Kama and Tomek, married for seven years, have been actively involved in the Jewish life of the capital. Kama was born in Wrocław. She still considers Lower Silesia her homeland, but Warsaw is where she grew up, studied and lived most of her life. She has a PhD in anthropology. Conversations with Lower Silesian Jews were a great part of her life for five years, day by day filling her with growing longing. For seven years she has cooperated with the Polin Museum. Since the permanent exhibition first opened, she has worked with the tour guides. Moreover, she teaches classes for university students and lectures on the postwar reality of Polish-Jewish relations and the history of Polish Jews.
Tomek is a Varsovian through and through. Warsaw is where he has grown up, studied and lived for the last forty years. He has a degree in philosophy from the University of Warsaw. After graduation, he delved into the complexities of Jewish religious law and rabbinical comments in Jerusalem yeshivas. Currently he seeks to pass on his knowledge through programmes run by the Warsaw Jewish Community and other Jewish organizations.
We met at Bakbuk, a Jewish youth club that no longer exists, an important, memorable, vivid place in the basement of the building at 6 Twarda Street. We were both involved, to varying degrees, in the founding and operation of many Jewish institutions.
Kama: Jewish Warsaw has many faces, but nothing and no one can replace the multi-ethnic crucible that the city and its residents were before the war.
Its multidimensionality occurred to me more clearly from a distance, after I saw what Jewish life looked like in other places. I realized that although the scale of Jewish life today does not compare to its prewar state, it remains diverse, to a large degree thanks to institutions that bring together people with similar needs, expectations and ways of expressing their identity.
A few years ago I published an article in “Op.cit” about the two dimensions of Jewish Warsaw, where I said: “In Poland, we are confronted with the coexistence of two parallel realities: one ‘Jewish’ – rich, diverse, present in the media, and the other Jewish – out of the limelight, highly endogamous, tenaciously guarding its territory” (Dąbrowska 2008).
The first “Jewish Warsaw” I put in quotation marks, because it referred to a simulacrum of Jewishness created by virtual Jews (i.e. non-Jewish creators) to satisfy the needs of other non-Jews related to nostalgia and entertainment, zealously painting a sentimental vision of the lost world of multi-ethnic Warsaw.
The other Jewish Warsaw I recognized as an area of actual Jewish activity initiated by Jews for Jews. At the time, I saw it as hidden in the shade of the celebrated “Jewish” Warsaw.
Looking at Jewish Warsaw today, I would not draw such a clear boundary between its two faces. My understanding of my personal experience and years of working as an anthropologist and educator have made the borders blur in my mind. I now realize that different ways of asserting one's identity find their expression in different spaces.
I first noticed Jewish Warsaw when I was still in high school, almost twenty years ago. Back then, as a teenager, I decided to confront my family past for the first time and visit 6 Twarda Street. There I got acquainted with new people and their stories, and started to get more comfortable with that part of my identity. That was also where I met my husband, who is going to help me talk about institutional Jewish life in Warsaw.
Due to our different perspectives, the description of specific locations will take the form of dialogue, with only occasional additions of monologue.
This route presents our personal view of the diversity of Jewish life in Warsaw.
The complex of buildings at 6 Twarda Street, in the centre of Za Żelazną Bramą estate, holds many institutions: the Jewish Religious Community of Warsaw established in 1997, an Orthodox synagogue, the office of the Chief Rabbi of Poland and the offices of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in the Republic of Poland (Polish: Związek Gmin Wyznaniowych Żydowskich w RP). The same postal address is used by many other Jewish institutions with seats in other parts of Warsaw.
The Orthodox synagogue is a magnificent building saved from devastation in the war, founded in the early 20th century by the married couple Rywka and Zalman Nożyk. Their last will contains a provision according to which the orthodox character of the congregation using the building must be maintained for all time. The drab synagogue outbuilding from the PRL period houses the offices of the Chief Rabbi of Poland and the Board of the Warsaw Jewish Community as well as a publicly available shop with kosher products, popularly known as “U Szyca”. Winding underground passageways lead to a mikveh hidden behind numerous doors in the basement of the synagogue.
