Among Polish Jews looking forward to Passover, Karina Sokolowska stands out. As manager of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Poland, she knows holidays offer the perfect opportunity to reach out to her often hidden community and invite them back to their religion and roots. This year JDC caravans will spread out to small towns where remnants of Polish Jewry survive. People from neighboring towns meet each other for the first time at JDC seders and Shabbat dinners. They learn that their 1,000-year-old Polish/ Jewish culture is still alive.
“I’m part of the historical life in Poland on a personal level,” said Karina, who spoke at a Jewish Genealogical Society of Oregon (rootsweb.ancestry.com/~orjgs) event last December. “My parents were born to two sets of survivors after the war. I’ve always known we were Jews, but there was nothing to symbolize that in practical terms. I grew up in a Communist time and expressing Judaism was not possible.”
Everything changed when Karina met other Jews at Warsaw University and helped found the Jewish Union of Students. “In this new atmosphere of freedom and democracy, young people came out of the woodwork,” she said. “Children saved by non-Jews during war started a grassroots initiative. They were brought up Catholic and never knew they were Jewish until a deathbed confession. They have families, children and grandchildren. This explains the numbers looking back
and embracing their heritage. There is a Jewish community in Poland. It’s not just a graveyard.”
The number of Jews in Poland today is estimated at about 25,000, although Karina suspects there are many more. “It’s a matter of how you count them and how you can reach out,” she said. “Being a Jew is a decision. You have to struggle to revive something; you cannot take it for granted like in America. If you want to keep kosher, there is no kosher food, and that is true of any other aspect.”
Karina described the numerous programs sponsored by the JDC and other groups, including camps for adults and children, Jewish and Israeli festivals – the largest of which is in Kraków each year – and efforts to teach Polish schoolchildren about the forgotten Jewish history of their own towns. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews (jewishmuseum.org.pl/en) opened in April 2013 in Warsaw through the efforts of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, the city of Warsaw, and the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. The core exhibit presenting the 1,000-year history of Polish Jews opens autumn 2014.
“Poland has a history of multicultural life, and people are welcoming it back,” Karina said. “We haven’t had anything negative in terms of reaction, and (we) have support from individuals and the government. We have lots of Philo-Semitics. Many young people want to study Yiddish. On the other side, anti-Semitism is the same as everywhere. Still, if anyone asked me 20 years ago, I would never in my wildest dreams think that we could achieve so much. What I can offer my children is 1,000 percent more than what I had growing up under Communism.”
For more information about the JDC’s work in Poland visit jdc.org/where-we-work/europe/poland.html.