For a wide selection of gefilte fish, challah and matzah balls, try Tel Aviv, New York — or Warsaw. Seven decades after Nazi Germany began exterminating Poland’s Jews, the country’s Jewish community is experiencing a revival.
“Nowadays, people are very interested,” says Anna Bakula, a 23-year-old psychology student at the University of Warsaw. “When they find out that I’m Jewish, they say things like ‘Oh, tell me something about the music and kosher food.’”
Although only some 100,000 Jews live in Poland today, Jewish culture has once again become a vibrant part of Polish society.
“For Poles, losing most of its Jewish community was like losing a limb,” explains Robert Gadek, director of Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival. “That’s why so many non-Jews attend events like the our festival.”
Twenty years ago, the annual festival had 150 attendees. Last year, some 30,000 people watched Jewish films, listened to klezmer music and ate Jewish food.
Krakow, Poland’s cultural capital, was once home to some 70,000 Jews; now it has only a few hundred. Nonetheless, it has become the capital of Jewish revival, hosting the Jewish Culture Festival and transforming Kazimierz, the city’s former Jewish quarters, into an ultra-trendy, Jewish-themed neighborhood.
“Until the ’80s, Kazimierz was run-down, but ... it has been rediscovered,” says Gadek. “It was completely untouched by the war, just as its residents had left it; only the Jews weren’t there.”
Growing up, lifelong Warsaw resident Piotr Kadlcik could rarely find kosher food. “Now there are kosher shops, and you can get kosher food from almost any grocery store,” he explains. “Young people like my children grew up knowing they were Jewish and aren’t frightened by it.”
But getting Jews involved in their culture is often a harder task. As chairman of the Polish Jewish Youth Organization, Bakula tries to enlist other students in Jewish activities, camps and Shabbat dinners.
Bakula has an ally in the government, which is actively promoting Jewish life. Poland is Europe’s most pro-Israeli country, reports the Israeli daily Haaretz. The newspaper points out that Poland has almost no Arab lobby and no anti-Israeli demonstrations.
But prewar Jewish Poland is lost forever. Observes Kadlcik: “Jews wearing colorful skirts and long beards won’t become common in Poland again. But at least in Warsaw we have kosher restaurants.”