by Laura Ben David
Not long ago, I joined a delegation for a very unique trip to Poland. When I told friends where I was going, the response I got — again and again — was similar to what people would say before Yom Kippur. A sober face and some version of: “Have a meaningful trip.”
No one, myself included, could imagine a Jew going to Poland for anything but a Holocaust tour. After all, as we are all only too aware now, the shades of anti-Semitism have never been far from the surface in segments of Polish society; why else would Jews travel there if not to remember what once was?
In fact, for most Israelis, visits to Poland are more likely part of a heritage tour, starting in high school. Exploring Jewish history, understanding the past, and learning about communities that were all but obliterated in the Holocaust are the standard focus.
Those are all important, but none of those things were what brought us there.
I was sent on the trip to Poland as an Israel educator and photographer, as part of a delegation from the Ohr Torah Stone network’s OTS Amiel Bakehila under the auspices of Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, to bring a taste of Israel and Judaism to Diaspora Jewish communities. Though most people might not have thought of cities in Poland to be included on the list of destinations, I was already aware that these communities are reemerging through my work at Shavei Israel. Still, I was unprepared for what I was to experience.
Arriving in Warsaw, I’ll admit I half-expected the city to be black and white, and very bleak. The truth is that nearly the entire city has been rebuilt and there are few remnants from those terribly dark days of the infamous Warsaw ghetto. Instead we found color and life. Such as the vibrant, colorful JCC that was packed with smiling, happy Jewish people. Not tourists, but locals! Singles, families, lots of children…It was incredible. Most people simply have no idea about existing Jewish communities in Poland.
Indeed, the devastation and loss hang like a specter over the Polish Jewish community — in all three cities we spent time in, Warsaw, Lodz and Wroclaw, when we asked what we should do during time off, the first place we were always told to go to was to the local Jewish cemetery.
And though we did pay our respects, dutifully — this wasn’t a “roots” trip; our trip was about the living. We hadn’t come to see our past. We had come to see the Polish Jews of today.
In stark contrast to the cemeteries, we visited many Jewish schools. In fact, we were amazed at just how many there were. At the Lauder-Morasha school in Warsaw, the first school under Jewish auspices in Warsaw since 1949, the children entertained us with a colorful presentation of cities and regions around Israel.
The school, which is bright, colorful and filled with beautiful light, is housed in a restored facility that was for Jewish senior citizens prior to World War II. The history of the city is very tangible there; butterflies, that the children made, dot the walls around the entrance. They are in memory of the local children who were killed during the Holocaust.
No one knows how many Jews live in Poland today since people are still discovering their Jewish roots but the number is in the tens of thousands. As we went to each community, to synagogues, JCCs, kindergartens, senior centers and more, we met with many hundreds of people, of all ages, and formed real connections with dozens. We sang with them, shared stories and photos of Israel with them, ate with them, spent Shabbat with them and experienced their cities with them. And though security was exceptionally tight in every place we visited, we never felt uncomfortable walking the streets as Jews.
Mishael Dickman, the Israeli musician on the delegation, said it all: “I would never have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Jewish communities are being reborn. What an amazing experience to contribute to!”