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Polish youth discover Jewish roots

Polish youth discover Jewish roots

Cleveland Jewish News
Article date:
June 8, 2001
Fine, Arlene

Cleveland Jewish News


Polish youth discover Jewish roots: CJN reporter's visit to Warsaw opens
doors from the past and provides glimpse of Poland's Jewish future.

By ARLENE FINE Staff Reporter

I recently returned from an unforgettable journey to Warsaw, Poland. I went
to visit my son who is in Warsaw for business and to connect with the home
soil of my mother's family, who immigrated to America in 1896.

During my stay in this amazing city of contrasts, castles, ghosts and
rebirth, I made repeated visits to Warsaw's former Jewish neighborhood to
gain a deeper sense of the city's 800 years of rich and often tragic Jewish

My personable guide is Stacey Nolish, 23, daughter of Ilene and Jim Nolish
of Beachwood, who has been in Warsaw since August as the Jewish Service
Corps Volunteer for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee

Nolish's office is located amidst several connected buildings in the area
formerly known as Plac Grzybowski. Then, as now, it is a center of Jewish
life in Warsaw. Situated next door to the Nozyk Synagogue, the building
houses, among other things, the Joint Computer Learning Center, Midrasz - a
monthly Jewish magazine; Jewish Visitors Information Center; the Ronald S.
Lauder Foundation; PUSZ (Polish Union of Jewish Students); The Lauder
kindergarten; and Bejtejnu: the Holocaust Survivors Center and Senior Club.

"Before the war there were approximately 350,000 Jews in Warsaw who made up
one-third of the population," explains Nolish. Most perished in the
Holocaust. "Now we say there are 1,500 Jews who are registered as members
of Jewish organizations in Warsaw, but everyone suspects there are more."

An important part of Nolish's job is building leadership and helping the
Jewish community of Warsaw organize events.

"At Pesach we had four seders and ran out of space at each one," she says.
"At Chanukah, we had a party for families and over 150 people showed up. We
literally had no room for them. When we wanted to hold a Yom Ha'atzmaut
(Israel Independence Day) celebration last month, we were searching for

"The community would benefit from a comfortable spot where someone can walk
in and say, `Hi, I'm Jewish; can you help me connect to the Warsaw Jewish
community?'" she says.

Currently, many Jewish content classes are being conducted in the city.
"Jews outside of Poland don't realize that activities such as Hebrew and
Torah study are going on in Warsaw on a weekly basis," says Nolish. "On any
given day there will be a lecture, program or performance somewhere in the
Warsaw Jewish community." Nonetheless, she adds, "our Pedagogical Center
needs more materials and more knowledgeable people and leaders if we want
to be a thriving Jewish community."

Nolish, along with the Polish staff of the Jewish Pedagogical Center, is
also working on a Jewish-oriented Web site written in Polish and English
that Jews around Poland can access to learn about their Judaism. It would
also enable Jews around the world to learn about the community and its

In her travels throughout Poland, Nolish has gone to some remote areas
where people have told her there were only aged Jewish people and one or
two youth. In reality, she has attended holiday celebrations of as many as
40 Jews and met many youth that no one ever thought existed. However, these
youth are isolated from the growing Jewish cultural life in big cities like
Warsaw and Crakow.

"If we can use modern technology to connect them to their Judaism and to
make connections with other Jews in Poland and around the world with a
completely Jewish Web site, we can offer them a tremendous resource," she

The Nozyk Synagogue is the spiritual center of the Warsaw Jewish community
and is next door to Nolish's office. Used as a stable and a warehouse by
the Nazis, it is the only synagogue in Warsaw to survive the Holocaust.
Decorated with marble and granite, the imposing synagogue was renovated in
1983 and can hold up to 600 worshippers.

Stumbling at times on the uneven pavement, Nolish and I walk down streets
lined with ugly concrete and glass apartment buildings. They were built by
the communists after they and the Nazis leveled much of Warsaw during World
War II. Nolish points to where former store-front shuls and Talmud Torah
study classes had been housed, and where Jewish butcher shops, bakeries and
markets once stood.

On one of these streets is the Jewish Historical Institute, which houses
the largest collection of Jewish archival, library and museum items in
Poland. An English-speaking genealogist, American Yale Reisner, heads the
Lauder Genealogical Project and has helped a number of people trace their
Polish roots.

We systematically follow the 16 block Memorial Route labeled, "Struggle and
Martyrdom of the Jews." It consists of 19 imposing black granite blocks at
various sites along the way, commemorating important events, places and
people of the ghetto during the war years. The inscriptions are written in
Polish and Hebrew.

We linger at the final bunker of Mila 18, site of the former headquarters
of the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB). These Polish Jews launched an
unsuccessful but extremely heroic resistance movement against the Nazis.
The bunker is commemorated with a monument in the form of a high grave
mound. It was at this spot on May 8, 1943, Mordechaj Anielewicz, the ghetto
uprising commander, along with many members of the ZOB, committed suicide
rather than surrender to the Nazis.

Standing there on a beautiful spring day with Warsaw's tulips in full
bloom, is almost as painful as my walk through the gates of Auschwitz the
day before. The bravery of these courageous fighters fills me with pride
and great sadness, too.

Our tour concludes with a stop at the Umschlagplatz Monument, a sprawling
marble arch poignantly etched with the first names of Holocaust victims
like Raisa, Eva, Label, Ania, Mendel, Royza and Isaac. This marks the site
where Warsaw Jews were rounded up for mass deportation as they stood
waiting for the trains that would take them to the Treblinka death camp.

