No 14, 15 November 2006, 24 Cheshvan 5767
The Chief Rabbi's View on Jews and Poland
An interview with Rabbi Michael Schudrich
- At least twenty thousand Jews live in Poland. The two leading organizations, the
Union of Jewish Communities and the Cultural and Social Association of Jews,
each have about two thousand members.
- The subject of Jews and Poland involves three interrelated matters. The first
concerns what is currently happening to the Jews living in Poland. The second is
Poland's Jewish heritage, including its physical remnants: cemeteries, synagogues,
communal and private property. The third has to do with the nature of Polish-
- Poland is still in a major state of flux. Since 1989, official Poland has wanted to
reexamine its relations with the Jews. The main reasons for this are the teachings
of Pope John Paul II, Poland's admiration for the United States, and the rejection
among the younger generation of everything their parents and grandparents
- Although the main government force, the Law and Justice Party, is not anti-
Semitic, the coalition now contains an anti-Semitic party, the Polish Families
League, whose leader, Roman Giertych, is deputy prime minister and minister of
education. This poses many dilemmas for the Jewish community, and Israel is
"The subject of Jews and Poland involves three interrelated matters. The first
concerns what is currently happening to the Jews living in Poland. The second is Poland's Jewish heritage, including its physical remnants: cemeteries, synagogues, communal and private property. The third has to do with the nature of Polish-Jewish relations."
Rabbi Michael Schudrich began working in Poland in 1990. He has been Rabbi of
Warsaw and Lodz since 2000, and since 2004 has also served as Chief Rabbi of Poland.
As often happens, a particular incident made his name internationally known. On a
Shabbat at the end of May 2006, he was punched and pepper-sprayed by an attacker
in a Warsaw street who shouted "Poland for the Poles." Nevertheless, Schudrich does
not feel fearful in Poland.
Although his is not a Polish state title, he is de facto recognized by the government
as the senior religious representative of Polish Jewry. Schudrich remarks: "When it is
appropriate, the government invites me as 'clergy' - that is, a minority theologian. This
includes the inauguration of a new president and the first meeting of the new Sejm - parliament."
How Many Jews Are There?
He observes: "It is impossible to tell how many Jews
there are in Poland. It leads to the question: who is a Jew in
Poland? The best answer is that it is somebody who considers
himself Jewish, or whom others see as such.
"There are many more Poles with Jewish roots left in
Poland than anyone imagined at the time the communists
ruled. I had been to Poland several times in the seventies and
eighties and spent the summer of 1979 in Krakow studying
Polish at the Jagellonian University. I met there some Jews of
my age, so I knew there were not only elderly Jews there.
"When I started to work in Poland in 1990, I regularly
encountered survivors who mentioned that they had met a
family member or a childhood friend, adding that these were
the only Jews in Poland. Putting these remarks together it
was clear there were quite some Jews still."
Schudrich comments: "It is my conviction that the
young people there deserve our attention. They were denied
information by their parents and grandparents, persecuted by
their own government, while the Jewish world was unaware
that they existed."
"My estimate is that there are at least twenty thousand
Jews in Poland. There are two leading organizations. The
Union of Jewish Communities is the umbrella body of eight
Jewish communities. Warsaw with five hundred members
is the largest followed by Wroclaw, Lodz, and Krakow. The
others are Katowice, Szczeczin, Legnica, and Bielsko Biala.
Together these have about two thousand members. Fifty
adult members is the minimum required by the union for a
registered community. The smaller ones like Gdansk, Poznan,
and Lublin are affiliate branches. Jews who live where there
is no community can become members of the nearest one.
"After the war, Poland received parts of eastern
Germany in compensation for its own lost eastern lands. The
Poles expelled the Germans living there. Thus their houses
stood empty. Returning Jews were sent to western Poland
where this housing was available. That means relatively many
Jews went to towns such as Wroclaw and Szczeczin. It is
ironic that Jews, whose homes were stolen by others, ended
up living in stolen homes.
