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Po Żydowsku: Telling our Story of Jewish Poland 1991-2001

Here we are back in Warsaw after 13 years. We returned to to participate in events marking the 25th anniversary of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in Poland. Thanks to Ambassador Lauder, the foundation that he built, his rabbi, and the naive idealism that we shared, Rachel and I spent nearly all of the first years of our marriage, from 1996-2001 in the complex, paradoxical, humorous, tragic, hopeful, ironic, and ultimately lovable universe of post-communist Jewish Poland.

Our lives were so inextricably tied to the future of Polish Jewry that we even celebrated our honeymoon in a Polish Carpathian village so that we would be able to work the rest of the summer at Oboz Laudera, the Jewish Summer retreat where the future of Polish Jewry was rekindled – or as our dear friend Kostek Gebert said – resuscitated by defibulator.

We don’t know how long it will take us to tell our story on Po Żydowsku, a blog that will dedicated to this oral history. I suppose that doesn’t even matter. We are opening the pandora’s box of memories for ourselves and for our children, for the Jewish Polish world of today and for you the reader. Everything is from our perspective, and others might remember things differently. It’s ok. We are not seeking to retell the entire story of Jewish life in Poland. We are offering what we know and our experiences.

I remember when I asked Prof. Ezra Mendelsohn, who was in Oxford lecturing about American Jewry, why after such amazing work on the history of interwar Poland he stopped writing about Poland altogether. He replied, “I couldn’t take one more meeting where a Polish Jew would get up in the room emphatically waving their hand and saying – I’m from Poland at it wasn’t like that!”

If you feel compelled to wave your hand and say, “it wasn’t like that, I know, because I was there.” Please remember that we were there too.

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Shechita Continues in Krakow

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Olive Tree Owner and Shochet Yitzchak Horowitz

When I lived in Krakow as a Fulbright Fellow from 1993-1994, the thought of having a real kosher restaurant in Krakow, let alone kosher schechita, would have been a fantasy. (The topic of “kosher” restaurants in Krakow in the 1990’s deserves its own long essay.)

Today, thanks to a thriving tourist industry, the profittable exports of Kosher meat, and to some extent consumption by the local community, Kosher food and locally produced meat is available at several establishments. In today’s Krakow Post there is a comprehensive discussion of the issues invovled in the Polish Kosher Meat ban, and a great interview with JCC Director Jonathan Ornstein, who commented:

I don’t eat meat and would like to live in a world where no one else does either, but I don’t accept the idea that a country where you can go out and hunt for pleasure, also something expressly forbidden in Judaism, a country where you can take a live carp home in a plastic bag and allow it to slowly suffocate as you wait in line at the supermarket checkout before Christmas, should outlaw a form of killing that was devised thousands of years go to be humane.

For more on this issue read today’s Krakow Post.

No Justice, No Meat: Polish Parliament Reaffirms Antisemitism

polish meat storesWith great chutzpah and an undercurrent of antisemitism the Polish Parliament has rejected a bill proposed by the government to permit Kosher and Halal ritual slaughter. As has been the case in other European countries that have banned kosher slaughter, the process is deemed “inhumane”. All this has happened during the saddest days on the Jewish calendar and has led to Poland’s esteemed Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich, the architect of post-Communist Jewish revival and a lifelong vegetarian, to threaten resignation. Having helped Rabbi Schudrich to reestablish kosher slaughter in Poland in the 1990’s through the importation of a ritual slaughterer form Hungry, and personally supervising kosher meat production, this ban is particularly personal.

As with most Jewish communities, the vast majority of Polish Jews do not keep kosher. Yet, the news that the ban on Kosher meat production in Poland will continue indefinitely is of profound symbolic importance. For a country that is trying to revive its image as being hopelessly anti-Semitic, where a small, nascent Jewish community is rebuilding itself, the renewal of the ban on kosher slaughter is just the latest sign that perhaps Poland has not really changed.

Ironically, Poland is a major supplier of kosher food around the world, including a growing export of kosher meat to Israel. The OU, the largest supervisory agency for kosher products worldwide, certifies production in over two dozen Polish factories. Products under supervision include, bakeries, vegetables, fish and milk and more.

The Polish parliament for its part is going against the obvious economic benefits pertaining to the production of Kosher food, and especially meat. A constitutional court has upheld the ban on kosher slaughter which echoes back to the days during pre-war Poland when a full-blown economic assault was waged against its Jewish citizens. The ruling by most accounts goes counter to the Polish constitution. With this one move Poland’s parliment undermines its relations with the world-wide Jewish community.

Polish Prime Minister Tusk’s enemies are capitalizing on a right-wing shift in the countries political climate. The unpopular Prime-Minister is being hounded by the opposition who have seized upon his weaknesses. One of those weaknesses is his pro-Jewish stance. In addition, the opposition have decried the export of Polish meat which should stay in Poland and not be exported to Israel and to Muslim countries. With unabashed chutzpah, Tusk’s opposition is using the issue of Kosher and Halal slaughter as part of their campaign to wrest control of a government.

Not all of Poland’s politicians are bending. Poland’s agricultural minister for example has decried the decision in sharply worded term calling the ban unconstitutional infringement on the rights of minorities in Poland. However, the Prime Minister stated that the government will not attempt to introduce new legislation making kosher and halal slaughter permitted.

The decision of the Polish Parliament coincides with the days of sorrow for the Jewish communities. This period of national mourning called the “Nine Days” leads up to the largest day of national mourning, Tisha B’Av. These days are known for sorrow and persecution. From the times of the destruction of the Second Temple until today, many tragedies befell the Jewish people during this time including the expulsion of Jews from England (1290) and Spain (1492), World War I (1914), and the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto (1942).