"I try not to think of the past all the time and the devastation that
occurred here," Nolish says. "I'd rather focus on the future and hope that
we can take steps to rebuild the Polish Jewish community. Since the fall of
communism in 1989, I see a real chance of that, provided we get more
funding to meet the needs of the younger generation.

"In the States," she adds, "we take our Judaism for granted. But here it
still takes courage for a lot of youth to say you are a Jew. It is clear
the spark has been ignited, but the greater worldwide Jewish community can
help make sure it continues to burn."

The three people I meet in the PUSZ (Polish Union of Jewish Students)
offices late one afternoon are vibrant examples of a new courage and spark
within the Polish Jewish community. They are PUSZ board members who
discovered their Jewish ancestry only within the past few years. Speaking
perfect English they share their stories.

Sweeping back her rich chestnut hair and happily munching on a piece of
matzo, Anna Chipczynska, 22, a political science student at Warsaw
University, says she found out she was Jewish when she was 19. "Three years
ago I was involved in my high-school's March of the Living project and we
hosted students from Israel who had come to participate," recalls
Chipczynska. "I felt such a strong attachment to these students and wanted
to spend a lot of time with them."

Chipczynska's mother noticed her intense interest in the March of the
Living project and the Israeli students, and one day the two women went for
a walk. "My mother said she was happy my attitude toward Jews was so
positive because we have Jewish roots. She told me that I was a Jew, but
that she had to keep it hidden all these years. The attitude toward Jews in
Poland was so bad my family felt it was safer to hide our identity."

Feeling intense relief and pride rather than shame when the truth was
finally revealed to her, Chipczynska says, "At that moment my mom and I
came out of the basement after years of darkness. Although my mom continues
to hide her Jewish identity, I have her permission to publicly announce I
am a Jew."

Chipczynska immediately connected with Warsaw's young Jewish community and
was pivotally involved with this year's March of the Living project in
April. "I stood at a platform at Auschwitz and gave a speech in Polish
which was telecast on Polish TV in which I said with pride and great
emotion, `We as Jewish Polish students reflect on the sadness of the past,
but we still exist. We are Polish Jews and we are alive.'"

Continuing to study and learn about Judaism is a major goal in
Chipczynska's life. She hopes to marry a Jewish man and maintain a Jewish
home. "There is still so much to learn, I have to take it all slowly and
build my identity one step at a time," she says.

As for the future of Polish Jewry, Chipczynska says if young Polish Jews
decide to make aliyah, their numbers in Poland will be depleted. "But if we
marry Jewish people here in Poland, and if we get support from Jewish
agencies, there is a chance that within the next 30 years Jewish life in
Poland will survive."

Jovial Janusz Rubenczyk, 22, who is majoring in foreign trade and holding
down two jobs, is happy to share his story. Clutching a Hebrew book in one
hand and eagerly shaking my hand with the other, he explains that at his
grandfather's funeral four years ago, a close family friend took him aside
and told him he was Jewish. His grandfather had survived the Holocaust by
joining the Polish army in Russia. He knew if he admitted he was a Jew, he
would have been killed instantly.

"Instead of being upset by the news I received, I was happy," says
Rubenczyk. "Even though I was raised to believe I was Catholic, it never
felt right. I knew the Jews were people chosen by God and I was proud to be
one. I believe in God, and found it easy to begin to understand the Jewish

Rubenczyk is treasurer of PUSZ and, this year, students from his
organization and others from Yeshiva University in New York City organized
and ran their seder. He is determined to actively learn about his religion.

"I stopped eating ham and am observing Shabbat and all the holidays with
celebrations organized by PUSZ," he says. "I hope to marry a Jewish girl
and raise a Jewish family here in Warsaw."

To make it easier for Polish Jewish youth to connect with their Judaism,
Rubenczyk says there has to be more places for formal study taught by
stimulating teachers and a greater wealth of reference books, particularly
those that can fill the waiting shelves in the PUSZ office.

"So far we have 300 members in PUSZ, which is wonderful," says Rubenczyk.
"But we know there are many more young Jewish people out there who are just
now learning their true identities or feel the need to connect with the
Jewish community." Like the other young people, he talks about the
community's desperate need of books, teachers and money for programs and
education to reach these people. "But the good news is, we are trying."

Law student and current PUSZ president Anna Zielinska, 25, says, "For many
of us who have newly learned of our religion, PUSZ was the first Jewish
organization that we contacted when searching for our roots."

Zielinska learned of her Jewish identity five years ago when an aunt
drunkenly revealed the truth to her at a family gathering.

"I had stopped being a practicing Catholic when I was 16, and since that
time I was searching for a religion to put around my faith," she says.

After a year, when the shock of discovering she was a Jew had worn off,
Zielinska decided to explore this new side of her life. A friend told her
about PUSZ where she would meet people with a similar history and

"I felt comfortable right away and knew this is where I belonged," she
says. "It is open to everyone, no matter what your level of observance.
Here no one will ask you to show your papers in order to prove your Jewish

Over the past few years Zielinska has been studying with a rabbi in Warsaw.
She has stopped smoking on Shabbat and is "committed to learning as much as
I can so I can become a good Jew."

"The youth have such potential here," she says. "We are the future and our
goal is to live a Jewish life in Poland, provide leadership and continue
centuries of our tradition."

PUSZ offices can be reached by e-mail to pusz@jewish.org.pl or for more
information at www.pusz.jewish.org.pl or the community Web site

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee can be reached at