A reader just asked me whether members of the Jewish community are still welcome in Poland. Fortunately, Jonathan Ornstein, the director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, answered this very question in his New York Times op-ed, In Poland, a Grass-Roots Jewish Revival Endures.
It’s worth reading the whole article, but here is an excerpt:
“The concern is genuine, warranted and appreciated. We, the Polish Jewish community, are weathering challenging times. The country we call home can feel a little less welcoming these days. On one hand, young people who only recently discovered their Jewish roots have eagerly joined newly opened Hillel student organizations in Warsaw and Krakow. But they hold in the back of their minds a question of what the future may bring.
“Polish Jewish leaders, too, are grappling with an uncertain future as we continue to build Jewish life in an environment that has taken a turn away from democracy toward populism. That shift is never a good sign for Jews — or anyone in a free and open society. And now the Holocaust bill, which criminalizes statements that the Polish nation had any responsibility in the Holocaust, may complicate our good relationship with our non-Jewish neighbors.
“What we have managed to rebuild over the last 30 years with the help of those neighbors is real. It is strong and it has emerged not only from government policy, but also from grass-roots efforts. We’ve built Jewish schools, synagogues, community centers and museums by working hand in hand with non-Jewish high school students, senior citizens and many others. Not only have they allowed these institutions to be born and flourish, but many have stood up and taken an active part in Jewish rebirth.
“So the answer is: Yes, come visit Poland. Walk down the historic streets that I walk without fear as a proud Jew. See beyond the camps. Go beyond the history, both the beautiful and the tragic. Stand with a community that has been through so much suffering, yet has emerged optimistic and eager to rejoin the Jewish world.”
Jonathan can be trusted on this. He has been at the forefront of the revival of Jewish life in Krakow since the JCC opened there ten years ago. It’s an extraordinary organization, and I was lucky enough to help out as a Shabbos Goy during the Jewish Culture Festival in 2016, when hundreds of people attended the largest shabbat dinner in Poland since World War II.
The JCC welcomes Holocaust survivors, Jewish visitors from around the world, and Poles rediscovering their Jewish heritage or who just feel an affinity to Jewish culture and history. It was a space where I felt right at home, as an American raised in a secular Christian household with a Polish-Catholic mother who descended from Polish Jews. It’s a space where I can be Jewish or Christian, Polish or American, but regardless I’m welcomed simply because I’m there and I want to learn more about what it means to be Jewish in Poland.