"The second important Jewish organization is the
Cultural and Social Association of Jews. It is a cultural body
and also has about two thousand members. There is some
overlap in membership with the Union of Jewish Communities.
It originally was anti-religious and anti-Zionist; by now it is
rather ambivalent on religion and no longer anti-Zionist.
"There are also some smaller organizations such as
the Polish Union of Jewish Students and an Association
of the Children of the Holocaust, who are child survivors.
Maybe some day we will have an association of the second
generation of the Holocaust. In Poland almost all Jews are
either Holocaust survivors or their descendants. There is an
argument about whether those who fled to the Soviet Union
before 2 September 1939 are survivors or not. Psychologically,
however, they are all survivors or their descendants.
"There is a Jewish hotline for those to contact who
think they are Jewish. It is independent of the community,
although all involved are community members. Initially there
were many calls. Now these have petered out and the hotline
is only open a few hours per week.
"The Jewish community receives funding from the AJDC
[Joint] for helping the elderly, and also a small amount for
education. The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation funds education
directly, which means the Lauder Morasha School, the only
Jewish school in Warsaw, and summer and winter camps. The
Tad Taube Foundation, run by a donor who left Krakow at a
young age, also supports activities. Furthermore, some money
is obtained from the restitution of communal property, which
is a slow process. The AJDC and the Jewish Agency are the two
foreign Jewish organizations that have offices in Poland."
Schudrich defines Polish Jewry as "a tiny community
struggling with reasserting its Jewish identity and with the
historic responsibility of preserving a glorious past." He says that
if Polish politics do not deteriorate too much, and the economy
keeps up, the community will grow both in quantity and in
quality even if there are some departures for Israel. "There is
a younger generation now that is learning, and so are adults."
Referring to Poland's postwar history, Schudrich remarks:
"Before 1939 there were approximately 3.5 million Jews in
the country. Ninety percent of these had been murdered by
the end of 1944. This left 350,000 Jews in Poland after World
War II. Such a figure, on today's basis, would have represented
Europe's third largest Jewish community after France and
Ukraine. The exodus of almost all Jews from Poland took place
in stages. After the war, the vast majority of survivors left for
several reasons, often more than one.
"Many did not want to live in a communist country.
Others did not wish to rebuild their lives in the places where
their families were murdered. Yet others wanted to go to
Palestine, which soon became Israel. Some of the survivors
had relatives abroad. The dominant factor, however, was
the country's major anti-Semitism. Jews incurred sometimes
lethal risks. Postwar Poland was a chaotic country in which
communists and nationalists fought each other.
"Estimates are that in the first years after the war, 1,500
to 2,000 Jews were killed by Poles. The best-known case is
the Kielce pogrom on 4 July 1946 in which forty-two Jews
were brutally murdered. Until today the debate in Poland
continues whether the murderers were leftists or rightists.
At the recent sixtieth anniversary of the pogrom, I remarked
that from the perspective of the Jews it did not matter which
Poles were the killers. The survivors wanted to live in a place
where there was no risk of such atrocities."
Emigration and Expulsion
"After the war, the surviving Jews tried to restart a
community, which could even be described as vibrant. By
1948, however, many had left. There was a great exodus
again in 1956. Then there was a major emigration, which
one might as well call an expulsion of Jews, in 1968-1969.
Thereafter almost all Jews who decided to stay in Poland
stopped being Jewish.
"This meant one did not tell one's children that one was
Jewish. We don't know how many behaved so, but estimates
are that there were tens of thousands. Most concealed even
from their families that they were Jewish. This situation
continued until after 1989, when the communist system
collapsed. For outsiders, it is difficult to understand that
the demise of communism led not only to economic and
political turmoil but also to social upheaval. Suddenly taboo
questions could be asked.
"What makes people in the postwar generations think
they probably have Jewish roots without anybody telling
them? One frequent cause is that they start wondering why
one of their parents, or grandparents, has no living relatives.
