 19th century Jewish town

Only the orthodox Jewish community is recognized by the government and considered the negotiating partner as far as the return of synagogues, graveyards, community buildings or other real estate is concerned.

The Beit Warszawa synagogue was originally a residential building in Warsaw's Wilanow suburb.

"We know from our experiences in Russia that many Jews who grew up without any religious bonds have difficulties with orthodox life," Oseran said to explain the "Jewish outings" at events of the reformed community.

Whether in dealings with issues of religious commandments, rules about food or the acceptance of non-Jewish partners, there are obvious fewer strictures among the less rigid reformed Jews. In keeping with the growing interest, an umbrella organization for reformed communities called Beit Polska is due to be formed next year.

Language problems

"What we need most of all is rabbis who speak the language and understand the local mentality," Schuman said.

The first step has been taken -- a young Polish Jew is about to take up his studies at the Abraham Geiger College for the education of rabbis in Potsdam in Germany.

Starting this fall, Schuman will be assisted by Rabbi Tanya Segal from Israel.

"What a role model," Schuman said about his future colleague. "She's the first full-time female rabbi in Poland's history -- that will be a real revolution!"

DW.DE