As I travel by train through the Polish countryside on my way from Warsaw to Katowice, the clickety-clack sound of the wheels rolling along the rails has a soothing effect, but it is difficult not to think of the millions of Jews who were transported this way, albeit less comfortably, to their deaths not so long ago.
I have been invited by Shavei Israel founder Michael Freund to a shabbaton in Katowice. A once-upon-a-time cornerstone of Jewish life, the city of 80,000 was also ten percent Jewish.
As Freund explains, Katowice is located in Silesia and it was part of Prussia until 1921, when it was known by its German name, Kattowitz. The city played an important role in Jewish life when, in November 1884, it hosted a seminal event in modern Zionist history as representatives of the Hibbat Zion movement from different countries, headed by Leon Pinsker and M. L. Lilienblum, gathered there for what came to be known as the Kattowitz Conference. The meeting galvanized the nascent Zionist movement and initiated several concrete measures to settle the Land of Israel and aid its brave pioneers.
Shavei Israel reaches out to descendants of Jews and aims to strengthen their connection with Israel and the Jewish people. Founded over a decade ago by Freund, the organization is active in more than a dozen countries and provides assistance to a variety of different communities such as the Lost Tribe of Bnei Menashe in India, the Bnei Anousim (whom historians refer to by the derogatory term "Marranos") in Spain, Portugal, Italy and South America, the Subbotnik Jews of Russia, the Jewish community of Kaifeng in China, and others. Shavei Israel has three rabbinical emissaries serving in Poland: one in Katowice, one in Krakow and one in Wroclaw. In addition, it has rabbis serving in Spain, Portugal, southern Italy, southern Russia, Colombia, Chile and El Salvador. Shavei Israel has brought 2,000 Bnei Menashe on aliya from India, and just recently received permission from the Israeli government to bring 900 more in the coming 15 months.
SO WHAT is Shavei Israel doing in Poland? "Since the downfall of Communism," says Freund, "a growing number of Poles have begun to discover the Jewish roots that had previously been hidden by their forefathers. After the Holocaust, many Jews in Poland chose to hide their identity because of the suffering they had endured under Nazism, which was followed by waves of anti-Semitic oppression under Communism.
In addition, during the Holocaust there were thousands of Jewish children who were put up for adoption with Catholic neighbors or institu-tions and who grew up ostensibly as Polish Catholics. So it is not surprising that experts estimate there are tens of thousands of people across Poland with Jewish roots going back just two or three generations. Shavei Israel is active in Poland because I believe we have a responsibility to reach out to Poles with Jewish roots and help them to reclaim and affirm their Jewish identity.
The Germans and their henchmen sought to erase any trace of Jewishness from Europe's soil. And yet it has somehow managed to survive. There is a real thirst among young Poles with Jewish roots to learn more about their Jewish religious and cultural heritage. This awakening would have been unthinkable just 25 or 30 years ago, but against all odds it is happening. We owe it to the younger generation of Poles with Jewish roots to assist them in any way that we can. Seven decades after the Holocaust, there can be no sweeter revenge for what was done to our people than to bring as many of them back to Judaism as possible."
IS THERE a realistic opportunity to revive Jewish life in Poland? And from the standpoint of those who believe that Jews do not necessarily need to live only in Israel, can Poland become, once again, a thriving center for Jewish life and culture? "No one is under any illusions that Polish Jewry can be restored to its former glory," Freund admits. "Prior to the Holocaust, Poland was a bustling hub of Jewish intellectual, religious and cultural life, and it was home to the second-largest Jewish community in the world at the time. The Germans succeeded in shattering Polish Jewry, but they did not destroy it. There is a nascent revival of Jewish life in Poland under way, one which underlines the indestructibility of the Jewish spirit. Imagine: there is a minyan three times a day at Warsaw's Nozyk synagogue, and a well-stocked kosher store offers a wide array of items. There is even a kosher falafel stand that has opened near the synagogue. If gastronomy is any guide, Warsaw's Jews are definitely on the upswing.
"To be sure, anti-Semitism is alive and well and continues to rear its ugly head.
And Poland will always remain a place of death in the historical consciousness of the Jewish people. But it is now showing signs of life as well, and that is something that should inspire us all.
