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Article from:
Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Seattle, WA)
Article date:
September 18, 1997

Once part of a thriving Jewish district, the one-block stretch of cobblestones and turn-of-the-century tenements stands out as an anachronism in today's Warsaw.

The four crumbling brick buildings, a microcosm of prewar style that survived the Nazi firestorm and decades of Communist neglect, were listed last year as among the world's 100 most endangered historical sites by the World Monuments Fund.

Now a private investment group is stepping in with a $7 million plan to restore Prozna Street, open some Jewish shops and maybe, in the process, give a boost to the slow rekindling of Jewish life in Warsaw.

``Jewish life can't exist in a vacuum,'' says Menachem Rosensaft, executive vice president of the Jewish Renaissance Foundation, the New York-based organization behind the project. ``If you want to bring kids up as Jews, you have to provide an atmosphere where that is possible.''

Before World War II, Warsaw was home to more Jews than any other city in Europe, some 380,000. Most died in the Holocaust or left Poland shortly after the war and during Communist purges. Only a few hundred are believed to remain, most of whom have abandoned their religion.

There are, however, signs of a modest rebirth:

-- A Jewish school that opened in 1994 now has 99 students from kindergarten through fifth grade.

-- A new Polish-Jewish magazine sold an estimated 2,700 copies of its first issue, almost double expectations.

-- Forty students graduated in June from the first full-fledged, college-level class in Yiddish held in Poland since the Holocaust.

-- A hot line recently opened for Poles investigating their Jewish roots.

Supporters of the Prozna Street rehabilitation say they want to give a physical center to the spiritual community-building efforts.

The project, like the elementary school, is financed by Ronald S. Lauder, the American cosmetics heir who has committed millions of dollars to the revival of Jewish life across eastern Europe.

The head of his foundation in Warsaw is Rabbi Michael Schudrich, an enthusiastic American who also leads the restored Nozyk Synagogue, the only one in Warsaw.

While most of Warsaw's Jews are not religious, Schudrich says he believes those who want to learn more about their Jewish roots should be able to do so.

``Because Poland today is going in the direction of democracy, we can create just one more option for Poles,'' he says.

If all goes as planned on Prozna Street, in a couple of years they also will have a kosher bakery, a shop to buy mezuzas, yarmulkes and other Judaica, and a Jewish bookstore and cafe to socialize in.

``It's a beginning,'' Rosensaft says.

For the thousands of tourists, mostly from the United States and Israel, who visit each year to explore their Polish-Jewish roots, the project also is meant to provide a broader view of what life was like in prewar Poland. Most end up seeing only cemeteries, Nazi death camps and monuments.

``They don't understand that there was life here,'' says Eleonora Bergman, vice director of the Jewish Historical Research Institute in Warsaw. ``They know only death. So maybe there will be some sign of life - I hope.''

The concern that the project will end up as simply a tourist attraction, like Warsaw's reconstructed Old Town, has led some local Jews to dismiss the project as a ``Jewish Disneyland.''

``One can open cafes. One can try to remind people that there were Jews here in the past, and it's not a bad idea,'' Szymon Szurmiej, director of Warsaw's Jewish Theater, said on Polish radio. ``But the spirit is lacking. There are no Jews who would give it some meaning.''

Yet most say they welcome any contribution to saving Warsaw's Jewish history.

``Anything that helps to preserve the crumbling bits and pieces of what used to be Jewish Warsaw - and there aren't that many left - is blessed,'' said Konstanty Gebert, editor of Midrasz, the new Polish-Jewish magazine. ``And if they will be kept in a Jewish way, this is doubly blessed.''