Graduate Theological Union
Jewish Studies Students Back from Poland
Krakow Jewish Culture Festival 2010
Last July, six GTU students interested in crosscultural understanding developed and researched a topic in Poland, where today 60,000 Jews live, compared with three million in 1939. Accompanying the students were Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies Director and Koret Professor of Jewish Culture Naomi Seidman and Visiting Scholar Shana Penn. The research/seminar trip was sponsored and made possible by the Taube Foundation.
The students visited Warsaw and Krakow, touring institutions, meeting with activists and scholars, and participating in Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival — an annual grassroots event run mostly by young non-Jewish Poles to keep Jewish history alive. Here’s what travelers learned on the journey.
“I WENT TO POLAND to research the reputation of Yiddish writer Sholem Asch (1880-1957). Conversations with scholars in Warsaw and Krakow led me to Kutno, Asch’s birthplace, where I discovered that a biennial festival is held to honor him. I was surprised to discover the extent of Asch’s literary reputation in Poland outside the Jewish community. His works were extensively translated into Polish and are still in print. He was the first Jew to receive the Order of Polonia Restituta (Order of Rebirth of Poland).
“It was remarkable to discover that right now, in Poland, a new narrative of Jewish experience is being constructed — about the rich texture and communal life of the Jewish community 800 years before the horrific events of the 20th century. While we should not forget the events of World War II, the Holocaust is no longer the only lens for viewing the Jewish story in Poland.”
“I WENT TO POLAND to study how Polish schoolchildren are taught about the Holocaust and how their formal education might affect their perceptions of Polish Jewry. I had a stimulating conversation with Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, who is opening a museum in Warsaw about the long history of the Jews in Poland before and after the Holocaust. In conversing with her, I decided I not only need to look into how children are being taught about the Holocaust, but what a more effective Holocaust education could be. It might be not only about the Holocaust, but more generally about Jews in Poland.
“Over the last few decades, Poland has become homogeneous. The people are fair-skinned, blue-eyed, and Catholic. As someone who is fair-skinned, blue-eyed, and Polish, I was accepted as an insider. Where Poles spoke English to my cohort, they spoke Polish to me. In my experience, religion provides meaning and identity, but that identity sometimes focuses us on differences rather than similarities with others. In order to effectively dialogue, in Berkeley or in Krakow, we need to let go of our identities to truly communicate with others.
“Poland was filled with questions, complexity, and ambiguity. I can’t wait to return.”
“…right now, in Poland, a new narrative of Jewish experience is being constructed…”
“THE TRIP INTRODUCED US to the Jewish cultural revival in contemporary Poland, a multifaceted phenomenon where non-Jewish Poles ‘discover’ the Jewish cultures that once existed in their country, perhaps akin to the ways that young Americans ‘discovered’ Native American spirituality and culture in the 1960s. I think it can be understood as a way for young Poles to reject the legacy of Polish anti-Semitism and Soviet communism and embrace European citizenship.
“Since much of the focus on Jewish cultural revival has taken place among cosmopolitan, urban Poles, I wanted to research attitudes in the rural towns and villages bordering the Tatra Mountains, where Jewish cultural revival is more controversial and complex. I perceived some sensitivity, ambivalence or indifference on the part of some who live there. Others were receptive to my questions, but didn’t seem aware of the revival movement in the cities. Some believed Jews still constituted 10% of the Polish population — in actuality, Jews form less than 1%. The cultural divide between the city and the countryside helped me understand more deeply the contemporary cultural and social tensions lying beneath the Jewish cultural revival.
“Many Jewish tourists from the U.S., South America, and Israel also remain unaware of contemporary Jewish cultural offerings or the small but vibrant Jewish communities throughout Poland, preferring to visit only death camps, cemeteries, and synagogue ruins.”
The Jewish Cemetery at Warsaw
“HAVING GROWN UP in the Beis Yaakov system — an Orthodox Jewish educational institution for girls — I was curious about how the system’s founder Sara Schenirer convinced the Orthodox Rabbinical Council to approve her school when “no” was the answer years before. There were a number of factors that eased the way to rabbinic approval of Schenirer’s project: Schenirer was able to cloak the radicalism of her ideas in traditionalist language; moreover, the rabbis began to recognize the importance of combating the allure of the secular youth movements (whether socialist or Zionist); and finally, women had recently been granted the vote in Poland, and the Orthodox political party hoped to raise a generation who would support its candidates.
“Poland was full of touching moments. I visited the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw where my father wrote his dissertation. We spent time at the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. What is so astonishing about the cemetery is that a group of young Poles from the university volunteered their time to catalog its residents. It’s part of the Jewish cultural revival across the country. The Holocaust was a cultural genocide in addition to being a religious and ethnic one.”
and Koret Professor of Jewish Culture