"Our outreach work in Poland resonates very strongly with me on an emotional level because part of my paternal grandfather's family came from Galicia in what is now southeastern Poland. And my paternal grandmother's first cousin, Isaac Kottler, and his wife, Anna, were murdered at Auschwitz. I don't think we have the right to forgive or to forget. But we do have an obligation to fortify the Jewish future and to strengthen Jewish life, wherever it may be. Personally, I am a Zionist, which is why I chose to make my home in Israel. But it is not for me to pass judgment on the choices that others make about where to live, be it Krakow or Kansas City.
Whether one likes it or not, there are Jews living in Poland and they are part and parcel of the global Jewish community."
So why Katowice? "After World War II," Freund says, "when the area again reverted to Polish control, many of the Germans who lived there either fled or were expelled.
Jews who survived the Holocaust were encouraged to move there as part of an effort to populate the region, so we know that there are potentially many thousands of people with Jewish roots living in this part of Silesia and we want to reach out to them and reconnect them with the Jewish people. Since Katowice had an organized community, it seemed like a logical place for Shavei Israel to send a rabbi. He could help to strengthen Katowice Jewry, while using it as a base of outreach to people throughout the area."
MIRIAM GOCZARSKA works for the Jewish community of Warsaw and is a member of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland. She was invited to the weekend as a speaker.
"For me," she says, "participation programs like those of Shavei Israel are an opportunity for me to understand better the different kinds of activities taking place in Poland, to meet new people who are just discovering their Jewish roots and to see what kinds of projects are successful and which ones we should focus on.
It is a joint effort to enable so many people who are trying to make Poland a Jewishly livable space.
Asked about the Polish Jewish community, she said, "The Torah talks about community and you build a community by looking at each other and studying what you want to maintain.
"In one of my lectures here, I described how upon hearing the news that she would become a mother, Sarah laughed, and this was a huge turning point in the history of the Jewish people.
There is a nice juxtaposition of God seeing Abraham and then Abraham seeing the three travelers.
And then we have this one second of laughter that brings Isaac into existence. But it is that laughter that changed everything.
When you look at the three forefathers, it is Isaac who signifies the switch from individual religion to group religion. It is a very interesting moment. Isaac was the bridge between Abraham and Jacob. That moment of laughter built the community. Maybe the laughter of Sarah was of happiness – not cynicism.
Maybe she understood that by having a child, by creating another generation, she was going to experience a whole new level of being Jewish.
"So do we look at the individual or the community? For me there is no question that we have a lot of work to do on the individual level. There is no question that we have 'Abrahams' all over Poland right now who are discovering or rediscovering their roots and heritage. It is our obligation to help these people. To 'create the Isaac.' People here often have the feeling that they were left behind – that the Jewish people moved on.
We may have lost our proof of 'yichus,' our genealogy books, but we want a community and what we do share with our Jewish brethren around the world is our history, our shared ancestors.
For Jews, geography is also a state of mind. In terms of whether Polish Jewry has a future, we need to be an or lagoyim (a light unto the nations) and wherever there is darkness, it is up to us to light up that place."
MONIKA KRAWCZYK is the CEO of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, and was a participant as well as a speaker at the weekend in Katowice. In describing the work she does, she writes in Preserving Jewish Heritage in Poland, "The Foundation's main tasks cover the protection of Jewish culture and tradition. This is done largely through the renovation and protection of monuments, synagogues and especially Jewish cemeteries, as well as through participation in the legal process dealing with restitution.
"The Foundation also created a number of educational and cultural projects, whose innovative approach aims to publicize the idea that Jewish heritage is an integral part of the national history of Poland, and therefore deserves special interest."
I sat down with Krawczyk to discuss the weekend.
"We are always looking for events like this. This is an opportunity to meet with others who are or who are not involved with other Jewish communities in Poland.
The community in Poland is very small so we pretty much know one another. We do not have many opportunities to meet, let alone spend time together studying and learning. A normal lifestyle here is not possible to achieve so people here are always looking to connect and share the same experiences. We have a few communities with a few rabbis and we have lectures and classes occasionally, but we do not have concise information when it comes to Yiddishkeit and Jewish religious perspectives, so events like this are important and needed."