Although many Poles were killed by the Germans, to wipe
out an entire non-Jewish Polish family was almost unheard
of. The story of the surviving Jew who said that he had tens
of relatives before the war, and only he and perhaps one or
two others survived, was a very common one."
The Way Back
"I have to stress that I am in Poland not in the role
of a historian or a social scientist but as a rabbi. Regularly
young people come to see me who say: 'I think I am Jewish.
My mother has no living relatives, however remote.' This is a
dramatic way to realize the impact of what has happened.
"Since 1989, thousands of Poles have discovered their
Jewish roots. They come in two broad categories: those who
truly did not know and those who knew but considered it a
subject one does not talk about in polite company. What is
common to the two categories is that those born after 1938
had no Jewish education whatsoever. It does not matter
whether they came from a religious family or not. The only
ones having had Jewish education are some of the older
ones. Those coming from the former Soviet Union are in an
even worse situation since no open Jewish education was
permitted there since 1917.
"Relating individual stories seems the best way to
convey what is happening with those who rediscover their
roots. A few years ago a successful lawyer, around sixty
years old, visited me. He had shortly before heard from his
eighty-nine-year-old mother that she was Jewish. He was
perplexed and asked her why she had not told him in the
past fifty years. She replied: 'I never had the occasion.'
"This phenomenon cannot be described as assimilation
but has to be seen as an expression of fear. A person could
not expect much good out of admitting that he or she was
Jewish. From 1939 to 1989, a Jew could not feel safe in
"How did these people's forebears hide their Jewishness?
Some managed to get papers as a non-Jew during the war.
Others survived the camps. After they returned they realized
that if they wanted to stay in Poland, for whatever reason, it
would be a bad idea to be identified as a Jew. This changed
only in 1989 with the fall of communism."
Schudrich tells another story that occurred in the mid-
1990s. "The grandmother of a seventeen-year-old girl was
killed in a car accident. As her parents were on vacation,
the girl began with the preparations for the funeral. She
found papers with her grandmother's real last name, which
sounded very Jewish. She then asked her mother whether
grandma was Jewish, which the mother denied.
"Afterward she asked her mother's sister, who answered
that the grandmother was once Jewish. After being
confronted with this, the mother admitted that her mother
was Jewish. She added: 'Don't tell your father, my husband,
he does not know.' All this happened several years after the
fall of communism. It shows that fear does not suddenly
vanish after the crumbling of a totalitarian system."
From Skinhead to Covered Head
Schudrich relates a third case. "A young couple met at
high school, fell in love, and got married young. They soon
had a baby. At the age of twenty, the wife discovered that
she was Jewish. A second baby was on its way. Three years
later she decided that she wanted to do something Jewish.
Every Friday night, she prepared a Shabbat meal. Her husband
went along with it, but his parents became very upset. They
told him not to let his wife do this.
"The more the parents pushed the son, the more he
supported his wife. Finally, the parents admitted why they were
so opposed to doing Jewish things. They were both hidden
Jews. The marriage of the young couple was thus that of two
Jews, who have two Jewish children and who are now active
Orthodox members of the Warsaw Jewish community.
"When these young people fell in love they were
both skinheads. One might write a book: From Skinhead
to Covered Head. The young man now wants to become
a Jewish ritual slaughterer. He has three brothers, one of
whom is a twin. This brother, also a skinhead, with whom
he is in close contact, did not want to come to the Jewish
wedding. He could not confront the fact that his brother
was doing something publicly Jewish.
"Since then, most family members have been
participating in various Jewish programs. One Friday night
the twin brother could not reach his brother on the cell
phone. He came to the synagogue to see whether he was
there. He was not, but we were short of one person for
the minyan, the religious quorum of ten men for collective
prayers. I asked him whether he would be willing to stay
in the synagogue to help out. He did. Does that make him
Jewish? This story also illustrates why speaking about the
number of Jews in Poland is so problematic.
