The Jews of Modern Poland

By Symi Rom-Rymer

The New York Times recently published a piece recently about a former Polish neo-Nazi who discovered his Jewish roots as an adult and is now ultra-Orthodox.  As he acknowledges in the article, “he was drawn to extremes.”

Pawel’s (now Pinchas’) story is certainly engrossing.  Not only do we learn that he has Jewish roots, but that his grandparents, who are still living, are Jewish and hid their religion from him so that he would not exposed to anti-Semitism.  Moreover, his wife (also a former skinhead), also comes from a Jewish family and both of their families are from the same Jewish community.   His journey from skinhead to Orthodox Jew, then, tells both his personal story as well as that of contemporary Poland and how truly intertwined Jewish and Polish communities are just below the surface.

But this piece is also frustrating.  It is frustrating because it focuses on the sensational (Neo-Nazi becomes Orthodox Jew!) at the expense of the quotidian.  And that kind of story is equally, if perhaps not more important, than the sensational ones.  I want pieces about ordinary Polish Jews.  Who they are.  Where they are.   Few American Jews experience Poland outside of its death camps.  And while interesting, articles like this one does little to change that perception.   I would like to read more pieces about Jewish youth movements or about a Bat/Bar Mitzvah class–something that offers a fuller, more nuanced, picture of the Jewish rhythms of Poland.

It is also frustrating because there more complex issues that the piece does not address.  For example, there is no discussion of how Pawel was received by the Orthodox community.  How do they feel about having a former neo-Nazi in their midst?  Have they seen this kind of conversion before?   If so, how do they feel about it?  Does Pawel feel accepted by the community that he used to hate?  The article also mentions about his now being the subject of anti-Semitism taunts, but with no follow up on his reactions.

Furthermore, there was little discussion about why he initially became a skinhead in the first place.  Dan Bilefsky, the journalist, explains that Pawel used neo-Nazism to break out of the Communist mold.  But I want to know more about what drove him in that direction when he could have chosen less violent and hateful ways to rebel.

Finally, I was struck by the following comment from the Chief Rabbi in Poland, Rabbi Michael Schudrich.  “Before 1989 there was a feeling that it was not safe to say, ‘I am a Jew.’  But two decades later, there is a growing feeling that Jews are a missing limb in Poland. The level of anti-Semitism remains unacceptable, but the image of the murderous Pole seared in the consciousness of many Jews after the war doesn’t correspond to the Poland of 2010.”

This quote was particularly interesting to me because Rabbi Schudrich’s optimism about Jewish life in Poland is in such contrast to Piotr Brozek’s pessimistic view of Poles and anti-Semitism.  In a recent conversation with him, Brozek told me that it is only people of his generation who want to change the anti-Semitic mindset that exists in Poland.  The older generations, he believes, are unwilling or unable to break out of that mindset.  So who is right?  And why do Jews and non-Jews hold such disparate views?

I am happy to see a piece about Jews in Poland that is not only about anti-Semitism or the Holocaust.  This article certainly brings to light a story and a history that is fascinating and noteworthy.    But I am eager to move beyond the stories with the attention-grabbing headlines, to those that address the complexities and reflect the greater trends that are happening there.  Only then, can we start to gain a true understanding of the life and growth of the Jewish community in Poland. (For a great article on Poland’s Jews read Ruth Ellen Gruber’s piece in the Jan/Feb issue of Moment!)

Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe. She has been published in JTA, The Christian Science Monitor and Jewcy.

4 responses to “The Jews of Modern Poland

  1. I agree with your call for more nuance and details of ordinary life, as well as all the missing pieces of Pinchas’ story.

    When I was sixteen, I visited Poland as part of the March of the Living trip. (One week visiting Holocaust sites and historical Jewish locations in Poland and one week visiting historical sites in Israel.) One of the most distinctive memories from the trip was in Warsaw on Shabbat. We walked several miles after services in order to meet with “the Jewish Polish Youth.” We were expecting to meet Jewish teenagers and talk about their experience of being Jewish in Poland. Instead we met one man, who was in his 30’s. He was representing the youth of the Jewish community. The absence of actual Jewish teens was surprising to us, but what was more surprising was the Polish Jews who organized this meeting clearly thought of this man as “Jewish youth.”

  2. I don’t think there will be any sympathy for neo-nazi’s in Poland, because all Polish suffered from Nazi occupation. Poles tend still to be very anti-German in theirs minds. Much more than anti-jewish. We must not forget that Poland lost 6 million people during the War. Half of them were not Jewish. 80 % of all jews have roots in Poland, because that country offered for centuries most freedom and wealth of all countries to the Jews. Jews should never forget this !!! I have Jewish roots in Poland and I see Poland still as the best country for Jews. In history as today. The Poles never killed the Jews, but gave assistence to them. The Nazi’s killed Jews and Christians in Poland. Poland must and should only be memorized for Hospitality to the Jewish people in history. Thanks to Poland the Jewish nation still excists !! Jews of the whole world should every year have a celebration-day for thanking Poland ! Jews should never speak a bad word of Poland.

  3. Found this while browsing. I wish I agreed that Poles are unlikely to sympathise with neo Nazis because of their experience of occupation: I have a delightful Polish PhD student who once explained to me with a straight face that the Russians had been far worse to the Poles than the Germans–which only works if Jewish Poles aren’t Poles. Then there was our Polish house sitter who looked at the latkes I was cooking, and asked why I was making a Polish dish. I explained that it was a common dish for Jews and that as it happened much of my family came from Poland. “I didn’t know there were any Jews in Poland” she said. This is only a very few years ago. The level of ignorance is frightening.

  4. Thaddeus Buttmunch

    There were Interwar, and most disturbingly, a post War Pogrom in Poland..the latter when there were only 5000 Jews left out of 3 MILLION! They Polish Underground betrayed Jews instead of rendering assistance

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