Carolina is a gentile who grew up in a town near Katowice has been involved with the Jewish community for the last three years. She says she was always driven to learn about Jewish culture and as it slowly became a stronger interest, she began to attend Shabbat dinners and lectures. "It became a big part of my life."
Asked what the most challenging part of her conversion is, she says, "The most difficult part of Judaism for me is keeping Shabbat."
On Friday afternoon, the mayor of Katowice, Piotr Uszok, arrived at the community center together with Pawel Buchta, the local Catholic priest. They were invited, as part of the program, to speak to the participants, and it was certainly interesting to hear how these two public figures expressed their interest in helping the Jewish community of Katowice in every way possible.
Even more intriguing was watching the mayor kiss a newly-installed mezuza as he walked through the entrance.
SO HOW do you explain the interest of gentiles in Jewish culture? I ask Krawczyk.
"Poles are very keen on learning about our country's history," she says, "so they know that there were Jews in Poland who disappeared. During Communist times this was suppressed, so now all this history is reemerging and people want to know what happened. This steers their interest. It is the main motivation.
"Gentiles today want to know what happened.
Why are there no Jews, but there are other minorities? There is probably a feeling that there is a vacuum, that Jews in the arts and academia before the war disappeared. Maybe it has to do with people who are religiously involved in the Catholic Church.
They may be motivated to learn about the Jews. It's like learning about the Aztecs or even Indians. We view this in a positive way."
Asked about a Jewish future in Poland, Krawczyk explains, "The term 'revival' is the language of the '80s and '90s. Now it is more about continuity. I wouldn't agree with the terminology 'hidden Jews in Poland.' Nobody is hidden anymore."
YEHOSHUA ELLIS is the rabbi of Katowice. Understanding that there was a great need for rabbis in Poland, Ellis, originally from New York, studied in Israel, obtained smicha and landed in the city three years ago.
I ask him about the weekend and the work he does in general. "It seemed like a good time to do a Shabbaton now as there is not much else happening now elsewhere which allows for people to come here and participate. We don't always know what is happening in other communities so this is a way for others to come and see what we do here.
"When we first got here about three years ago, we did not have the infrastructure to have an event such as this. But we have reached a point now in which we have Hebrew classes and Torah classes, a bakery, a kosher kitchen, a building within which to hold events...
This building is actually specifically mentioned in the journals of Jews who traveled through here years ago.
What are your observations about Jews here, I ask.
"The attitudes towards Jews have changed here. Poles are generally very religiously minded people. Some people always knew they were Jewish but there are those who found out later in life. For many, once they go from being a Pole to being a Jew it is very complex.
Asked about the future of Jewish life in Poland, Ellis says there is no way to predict. "Economic opportunity pushes young Poles away from here as they leave Poland for other countries where they can make a better living.
We also have Israelis who come here to study.
"My understanding is that we need to strengthen unity among Jews," he says in conclusion.
AT THE end of the Shabbaton, I ask Freund about Shavei Israel's long-term goals.
He replies, "The Jewish people are a small people and we are getting smaller. We don't have that many friends out there in the world. But at the same time, there are a variety of communities with an historical connection to us, many of whom are still conscious of that connection.
It behooves us to reach out to descendants of Jews, and I want to see this issue become a central part of the Jewish agenda. I have seen it time and time again – when a person discovers, or rediscovers, their Jewish roots, they inevitably develop a certain affinity to the Jewish people and a greater sympathy for Israel and Jewish causes.
"This is something that we can benefit from in a variety of fields, ranging from the struggle against European anti-Semitism to furthering Israel's hasbara efforts to encouraging more tourism to the Jewish state. Obviously, not all of the millions of people of Jewish descent will rush to convert back to Judaism or seek to make aliya. But some undoubtedly will return to our people and strengthen our ranks, so it will also strengthen us demographically and spiritually as well.
"I hope and pray that, with God's help, in the coming decades we will be able to bring back hundreds of thousands of descendants of Jews to the Jewish people.
Through no fault of their own, many of their ancestors were torn away from us against their will, but they nonetheless struggled to keep their Jewishness alive as best they could. If we now have an opportunity to bring their descendants back, how can we possibly turn our backs on them?"