"During the second intifada, we held a demonstration
in favor of Israel. The young people present were asking
themselves what would happen if they were seen on television
and identified as Jews. There were cases where their parents
were still concealing their Jewishness and pressuring their
children not to do something publicly Jewish. Similarly, the
granddaughter of the president of the Senate had her bat
mitzvah a few years ago. He is not Jewish, but his wife is, and
he did not want that to be publicly known. The grandparents
pressured her not to hold the ceremony. The girl insisted."
The Current Rebuilding of Community Life
"A person who thinks about living a Jewish life in Poland
can now find some of the basic elements of Judaism there.
Community life has strengthened in recent years. In the
Warsaw synagogue there are daily collective prayers for all
three services. There are also daily Talmud studies. There
is a prekindergarten to ninth-grade school paid for by the
Lauder Foundation. There is a youth group for ages twelve to
fifteen, and one from sixteen years up as well as a university
group. There is adult education. The number of women who
regularly visit the mikveh [ritual bath] has gone up from two
to over ten. We publish a monthly magazine, Midrash, as well
as a community newsletter at irregular times. There is also a
ritual slaughterer in Warsaw and a kosher store.
"In Lodz there is a communal prayer service every
morning. Krakow, Katowice, Wroclaw, Legnica, and
Szczeczin have services on Shabbat and holidays. There are
sometimes services in Poznan and Gdansk, which is a new
"Ritual slaughter has become very competitive. Many
groups want to undertake it. Since Poland is now part of
the European Union, meat slaughtered there can be sent all
over Europe. Labor costs in Poland are low. Also, it seems
that for an unknown reason a high percentage of cattle
ritually slaughtered meet the highest religious demands of
The Jewish Heritage
"Preserving the Jewish heritage is a major task for a
small community. The most pressing issues concern Jewish
cemeteries, of which there are at least 1,400 in Poland. In our
tradition, these maintain their holiness. Even though we do our
best, preserving them all is a task beyond our capabilities.
"There are also mass graves and death camps. Today, many
mass graves are still unmarked because they are unknown.
More to the east, the Jews were killed by Einsatzgruppen in the
forests. The Jews of Poland were murdered through starvation
and disease in ghettos or in death camps.
"Often, though, the Germans killed tens or hundreds
of Jews when they arrived to frighten the others. On the
way to death camps, they would often murder the very sick
somewhere. We now have the last opportunity to identify
their graves. There are no Jewish witnesses to a mass grave,
because no one survived. Those who committed the mass
murder live elsewhere and don't talk.
"There is often, though, an anecdotal source. Young
children often watched murders from a distance. They were
not as smart as adults who stayed away. We regularly get
information from people who tell us that before they die,
they want us to know that Jews are buried in a certain place.
We have not dealt with this in a systematic way, but I want
to give more attention to it in future. We can then pay some
tribute to those who were murdered during the war and make
sure that their physical remains are properly protected.
"What happens more frequently with mass graves,
and sometimes even with cemeteries, is that somebody
starts digging somewhere and finds bones. We intervene to
prevent desecrations of prewar cemeteries and mass graves.
Such discoveries must have occurred under the communist
regime as well, but then people were afraid to tell anybody.
We now get calls both from individuals and the police to
tell us about such finds. We bury these bones in the nearest
"Poland is still in a major state of flux. I do not
particularly deal with current Polish-Jewish relations, but
am involved with them here and there. Since 1989, official
Poland has wanted to reexamine its relations with the Jews.
There are three reasons for this. The first is the teachings of
Pope John Paul II, which had a huge impact both on Poland
and the Catholic Church. One might say he did more to
fight anti-Semitism than any other human being in the past
two thousand years. To be evenhanded, one also has to say
that the Church was the major force promoting this hatred
during that period.
"Although many in the Polish Catholic Church listened to
the Pope's teachings, not all did. A crucial test came about five
years ago with the Jedwabne case. For a long time the Poles
had been told that they were solely victims. It has only become
widely known in recent years that during the war there were
horrible murders of Jews initiated and executed by Poles.
