Jewish life has returned to a place infamous for its decimation—Oświęcim, Poland, also commonly known as Auschwitz. Dozens of young people from across Poland who recently discovered their Jewish roots came together on April 5–7 for a special weekend educational seminar. The gathering, which symbolically took place just ahead of Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, which began on the evening of April 7, was organized by the Jerusalem-based Shavei Israel in commemoration of the revival of Jewish life in Poland.
“Our aim is to underline the indestructibility of the Jewish spirit,” said Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel. “In recent years, a growing number of young Poles have begun to discover their Jewish roots, which Hitler and his henchmen so ruthlessly sought to erase,” Freund said, adding, “By bringing these young people together to honor and explore their Jewish heritage, we are sending a message to the world that we are truly an eternal nation. Indeed, I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate that the Jewish people still live than by celebrating Shabbat with young Polish Jews in the shadow of the valley of death known as Auschwitz.”
Participants in the seminar were mostly young adults who came together to study Judaism and Jewish history, get to know new Jewish friends, and above all to celebrate and demonstrate pride in their Jewish roots. Over the course of the weekend, the group observed a traditional Shabbat, joined in prayers, heard lectures, and engaged in meaningful discussions on the future of the Jewish people. Services were held in the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue in Oświęcim, the only functioning synagogue that remains in the area.
“My friends were startled about my roots when I initially told them about it, but they encouraged me to discover my heritage more deeply,” said Karolina Wantuch, 25, PhD student of Cultural Ukrainian Studies from Krakow, one of the participants at the event. “Sometimes I’m afraid to talk about my Jewish background, which I discovered just recently, to people who I don’t know very well. This is why the Shabbaton in Oświęcim is important—because it’s some kind of meeting with a fragment of my family’s past, and an opportunity to meet people with a similar story to mine.”
Another participant at the event, Gzregorz Meisel, 45, owner of “Slodka Manufaktura Leona” handmade truffle company, shared his background saying, “My first encounter with the word Jew was many years ago when I was a boy. The children one day began to call me, “You Jew” and I totally did not know what they meant. I quickly forgot about it, but when I was an adult I became interested in family history and my family was very helpful until I discovered that our name is a Jewish one and that older people in the city have always known that we have Jewish roots, while my family was silent on the subject. I came to learn that my family had assimilated a long time ago and I wanted to learn more about what it means to be a Jew.”
The town of Oświęcim saw its first Jewish settlement in the early 16th century. Among Jews it was known by its Yiddish name, Oshpitzin, and it was home to a dozen synagogues and several yeshivot on the eve of the Holocaust. According to unofficial data, at the start of World War II Oswiecim’s population was around 14,000, which included 8,200 Jews (more than half the city’s population). Most were murdered during the Holocaust by the Germans and their accomplices. By September 1945, only 186 Jews remained in Oświęcim, and by November 1946 that number had dwindled further to just 40. Between 1945 and 1955 the majority of Oświęcim’s Jews emigrated to Israel and the United States. In 2000, the Auschwitz Jewish Center was opened, and it later became affiliated with the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York.
Today, there are approximately 4,000 Jews registered as living in Poland, but experts suggest there may be tens of thousands of others in Poland who to this day are either hiding their identities or are simply unaware of their family heritage. In recent years, a growing number of such people, known as the “Hidden Jews of Poland,” have begun to return to Judaism and to the Jewish people.
Shavei Israel is a nonprofit organization with the aim of strengthening the ties between the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and the descendants of Jews around the world. The organization is currently active in nine countries and provides assistance to a variety of different communities such as the Bnei Menashe of India, the Bnei Anousim (referred to as the derogatory “Marranos” by historians) in Spain, Portugal and South America, the Subbotnik Jews of Russia, the Jewish community of Kaifeng in China, descendants of Jews living in Poland, and others. For more information visit www.shavei.org. v