Next to the synagogue is the so-called White Building, a lone relic of the 19th century, which before the war housed, among other institutions, a Jewish infirmary. Currently, its many rooms hold the offices of various Jewish institutions. Every day, kosher meals are served in a building adjacent to the synagogue, the Kuchnia Cejtel restaurant. Years ago, its basement housed the legendary Bakbuk club, whose turbulent history often comes up during meetings with my old friends. It was not an accident that the decor of the place alluded to the meaning of its Hebrew name, meaning “bottle”. Beer bottles were an integral part of the underground interior of the contemporary inn, set up in 1997. Many of the currently adult members of the Jewish community used to spend many late hours at the club, discussing topics of varying importance. The place was also open to interfaith dialogue: the bar tables often saw members of the Warsaw Club of Catholic Intellectuals (Polish: Klub Inteligencji Katolickiej) fervently discussing past and present problems with young Jews. Looking back, we can see that the relationships we formed then are still alive. Some blossomed into friendships, some into marriages, others left vivid memories of the people and events that played an integral part in the history of Twarda Street.
Bakbuk continued to run for several years, but its unique village inn ambience slowly faded away.
Another organization operating in the framework of the Warsaw Jewish Community is the Centre for Progressive Judaism (Polish: Centrum Społeczności Postępowej), with its own Etz Chaim Synagogue on Jerozolimskie Avenue.
6 Twarda Street is a symbolic place for me. It was the starting point of my journey toward Jewishness. Many years ago I showed up at the office of the Lauder Foundation to sign up for a summer camp in Rychwałd. Currently “Twarda” is above all a place to meet friends and acquaintances who gather in the synagogue on festive occasions. The most popular activities are readings from the Book of Esther at Purim, emotional Yom Kippur evenings, and Rosh Hashanah, filled with the taste of apples with honey.
Whenever I talk about Jewish life, whether in Warsaw or elsewhere in Poland, what I first think of is all the Jewish communities affiliated with the ZGWŻ. These are some of the oldest Jewish organizations, which continue to bring together Jews in Poland and work for their benefit.
As a religious person, I think the life of the Jewish community focuses around the synagogue, creating and maintaining various institutions necessary to live in accordance with the Torah. The synagogue itself is not only a place of prayer, but a Jewish agora, the first stop for anyone hoping to get to know the community and become involved in its activities. When I was twenty years old, my search for my Jewish identity naturally led me to the Nożyk Synagogue in Warsaw. In the 1990s the main language at the synagogue was Yiddish and there was almost no one who did not remember life before the Holocaust. Today, unfortunately, Yiddish has faded and the new generation is struggling with new challenges and needs. The Warsaw synagogue has one of the most thriving communities in Poland. Prayers are held every day. There is a kollel (a Torah study school for adults), where students examine rabbinical texts under the supervision of rabbis.
There is a Jewish saying that Chabad is like Coca-Cola, you can find it everywhere and it always tastes similar. Chabad-Lubawicz is a Hassidic group. The first Reb of the Chabad dynasty was Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi in Belarus (1745-1812), but the mission of the movement is to provide the greatest number of Jews with opportunities for a religious life. Wherever Jews live or travel, including the most remote corners of the world, Chabad sends its representatives to run synagogues and houses of study. For centuries, successive tzadiks have been gaining followers all over the world.
The Warsaw branch of Chabad has its seat in the vicinity of the “Arkadia” shopping centre.
On the Sabbath and religious holidays, Jews do not drive cars, but travel mostly on foot. Its comfort and friendly, homely atmosphere are the reasons I usually spend the Sabbath at the Warsaw seat of Chabad. From our house in the Bielany district, a Shabbat stroll to Radosława Roundabout is only 40 minutes, while it would take me twice as long to walk to the Nożyk Synagogue. In addition to the synagogue, the Chabad Foundation, managed by Rabbi Szalom Ber Stambler, also runs the Warsaw Beit Hamidrash, house of study. Its extensive library is a good place to study the sacred texts of Judaism. There is also a kosher kitchen serving Sabbath and holiday foods.
Clubs run by the Social and Cultural Association of Jews in Poland, during the PRL period, in many cities attracted the young and old, who came in the afternoon to play chess, watch TV or attend various courses and classes. The Association was a patron of such initiatives as summer camps for Jewish youth, which gave young people a sense of belonging to a community. It supported local Jewish activists, providing an institutional basis for social life. Established in 1950, TSKŻ is the largest secular Jewish organization. Nowadays, TSKŻ organizes cultural events, annual commemorative events, Jewish art exhibitions, conferences, lectures, Yiddish language courses, and summer camps for the youth. An important part of the organization is clubs, which promote the integration of people with Jewish roots. TSKŻ has made a great contribution to the cultivation of the Yiddish language, mainly through publishing projects such as the bilingual socio-cultural magazine “Słowo Żydowskie/Dos Jidisze Wort” with articles in Polish and Yiddish.
