I am going to start with questioning my own title. Is the work that we are doing Rebuilding Jewish life or starting all over again, Building from anew? I confess that I am not sure – but I tend towards the latter view. It is true that many people come forward and say they have Jewish family roots, usually from the grandparents’ generation, but none of them have been raised in what we might call a Jewish manner, in terms of observance at home, attending synagogue services and Cheder as children and having a Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah or joining Jewish youth clubs. Instead we see a surprisingly large number of intelligent, concerned adults who decide at some point to approach a Rabbi and to ask – it takes a lot of guts – if they might attend a service or think about becoming Jewish? Most have little idea what this will involve and so the initial introductions and information are of vital importance.
There are cases where, sadly, a formal conversion is simply not feasible, for reasons of distance from a community or the attitudes of other family members; There are cases where something might be possible with a few compromises here and there; And there are cases where people can adopt a proud new Jewish identity – and then have to start re-learning what it means to be who they are. This is never easy and many encounter difficulties which they had not been expecting in their earlier enthusiastic idealism.
Talk to people who prepare for a Beit Din and, although no two are alike, you will hear many similar patterns emerging; an awareness from childhood onwards that one was ‘different’ or that the family had a ‘secret’ – that certain relatives were missing or were not talked about, that gaps were left in the history. Sometimes a history lesson at school will stimulate an interest in the missing citizens of one’s home town and why they are missing and what happened to them. But every family in Poland lost members and every family suffered – it was not just the Jews.
I have worked almost twenty years as a Rabbi in Germany and so I know about gaps in the family history and relatives of whom one does not speak, I am aware of the difficulties of building new communities on the rubble and the broken glass of the past. But Poland is different, I feel it in my bones. Here we are building on ashes. The very history of Poland as a State, reborn in 1918 only to be torn apart again in 1940, then absorbed into the Stalinist bloc from 1945 and regaining its independence almost half a century later – these issues have an impact. During the war Poland was divided into various factions which spent as much time fighting each other as any or either common enemy. The echoes of the gunshots at the Katyn massacre can still be heard, as an entire class of intellectuals and officers was brutally wiped out. Not only the Shoah and not only the post-war pogroms but also the events of 1968 led to a further exodus, so there is almost no-one left who can claim to have been and to have lived Jewishly in the country for several decades, to be a ‘native’, whether as a Polish Jew or a Jewish Pole. Polish right-wing nationalism has a different feel to German right-wing nationalism and the country is still 95% or so Catholic. (There is no equivalent of ‘Die Linke’, the German party which grew out of the Communist SED).
Through my own family history and background I feel more closely involved with Germany than with Poland (and I speak much better German than I ever will Polish!). But for the work of a Rabbi there are many similarities as well as the differences I have outlined. I have been to Poland many times but usually to say memorial prayers, at the site of a former synagogue or – especially – at the camps of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II Birkenau. The President even awarded me a Knight’s Cross for this work some years ago – how ironic, although I suppose it is always better to pin a cross onto a Jew rather than the other way around. One of our family graves – a great-aunt – is in a Jewish cemetery that was in Germany when she died in 1940 but is now in Poland – Breslau is now Wroclaw. Remembering Dead Jews. But for the past half year I have been working part-time for Beit Polska, and have visited Gdansk, Warsaw and Krakow, the latter more for a Beit Din but also for some meetings with individuals, and working with living Jews or with living people who wish to become Jews. It’s different!
We find both the positive and the negative results of Jewish individualism in several places; I suppose we learn from the physics of magnetism that when two Poles are similar to each other, even if they are positive, they repel each other rather than working together. This issue is frustrating and leads, I am sure, to some waste of time and energy. And yet, in a way this fragmentation is better than the situation in Germany where one overpowering official ‘Unified Community’ receives large amounts of State funding and controls all the infrastructure and the rabbinate. There are fewer Jews in Poland but, despite the existence of an official ‘Gemine’ in each city, they are free, so I would rather look upon the multiplication of groups as the cup being half-full, not half-empty. It is true that none of these communities can be financially self-supporting or run all its own activities without outside help. There is a shortage of trained and experienced lay leadership because the people doing their best to run new communities have had no role models to learn from or to follow or to ask for advice. There is a shortage of trained and experienced religious leadership. Indeed, there is a shortage of almost everything, and only recently has a progressive liturgy for Shabbat and Festivals been published and work is under way on an adult education course (which can also be used for conversion preparation) including a translation of my book ‘The Honey and the Sting’. Small rooms, rented or borrowed, have to suffice for prayer and study and social gatherings.
What is the aim? To get SOMETHING established. Davka. So that there will be once again a progressive Jewish presence in Poland, however modest that might be, there will never be a return to ‘the days of old’ when Jews formed the majority of the population in some cities or when the Liberal synagogues were the main ones in Warsaw. We are currently thinking of tens, not of thousands. Those who earn in Zloty are at a disadvantage when they try to live or work outside in the Euro or Dollar zones, and conversely those who earn in Euros or Dollars have no idea what an advantage they have compared to those who, in Eastern Europe, toil just as hard or even harder, for more modest material rewards. We need to raise resources, and we need to raise awareness. There IS Jewish life in Poland – not a lot, not very strong, not very numerous, but it is there, and it is not just for the visiting tourists but for the people who live and work and learn and pray there.
Are we building or rebuilding? I don’t know, but I don’t really care. There is work to be done.
Rabbi Dr. Rothschild was born in Bradford, England in 1954 and grew up in a small provincial Reform synagogue with strong Western and Central European influences due to the refugees who had settled there. He studied Theology and Pedagogics at Cambridge University and later rabbinics at Leo Baeck College, London. He worked as a Rabbi in the North of England for eleven years, then in Austria and Central Europe, plus a year in Aruba in the Caribbean! (He speaks Dutch). Since 1998 he has lived in Berlin, serving first the main ‘Einheitsgemeinde’ then smaller liberal communities simultaneously in Halle, München, Köln, Freiburg and in Schleswig-Holstein, as well as ‘Or Chadasch’ in Vienna. For two years he was a Board member of the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany. He is a member of the CCAR and the European Rabbinic Association. He has worked extensively with the European Beit Din in several countries including Slovakia, Poland, Macedonia and Serbia. He is an author, poet, song-writer, historian, cabarettist, translator, and the editor and publisher of a quarterly magazine and father of three adult children. www.walterrothschild.de