Israel's chief rabbi in Poland to revive first post-Holocaust rabbinical group 22/Feb/2008

WARSAW (AFP-EJP)---Israel's chief Ashkenazi rabbi Yona Metzger has arrived in Poland to formally revive the rabbinical association in the country, a highly symbolic step in what before the Holocaust was Europe's Jewish heartland.

"We believe that there will come a day when God will take the bones and create life from death," Metzger said after a Thursday evening ceremony at Warsaw's Nozyk synagogue, the only Jewish place of worship in the Polish capital to have survived the Nazi German occupation.

Metzger's visit will be capped Saturday by the official re-launch of the rabbinical association in the central city of Lodz -- the first nationwide grouping since the Nazis crushed its predecessor during WWII.

The new association will be a shadow of its pre-war version, gathering just eight rabbis from a handful of Poland's big cities, including Warsaw, Krakow, Lodz and Wroclaw.

It will again unite all the country's rabbis together under one organizational roof.

But the limited scale is itself an illustration of the small steps being taken to revive Jewish life in Poland, driven largely by "new Jews": Poles of Jewish origin who are returning to the culture and religion of their forebears.

According to various estimates, Poland counts just 3,500 to 15,000 people who identify themselves as Jewish, out of a total population of 38 million people, more than 90 percent of whom are Catholic.

A small but growing number of young Poles are opting to step out of the long shadow cast by pre-war Polish prejudice, the Nazi Holocaust, and post-war Communist anti-Semitism to gradually get back to their long-forgotten or hidden roots.

We have to give strength to the Jewish community here," Metzger said.

"There are a lot of people who didn't even know they were Jewish. We want to tell them: 'Come and discover your roots.'"

It is nearly impossible to say how many Poles have some Jewish ancestry, given the size of the pre-war Jewish community.

Jews first emigrated to Poland from western Europe to escape 11th century pogroms.

On the eve of WWII, the country was home to around 3.5 million Jews, representing around 10 percent of the country's population -- and Europe's largest Jewish community.

While Metzger was born in Israel in 1953, his father hailed from Warsaw.

His mother, meanwhile, fled the city of Breslau in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and emigrated to Palestine.

Metzger met on Friday with members of the growing Jewish community in the same city, handed over to Poland by the Allies after the war and renamed Wroclaw.

On Saturday night, he will declare the formal re-establishment of the group after signing a special scroll together with Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich and all of the community rabbis currently serving in Poland.

The ceremony will take place as part of an annual conference for "Hidden Jews" which will bring together 150 participants from across Poland, many of whom only recently learned that they have Jewish roots.

The conference is organized by 'Shavei Israel', a Jerusalem-based group that assists "lost Jews" seeking to return to the Jewish people.

   "I think it's highly symbolic that after so many years we have a real, tangible sign that Jewish life here is on an upswing," Michael Freund of Shavei Israel said Thursday, lauding the groundbreaking revival of the rabbinical school.

Shavei Israel is an association advising people returning to their Jewish roots and has been active in Poland for three years.

The early 20th Century Nozyk synagogue lies in what was once the hub of Jewish life in the Polish capital.

Before WWII, Warsaw was home to 400,000 Jews, making it the largest Jewish city in Europe and the second in the world after New York.

A swathe of the city was turned into a ghetto by the Nazis after their 1939 invasion of Poland, and destroyed after a failed uprising in 1943.

Half of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis were Polish, and most died in Nazi German concentration camps, such as the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In 1945, Poland's surviving Jewish population numbered just 280,000.

Many emigrated to the United States or Israel, either immediately after the war or during waves of anti-Semitism under the communist regime in the 1950s and 1960s.

Of those who stayed, some were Holocaust survivors who had been able to hide their Jewish identity from the Nazis and decided to keep it that way to protect the next generation.

Many others came from mixed Catholic and Jewish, or entirely non-religious, families, where identity was fluid.

Original article: www.ejpress.org/article/24521