A Polish-Jewish revival - at least for a weekend

By Yair Ettinger

LUBLIN - Michael Terizon threw his head back and downed a shot. Outside the dimly lit Fabrika pub, snowflakes covered Lubartowska Street. The pub was filled with a surprising mix of hedonism and Yiddishkeit. The Sholem klezmer band had traveled all the way from Krakow not in order to perform in front of a Polish audience, swept up in the Jewish trend spreading through the country, but in front of real Jews. Chiribim-chiribom, sang the soloist, and a group of women gathered at the end of the hall to dance in a circle. Those remaining around the wooden tables moved their heads to the rhythm, or joined the refrain.

Terizon is a Jewish attorney from Chicago who 17 years ago fell in love with the Jewish community forming in the country he calls "the Jewish homeland." He placed an elbow on the bar. He has no doubts - that weekend, as Jews from all over the country gathered in this eastern Polish city, was a milestone in Polish Jewry's revival. "This place was the center of our lives, and it is coming back to life," he declared.

The weekend of February 11 marked the Jewish community's dedication of the synagogue in the renovated Chachmei Lublin (Lublin Sages) yeshiva, one of the glorious yeshivas active in Europe until 1939. The ceremony lasted for three days, and was widely covered in the Polish media. "The sages are returning to Lublin," announced the newspaper Dziennik Wschodni, and Gazeta Wyborcza published a special supplement in honor of the dedication ceremony.

"Although Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, at least for Ashkenazim, Poland is a real and no less important homeland," said Terizon. "Maybe some Zionists won't like it, but when it comes to Ashkenazi Jewry, our roots are here. We were created in cities like Lublin. Our heart was torn from our body, but it continues to beat. There is still a living Jewish community here. There are Jews here, real people who will remain," he said.

A world of monuments

Lubartowska Street is now a main artery, and city buses speed down the road toward the old town. Until the German occupation, nine out of every 10 people who walked down that street were Jewish, and they numbered 40,000 souls, about half of Lublin's population.

Now there are virtually none. Generous estimates state there are 30-50 Jews, but it is easy to find traces of 500 years of Jewish life: The bakery shop offers fresh loaves of braided bread, called "hallah" or "halkah," and almost everyone knows that a "shiksa" is a low-class woman, and a "mahloikes" is a dispute.

But like in other cities in Poland, Judaism here is mainly a world of monuments and signs to remind us that here was a shtibel, a small synagogue, there stood the large Maharshal Synagogue, and there was the wall of the ghetto.

The temporal distance shortens opposite the Chachmei Lublin yeshiva building, whose light-colored facade is almost identical to a photo taken at the yeshiva's inauguration on June 24, 1930. This was one of the largest and most prestigious yeshivas in Europe, and most of its students were killed in the Holocaust. Among the students who survived are Yehiel Dinur (the author Ka-Tzetnik 135633) and Rabbi Shmuel Halevy Wosner, who is considered one of the leaders of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community.

The founder of the yeshiva, Rabbi Meir Shapiro, was not only the chief rabbi of several Polish cities, but a public figure - he was a member of the Polish parliament, the Sejm. He served as the yeshiva's spiritual leader and administrator until his death in 1934. He brought about two revolutions: One was the Daf Yomi project, through which Jews from all over the world study the Talmud, one page a day, in a seven-year cycle. The other project, the Chachmei Lublin yeshiva, was destroyed nine years after it was established, but was a prototype for Hasids who make Torah their profession.

The yeshiva changed the social status of Torah scholars in Poland. Before the yeshiva opened, they would beg or work at menial jobs. Rabbi Shapiro, who traveled around the world to raise donations, established a shelter providing the students with room, board and a bathhouse. It was a yeshiva for "iluyim," outstanding students, the Oxford of Lublin: The minimal requirement for candidates, who came from all over Poland, was total mastery of 200 pages of Talmud.

Son of Jesus the Jew

Friday, February 9, after the first prayer service in the hall of the restored synagogue, waitresses brought trays laden with gefilte fish and clear soup to the building's dining room. About 150 members of Poland's Jewish communities sat at the tables. Among them were a handful of Jews from Lublin who were seeing a Jewish prayer book for the first time in their lives.

"I sat in the synagogue during the Kabbalat Shabbat service and I said to myself: Is it real? After all, there are no Jews in Lublin, where did they come from?" said Yakub Weksler, a 63-year-old resident of the city, with excitement. "Until now I would just walk by this building, and now it will be a true home, a home of prayer."

Yakub Weksler is not exactly his name. He grew up with the name Romuald Waskinel, and he discovered his Jewish roots when he was 35 years old, after 12 years as a Catholic priest. His Polish mother revealed to him that during the war, his biological mother had entrusted him to her. She didn't remember his parents' name or where they came from. In 1992, Waskinel discovered he is the son of Yankel and Batya Weksler, and he found two of his uncles in Israel. He adopted his father's first name, Yakub.

His identity is split. Only after consulting with pope John Paul II did he decide to continue serving as a priest. Today he is a philosophy professor at the Lublin Catholic University, and accompanies groups to the Maidanek concentration camp, where his parents were murdered. He defines himself as "a Jew, the son of Jesus the Jew."

Waskinel-Weksler attended Sunday's ceremony at the synagogue wearing priestly robes and a black knitted skullcap. "God puts little people like you and me to the test, but we must remain as faithful to him as we can," he said. He considers himself a loyal Catholic as well as one of the Jews of Lublin, and is concerned that the new synagogue will not have a minyan of 10 worshipers for Shabbat prayers. "I have a prayer book, but the problem is that I don't know how to pray," he replied in response to the question of whether he would join the minyan.

The story of Father Waskinel-Weksler is unusual, but such tragedies are not foreign to the Jewish community of Poland, most of whose members - who today number only 4,000 - concealed their Jewishness under the Nazi and Communist regimes. During the past 17 years, they have been emerging one at a time. In 1992, four community members who grew up in Polish families, and only later discovered they are Jews, established the Association of Children of the Holocaust. Since then, about 7,000 people have registered, although only a minority belong to the Jewish community.

How many of the 150 people at the meal grew up knowing they were Jewish? The chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, surveyed the tables. He knows almost everyone here. "Four or five," he counted. "Most of them discovered their Jewish roots after the fall of the Communist regime." And how many are Jews according to halakha? About half, says Shudrich, "and many are in the process of conversion."

Test case

Seventy-seven years after Chachmei Lublin was dedicated, the Jewish community expects the very existence of a Jewish center in the city to lead more Jews to come out. "I would be happy if people with Jewish roots came to this synagogue to pray," said the president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, Piotr Kadlcik, at the dedication ceremony.

The community also hopes to receive recognition from international Jewish institutions and organizations. "This is a very important test case," said Monika Krawczyk, who heads the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland. "We want to demonstrate that we don't only steal money, as many accuse us of doing, but we invest the money we get from the Polish government to preserve the most important elements of Jewish life in Poland."

In any case, the ceremony was an entirely Polish event. The State of Israel and the Jewish world, even the Holocaust, played only secondary roles. Most of the speakers, Catholics and Jews, waxed nostalgic about the days when Jews and Poles lived side by side in Lublin, and they showered praise on what they described as 1,000 years of coexistence.

After it was all over, a woman from the community dashed its hopes. "The word 'Jew' in Poland is empty, particularly if you are a religious Jew," she said. "Lublin has no Jewish content. The synagogue will stand empty tomorrow. Perhaps if people were to come from Israel or America there would be a minyan on Shabbat. The atmosphere here is one of dead people, shadows. A normal Jewish life is impossible in Lublin, and not only in Lublin but in all of Poland."