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Rediscovering Poland's Jewish past

For decades, Poland's Jewish history had been hidden in silence. Now it's being rediscovered: there are cultural festivals, exhibitions and a new Jewish museum - and a difficult debate on anti-Semitism.

It is the most apparent sign that Poland is rediscovering its Jewish cultural heritage: the recently opened museum on the history of Polish Jews in Warsaw. On its website, there's a unique project - a virtual shtetl.

Shtetl - that's how the eastern European Jews called their villages and neighborhoods in their own language: Yiddish. The museum is set up in four languages and follows the traces of four locations and the Jewish life there. It's a treasure trove for historians but also for anyone looking for family history. "We have more and more people from Germany who don't speak Polish or Hebrew. For them, the different languages are a great help," says Zygmunt Stepinski, deputy director of the museum.

Kielce

Kielce was the site of the worst post-war pogrom in Poland

Before the Second World War, there were some 1500 shtetls with vibrant Jewish communities who even had their own judiciary and school systems. Katarzyna Weintraub is a Berlin-based journalist who researched the history of the Polish shtetls and published a book on it. "Most Jews lived in large communities, mostly for religious reasons. Over centuries they were part of the societies and created a unique culture."

Tracing the past

Chmielnik in the southeast of Poland used to be a typical shtetl. Before the Second World War, some 80 percent of the then 12,000 inhabitants were Jewish. With the Holocaust, Chmielnik lost that part of the town's identity. "In 1942, the Germans came and brought the Jews to the Ghetto in Sandomierz. You'd have to imagine what happened to a town that over two days lost 80 percent of it's population," Weintraub explains. Chmielnik hasn't recovered to this day. Partly also because the tragedy had been a taboo for decades.

After the end of the war, most of the 200,000 survivors of the Holocaust left Poland. Many left immediately after 1945, because of the anti-Semitism in the Polish population. The last wave of emigration was in 1968 when - after an anti-Jewish government campaign - around 30,000 of the country's Jews left.

Decades of anti-Semitism

Painting Black Wedding in the Cemetery in Opatów (1892)

There's been centuries of Jewish history in Poland

Only in the early 1990s, right after the fall of communism, did Poland see a public debate about that part of the country's past. Aside from anti-Semitism, there also emerged a discussion on the cultural heritage of Polish towns and the lost identity of some of those places. The same happened in Chmielnik, where suddenly people wanted to know more about their history. By now, Jewish culture has been brought back to light; there are "Jewish Days" which attract thousands of guests from Poland and from abroad.

Bogdan Bialek from Kielce - capital of the region that's also home to Chmielnik - warns though that the past has not been rediscovered as thoroughly as it should be. What he rejects is that it's more of an event than an authentic and honest way of dealing with the past. He's been studying the Polish Jewish tradition for more than twenty years. Kielce is known for being the place where even shortly after the Second World War, a horrible pogrom targeted the Jews who had survived the Holocaust. On a warm summer's day in 1946, an angy mob killed 42 people and injured hundreds. Nine of the perpetrators were sentenced to death but the incident was quickly covered up.

Breaking the taboo

When Bialek in the early 1990s began to talk about the pogrom, he faced strong opposition. Back then, he was running the local edition of the paper Gazeta Wyborcza, and the stories about Poland's Jewish past had not been available anywhere before.

The Monument to the Ghetto Heroes

A monument reminds passers-by of the Warsaw Ghetto

Bialek and his editorial team received threatening letters, but they pressed on. The effort paid off, and after years of work he says that there's now a culture of remembrance that's firmly rooted in the town's conscience. There are foundations, monuments and a youth exchange with Israel. But an important factor is missing: "There are only very few Jews who live in Kielce, but they don't put any stress on that tradition. That cultural heritage is lost forever."

Slow revival in larger cities

The situation is different in larger cities where the Jewish communities are growing again. One example is Warsaw. Zygmunt Stepinski says that there are more and more people re-embracing their Jewish religion and community. "They go to the synagogue, their children attend Jewish schools, they learn Yiddish and Hebrew. You can see that they've rediscovered their family tradition," he explains.

The museum is an important element in that revival. It's located in what before the war used to be the Jewish part of town with some 350,000 people. After WWII and after the Nazis had put down the 1943 ghetto uprising, the area was a wasteland. In the 1950s, the new Communist regime had workers' apartments set up there, and for the next decades there were only two reminders of the Jewish past: a monument to the uprising and the square where the Jews got deported from. Today, the Jewish history of the area is much more visible again. There are memorials, Jewish bookstores, a Synagogue and the museum.

It's something the few survivors of the Holocaust have long been waiting for. For instance, Krystyna Budnicka who's living not far from the museum. She's glad the exhibition doesn't limit Jewish history to the Holocaust but instead goes back through the centuries. "It's good that young people finally understand how close Jewish and Polish history has been interwoven in the past. Hardly anyone today knows about how many of the country's poets, composers or scientists were Jewish," she says. Budnicka and many others hope that the common history will return to the country's collective consciousness. Even if it's a painful process.

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