Poles discover their Jewish roots

By Adam Easton

BBC News, Warsaw
December 12, 2006

Under Nazi and communist persecution, the few Jews who remained in Poland sometimes hid their identity, leaving a surprise in store for their descendants.

Pawel works in the kitchen of a kosher restaurant in the heart of Warsaw's growing Jewish community, near the 19th Century Nozyk synagogue, a Jewish theatre and cultural centre.

When he was younger, he used to be a skinhead.

"I am from a Catholic family. I was baptised. My parents are still Catholics," he told me.

"When I was a skinhead, I used to go around saying: oh, those Jews, look at what they've done.

"It was madness because we didn't know anything about Jews or Jewish culture. It was just slogans - like Jews Rule the World, Jews are Bad.

 When I looked into the mirror I asked myself: why should I be a Jew?



"When there was a black person in the street, we used to chase him. If we caught him, we did what we did.

"A young person always needs to find an enemy and we found this enemy in Jews, blacks and Gypsies."

Six years ago, Pawel made a discovery that turned his life upside down - he found out that he was Jewish. His parents had turned their back on Jewish life and they had never told him about his background.

"When I looked into the mirror I asked myself: why should I be a Jew? It was the biggest shock of my life. It was really a huge blow. For most of my life I hated them. It was too much to take in at once."

New path

Pawel decided he wanted to know more about Judaism and he started attending the synagogue.

Now 30 years old, he is trying to lead an Orthodox lifestyle, but it is not always easy when he wears his skullcap on the streets.

"I put on a hat but it doesn't help much because I still stand out with my beard. People stare and turn around. Sometimes they say: look there's a Jew. But, I don't find it offensive. I used to behave like that."

Pawel has not been able to meet some of his old friends because he is afraid of how they would react. He did not want to be photographed.

But his parents are proud that he and his wife, who is also Jewish, are raising a Jewish family, even if his mother and father do not want to return to the faith.

"I told my Dad it would be good for him to go back to Judaism but he said he is so used to the Church it would be difficult for him. This is their choice, there's no point in forcing it - I just want them to be happy."


Warsaw was once home to the largest Jewish community in the world after New York.

But 90% of Poland's Jews were murdered by the Nazis during World War II. The majority of those who survived decided to emigrate after suffering repression under the new communist authorities.

But since the collapse of communism in 1989 people have felt free to talk about Jewish life and the country's Jewish community is undergoing a revival.

Many Poles were brought up as Catholics and only later discovered they were really Jewish or had Jewish ancestors.

At the Nozyk synagogue, which stands almost hidden beside grey communist-era tower blocks and modern glass skyscrapers in the centre of Warsaw, Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, leads the daily prayers.

Officially there are just a few thousand registered Jews in the country. Some estimates suggest there could be up to 30,000 people with Jewish roots.

 We hope that they will remain Jewish and they will keep their Jewish education

Rabbi Pavlac

"It's far more common than people realise. It's probably in the thousands at least," he says.

"We have had support groups and certainly people have been shocked. Those who come and begin to learn about what it means to be Jewish - in some way, at some level, end up at peace with it - or at a liveable level of peace with it.

It is not simple, it takes a lot of patience and I really stand in awe of these people because I don't know if I could do what they have done."

First steps

In Warsaw's Jewish school, a class of four-year-olds take their first steps as young members of the Jewish community.

Here they will get a good general education but they will also learn about Jewish life, culture and Hebrew.

"We hope that they will remain Jewish and that they will keep the Jewish education they received here in our school and, in the future, they will get more interested in any kind of Jewish life," the school's director, Rabbi Pavlac, explains.

"Whether they choose to be religious or non-religious - they will stay with us as a community," he adds.

Like many others here, 29-year-old Rabbi Pavlac only discovered he was Jewish when he was a teenager. He has just become the country's first Polish rabbi in 40 years.

Many people believe the Holocaust killed off Jewish life in Poland but people like Pawel, Rabbi Pavlac and the 240 pupils at this school are proof that it is slowly coming back to life again.

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