While the decision to ban kosher meat production and ritual slaughter are not on the scale of these tragedies, its timing could not be more profound. At a milestone in Polish Jewish and Christian rapprochement, the completion of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in the heart of Warsaw, Poland has found itself once again a flashpoint of intolerance. This is not to lessen the intolerance and racism found in other European countries that have enacted a similar bans on kosher and halal slaughter. Yet, because of Poland’s unique history as having the largest Jewish community in the world prior to WWII, and the country that suffered the largest percentage of annihilation of its Jewish community during the war, this turn of events is highly unfortunate.

In the early 1990’s, when we were able to resume the production of kosher meat in Poland, it was sign that Poland’s Jewish community had a future. In a country that prides itself on meat dishes, the availability of Kosher meat to the Jewish community was another step in the direction of communal rebirth. While a vegetarian at the time, I was keenly aware that a lack of readily available kosher meat was critical to a sense of self-sufficiency that is part of the Polish psyche. No longer was it necessary to import canned meat from Israel for use in the Jewish soup kitchens. No longer did families have to settle for un-kosher meat to create Friday Night Dinners, Passover seders, and holiday meals.

With the resurgence of Polish anti-semitism, the reemergence of Polish Jewish life has been dealt another serious setback. On these days of introspection and mourning, the Jewish world has been dealt another blow. We should not look at this as an isolated infringement on Jewish religious practice on a small Jewish community, but as a global Jewish community issue and a harbinger of the winds of change.

Yom Hashoah: From the Depths of our Souls


Survivors are disappearing. We are left with stories, fragments, articles, films, interviews. But nothing can capture the enormity of what happened between 1939-1945. Nothing.

After spending years in Poland, that is one of the main lessons that I can offer. The Holocaust is vast, cutting a path of devastation across human civilization, and no amount of tears can ever fill the sea of our — and the world’s — loss.

In his Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day article, The Chief Rabbi discusses Janusz Korczak. Korczak is hailed as a hero in modern Poland, his self-sacrifice on behalf of the children of the orphanage that he ran, becoming a cornerstone in the memorializing of the Holocaust in Poland. Korczak’s children’s books are still read in Poland today.

We should focus on Korczak, and other tzaddikim who did righteous acts under the terrible oppression of Nazi tyranny, because to look at the Shoah in its entirety might blacken our souls. It’s not myopia, its self-preservation.

Yom Hashoah: Remember From the Depths of the Jewish Soul

This Wednesday evening and Thursday (April 18-19), Jews around the world will be commemorating Yom HaShoah, the day set aside in the Jewish calendar for Holocaust remembrance.

During the nightmare years of the Shoah (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust) one moment stands out for what it taught about the human spirit. It concerns a man almost unknown in Britain and around the world, the Polish-Jewish physician Janusz Korczak.

Early on in his medical career, Korczak was drawn to the plight of underprivileged children. He wrote books about their neglect and became a kind of Polish Dickens. In 1911, he founded an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw. It became so successful that he was asked to create one for Catholic children as well, which he did.

He had his own radio program, which made him famous throughout Poland. He was known as the “old doctor.” But he had revolutionary views about the young. He believed in trusting them and giving them responsibility. He got them to produce their own newspaper, the first children’s paper in Poland. He turned schools into self-governing communities. He wrote some of the great works of child psychology, including one called “The Child’s Right to Respect.”

He believed that in each child there burned a moral flame that if nurtured could defeat the darkness at the core of human nature. When the time came for the children under his care to leave, he used to say this to them: “I cannot give you love of man, for there is no love without forgiveness, and forgiving is something everyone must learn to do on his own. I can give you one thing only: a longing for a better life, a life of truth and justice. Even though it may not exist now, it may come tomorrow if you long for it enough.”

In 1940 he and the orphanage were driven into the Warsaw ghetto. In 1942 the order came to transport them to Treblinka. Korczak was offered the chance to escape, but he refused, and in one of the most poignant moments of those years, he walked with his 200 orphans through the streets of Warsaw to the train that took them to the gates of death, inseparable from them to the end.

Janusz Korczak’s actions were not unique; there are many inspirational and tragic stories of similar bravery and determination in the face of such adversity. What draws me to Korczak’s story is that it was about children. The Nazis were determined to not just wipe out the Jews of their generations, but to exterminate the Jewish future.

They failed and many of those children who survived have spent the years since telling their stories, educating Jews and non-Jews about the dangers of intolerance and the need to respect the dignity of difference. These survivors made a commitment to live for what the victims of the Shoah died for.

As a people, we not only share a covenant of faith we also share a covenant of fate. Today, as the number of Shoah survivors sadly declines, the duty of remembrance falls on our generation and on future generations not yet born.

Yom HaShoah is a vital day in the Jewish calendar, providing us with a focal point for our remembrance. We cannot bring the dead back to life, but we can bring their memory back to life and ensure they are not forgotten. We can undertake in our lives to do what they were so cruelly prevented from doing in theirs.

In doing so we make a great affirmation of life. We ensure that out of the darkest night, the light of the survivors and their memories remains. Faced with destruction, the Jewish people survived. Lo amut ki echyeh, says the Psalm: “I will not die, but I will live.”

The Holocaust survivors are among the most inspiring people I have had the privilege to meet. Remarkably, despite coming eyeball to eyeball with the angel of death, despite the unimaginable losses each of them suffered, so many of them fulfilled the words of Moses’ great command Uvacharta Bachayim, “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30: 19). In doing so, they chose life not just for themselves, but for their children, grandchildren and all future generations of Am Yisrael, the People of Israel.

Yom HaShoah calls on us to remember from the depths of our Jewish soul. Janusz Korczak was right. While we can remember the past, we cannot write the future. Only our children, the future of our community, can do that.

This article was first published in The Jewish News in the UK.