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JEWISH LIFE IN POLAND TODAY

Rebirth of Jewish Life in Poland After 1989

After 1968 and the wave of emigration that occurred at that time, just three thousand Jews remained in Poland, for the most part older people. They were grouped around two organizations, the Social and Cultural Association of Jews in Poland and, in the Communities, in the Religious Union. Young and middle-aged people did not openly claim their Jewish background and did not take part in either religious or cultural life.

This state of affairs arose from a variety of factors, the most important of which was the post-March trauma associated with the fear of losing either one's chance to study or one's job, and with the hostility of one's acquaintances. Another reason for the absence of young people in those organizations was because the Association had been heavily infiltrated by the Ministry of the Interior. People knew that joining the Association meant a file would be kept on them.

As a result, the Association was engaged in activities that were geared only toward older people, which discouraged young people from having any interest whatsoever in taking part. A breakthrough of sorts occurred in the late 1980's, when the Association began organizing Yiddish courses and lectures about the culture and history of the Polish Jews. Young people increasingly began to participate in these activities, interested in things that had been taboo for nearly two decades. As a result, the Association's board organized the first summer camp for young people in the Srodoborowianka villa near Otwock for the first time since 1968. It took place during the summer of 1988, gathering nearly thirty people from all over Poland. For many of them, this was their first contact with Jewish culture, their first observation of the Sabbath, and their first discussions about national and religious identity. Above all, it was their first meeting with other Jews of their own age. After this summer session, many of them began participating in Jewish organizations, forcing the Association's leaders to admit that young Jewish people did exist in Poland. They insisted on their right to have a free hand in organizing activities. In many branches, youth sections were founded that organized their own discussions, meetings and observations of religious holidays. It must be stressed that this cultural revival occurred during a period of political change in Poland, when it became possible to sponsor such activities without political supervision, with freedom to express one's beliefs and, most importantly, when it was already possible to emphasize one's Jewish background.
In 1991, the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation launched its activities in Poland. For the most part, it is involved in educational activities for the Jewish community. The Foundation also seeks to aid those who wish to return to the faith who had not had the opportunity to do so previously. For this purposes, the Foundation runs religious education camps. The first took place in the Warsaw suburb of Komorow. Guests from the United States taught participants the foundations of Judaism, basic prayers and blessings, as well as the principles of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) and the proper way of running a Jewish home. The first Lauder camp had about twenty participants. Because of the large number of applicants-120 people-the next was held in Zaborow; the camp was later moved to the holiday center in Rychwald, near Zywiec. Since that time, summer and winter sessions have been organized regularly.

The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation runs several cultural centers in Poland. They are located in Warsaw, Krakow, Lodz and Gdansk, and serve as centers for individuals interested in becoming acquainted with Jewish culture and religion. With time, a Jewish preschool was organized, as well as elementary and middle schools. Poland today has two Jewish schools funded by the Lauder Foundation in Wroclaw and Warsaw. In Krakow, the first Jewish religious school, the Pardes Lauder Yeshiva, has been opened as well.

Important changes have taken place in the field of publishing as well. Three publications for the Jewish audience are published: Dos Yidishe Vort/Slowo zydowskie, a bilingual, Polish-Jewish magazine published under the auspices of the Jewish Social and Cultural Association; the cultural and literary magazine Midrasz, and Szterndlech, which is for young children. For a time, Yidele was also published for young people of high school and college age.

This image of contemporary Jewish life in Poland would not be complete without a mention of the Festival of Jewish culture, organized yearly in Kraków. It includes lectures and concerts, as well as courses in Yiddish and dance, and workshops on calligraphy and traditional paper cutouts. For several years, a several day series of events and concerts known as "Meetings of Four Cultures"-including Jewish culture-has been organized. In Warsaw, a Jewish Book Fair is held during which meetings with authors are held. In addition, various cities also organize film, theater and music reviews.
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Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Wiejska 12a, 00-490 Warsaw tel. (48-22) 44 76 100, fax. (48-22) 44 76 152; www.iam.pl