"The most publicized case is the mass murder of perhaps
as many as 1,500 Jews in Jedwabne, a small northeastern
village, on 10 July 1941. It has been described in the book
Neighbors by the American historian Jan Gross and in a
movie by Agnieszka Arnold. These Jews were murdered in
the cruelest ways not by professional German killers who
came from far. The killers were dozens if not hundreds of their
Polish neighbors, who knew them well. The hundreds of Jews
initially surviving were burned alive in a barn by Poles."
A Moving Response
"The response to these revelations by many in the
country was moving. Numerous people were willing to change
the notion that Poles had always been victims. They realized
that some had been murderers out of their own initiative. The
response of the Catholic Church was much less forthcoming.
Although part of the Catholic hierarchy has changed its views,
another part is still anti-Semitic. The situation is better than
before World War II when over 90 percent were so, at a time
when that was normal in the Catholic Church. The process
of banning this legacy, which started in Europe in the 1960s,
began in Poland only with the fall of communism in 1989.
"A second reason for the change was Poland's admiration
for the United States, even if it has declined in the last three
years because of the Iraq war. Many Poles thought that, if
they wanted to emulate the United States, they could not be
anti-Semites because that was not politically correct there.
"A third reason is more speculative. Among the younger
generation there is a rejection of everything their parents and
grandparents stood for. They believe the opposite of the older
generation, which was communist and anti-Semitic. Besides
being a fad, there is a growing understanding that the Jews
were part of the Polish landscape and that the Germans killed
them, to some extent with Polish collaboration. This slow
and painful process also leads to a feeling of obligation to
perpetuate Jewish memory."
The Current Government
"The 2005 parliamentary elections were won by the
Law and Justice Party, which is right of center but not anti-
Semitic. It did not obtain a majority. A few percent of their
votes came from listeners of Radio Maria, which is Catholic
and virulently anti-Semitic. The party felt they owed them a
debt and gave them exclusive interviews and scoops, which
was both unnecessary and unacceptable. At the same time,
these politicians were pro-Israeli and helpful on Jewish
issues. So here we are confronted with people who are not
anti-Semites, but who help them.
"The situation got worse in May 2006. The Law and
Justice Party wanted to end their minority-government
status. They entered into a coalition with an extreme-Left
as well as an extreme-Right party. The latter is called the
Polish Families League, which is the same name as that
of a prewar anti-Semitic party. They were proud that their
predecessors had instigated a numerus clausus for Jews at
Polish universities and that those Jews who were admitted
had to sit in the back of the lecture hall.
"To make matters worse Roman Giertych, the party's
leader, became deputy prime minister and minister of
education. The anti-Semites have thus been empowered.
Many Poles want them out of the government. Large
numbers of high school students have signed a petition
"This situation creates many dilemmas for a small Jewish
community. One is always inclined to stay out of internal
Polish political debates. The Israeli ambassador, David Peleg,
said on television that Israel would be boycotting Giertych.
The television thereafter approached me. I could not say 'No
comment' in such a situation. I supported the ambassador
because he was right."
Interviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld
* * *
New York-born rabbi Michael Schudrich served as Rabbi of the
Jewish Community of Japan from 1983 to 1989. He began working
in Poland in 1990 on behalf of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. He
has been Rabbi of Warsaw and Lodz since 2000 and since 2004 has
also served as Chief Rabbi of Poland.
Manfred Gerstenfeld, Publisher • Chaya Herskovic, Editor • Howard Weisband, Associate Editor • Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (Registered Amuta), 13 Tel-Hai St., Jerusalem 92107, Israel; Tel. 972-2-5619281, Fax. 972-2-5619112, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org • In U.S.A.: Center for Jewish Community Studies, 5800 Park Heights Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21215 USA; Tel. (410) 664-5222, Fax. (410) 664-1228 • Website: www.jcpa.org • Copyright. ISSN: 0792-7304
The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect
those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.