New rabbis in Poland revive Jewish life devastated by Holocaust, communism

Warsaw, Poland - For the first half of his life, Rabbi Mati Pawlak had no idea he was Jewish.

Like many Jews in communist Poland, Pawlak's family kept silent for decades about their heritage, returning to the faith only after the 1989 collapse of the communist regime that oppressed the tiny Jewish community remaining after the Holocaust.

Poland has since seen a slow but steady revival of Jewish life and Pawlak, 29, could easily stand as its symbol. He's the first native Pole to serve as a rabbi in Poland since the fall of communism, a sign of hope for a community that until now has had to import its leaders.

"For me, it's a big achievement," Pawlak said. "Other people should also feel they can do the same. Some Jews (in Poland) still feel they don't know enough to study, for example, in Israel because they think they aren't good enough. I think this is wrong."

Three other rabbis — an American, an Israeli and a Swede of Polish origin — have also recently begun working in Poland, pushing up the overall number nationwide to seven from three. The new arrivals come in time for the most sacred holidays in the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah, which begins at sundown on Friday and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement 10 days later. It is the most rabbis to serve in Poland in some 50 years, according to Michael Schudrich, Poland's chief Orthodox rabbi.

"Perhaps the most significant fact is that we now have Rabbi Pawlak, a homegrown boy, taking over," Schudrich said. "His history really reflects the growth of the Jewish community because there are others like him. Maybe they didn't take the same depth of commitment, but there are hundreds and hundreds — if not thousands — like him."

Schudrich said Pawlak is the first Pole to become a rabbi in 40 years and serve in his homeland. Another Pole also finished rabbinical training in New York this summer, but has so far not returned to Poland.

Pawlak's journey reflects a broader comeback throughout central Europe of the Jewish life nearly wiped out by Nazi Germany — although it's on a much smaller scale than the large communities that flourished before the war.

On Sept. 14, three men became the first rabbis ordained in Germany since the Holocaust, a milestone coming as Germany's Jewish population has more than tripled in size to 105,000 since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

While the growth in Germany comes thanks to an influx of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, in Poland it results from people shaking off old fears amid the confidence inspired by democracy, after the pogroms of the immediate postwar years and the anti-Semitism of the Moscow-backed communist regime.

In Pawlak's case, he didn't learn until he was 14 that his family was Jewish despite some early signs: he was the only kid in school whose mother kept him out of Roman Catholic religion classes.

"My mother waited to tell me because she also didn't get any Jewish education at all herself, so couldn't give me more information," Pawlak said. "She was born right after the war. My grandparents survived the war but it wasn't easy for them."

"The generation after the war didn't want to talk about being Jewish," said Pawlak, who recently became the principal of Warsaw's only Jewish school, Lauder-Morasha, and also assists Schudrich at Warsaw's Orthodox Nozyk synagogue. "They wanted to just hide. That's why many people are finding out only now that they are Jewish."

Pawlak then began to explore Judaism at Jewish camps and at the synagogue in his hometown of Szczecin, in northwestern Poland, a search that culminated with his graduation this summer from Yeshiva University in New York.

So many Polish Jews suppressed their identities and intermarried with the Roman Catholic majority that it is difficult to say how many Jews live in this nation of 38 million. Some estimates put the number at around 30,000. There were close to 3.5 million before the war, 90 percent of whom were killed in the Holocaust.

In another historic first, Poland in July also got its first full-time Progressive, or Reform, rabbi since the Holocaust: Burt Schuman, a 58-year-old American who left the Temple Beth Israel congregation in Altoona, Pennsylvania to help rebuild Poland's liberal community.

He takes over at Beit Warszawa, a community that grew from a handful of foreigners meeting in their homes seven years ago to a community of nearly 200 — mostly Poles — with its own center for Sabbath services, meals and other events.

Schuman, whose grandparents came from Galicia, a region now in southern Poland and Ukraine, sees his arrival as a personal return to his roots and a chance to encourage the Jewish diversity that existed before the war.

In past years, Poland's Jewish community has been dominated by Orthodox leaders, some of whom have accused liberal Jews like Schuman of unnecessarily dividing the tiny community by forming their own congregations.

But Schuman argues Poland of the 19th and early 20th centuries was "as diverse as Israel today." He says he wants to overturn a simplified view of prewar Poland as a land of shtetls inhabited by ultra-Orthodox Jews, what he refers to as "the Fiddler on the Roof archetype."

That's just "oversimplification and folk sentimentality," Schuman said. "We were very much a part of the tapestry and mosaic of prewar Poland."

The other new rabbis are Boaz Pash, an Israeli, to Krakow and Yitzhak Rapoport, a Swede, to Wroclaw, Poland's second largest Jewish community after Warsaw. Both are Orthodox rabbis partly funded by Shavei Israel, an organization that works worldwide to help Jews return to their faith.

Rapoport, 30, was born in Sweden after his mother was expelled from Poland in 1968 amid a state-sponsored anti-Semitic purge. His great uncle was the last rabbi to serve in Silesia, the region where Wroclaw is located.

"I grew up thinking that Poland was cursed ground," Rapoport said.

That view changed when he taught at a Jewish winter camp in Poland last year run by the Lauder Foundation, where he realized that Polish Jewish life was coming back — and that he could play a role.

"I was quite shocked — positively — by the hunger for Torah and for Judaism," Rapoport said.