The seat of TSKŻ is located in the Jewish Theatre building onGrzybowski Square.
For me, TSKŻ remains an institution that is firmly rooted in the past, whose unique character I learned about by talking to Jewish expatriates in their Swedish, Danish, and Israeli homes. Between the mid-1950s and late 1960s, the structural framework of this institution gave thousands of young Polish Jews the foundation on which to build their Jewish identity. Without Jewish summer camps and TSKŻ clubs established in dozens of Polish cities, the postwar generation of Jews would not have had a chance to find its identity.
Listening to their fascinating stories, sometimes I felt a pang of sorrow, wondering how different my life and the life of the whole community would be if they had not left.
For the few hot months of Polish summer, the Polish Jewish Youth Organization (Polish: Żydowska Ogólnopolska Organizacja Młodzieżowa, ZOOM), an association of Jewish youth from Poland, moves its activities to the Jazdów Estate. Young Warsaw activists (including Jewish youth) involved in a struggle for the continued existence of this enclave of Finnish cottages in the heart of Warsaw, use one of the wooden buildings for meetings, workshops and seminars. One of their aims is to show the public “who contemporary young Jews are and what they are like”. By taking advantage of the open character of their seat and increasing cooperation with a variety of organizations, they aspire to “build a positive image of the Jewish community”. Normally ZOOM uses rooms belonging to the Etz Chaim reformed congregation. The predecessor of ZOOM was the Polish Union of Jewish Students (Polish: Polska Unia Studentów Żydowskich, PUSZ). Interestingly, the young Jews intend Kibbutz Warszawa to be “a continuation of the work of organizations such as TSKŻ aimed at the younger generation”.
The topics I choose for my classes at the University of Warsaw attract young Jews as well. With curiosity and interest I have observed the activities of Jewish youth and noticed great changes in the past several years in the way they define their identity. With greater openness to contact with young Jews from Israel and other Diaspora communities comes greater freedom to talk about the nuances of a hybrid, Diaspora identity. After all these years I am tempted to revisit the issue of Jewish youth, to which I devoted my master's thesis years ago.
Openness to the broadly defined local community, a characteristic feature of this organization, has its roots in America, where JCC centres are a ubiquitous part of the activities of Jewish communities. The Jewish Community Center, commonly known as the JCC, is run by the Joint Distribution Committee Foundation. The first JCC in Poland was founded in Kraków, another was established in 2013 on Chmielna Street in Warsaw. Informal education for children and adults, a variety of activities aimed at families with children and the open nature of the institution have earned it a large group of supporters.
The JCC seat added a significant landmark to the map of Jewish activity in Warsaw. Numerous workshops, debates and seminars, interspersed with communal cooking and Boker Tov feasts (boker tov is Hebrew for “good morning”) cause Jewishness to interact with its non-Jewish environment. JCC has become a hospitable meeting place that welcomes people from Jewish and non-Jewish circles alike. Instead of setting boundaries, JCC seeks to erase them and present a reasonable, understandable image of Jewishness to the public. It is also attractive to those who function on the fringes, escaping a clear-cut definition of their identity.
The Lauder-Morash School does not have a religious profile. In addition to typical public school subjects, instruction icludes Jewish tradition and history and Hebrew language; Jewish holidays are observed on a voluntary basis. The student body includes both Jewish and non-Jewish children.
The Lauder-Morash School in Warsaw was established in 1994 as the first Jewish school in Poland. It consists of a primary school, junior high school and a kindergarten. The institution started its operation as a kindergarten run by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, located in the White Building at 9 Twarda Street. Since 1999 the Lauder-Morash School has occupied its current building on Wawelberga Street, Wola district. Before World War II the building housed a Jewish retirement home. The first headmaster of the Lauder-Morash school complex was Helise E. Lieberman, succeeded by Rabbi Maciej Pawlak in 2006.
State-run public schools also offer Jewish education. The primary school on Żytnia Street provides a group of Jewish children with the basics of Jewish education and Hebrew language classes. Seven children also take advantage of kosher meals, delivered every day from the kosher restaurant Kuchnia Cejtel.
The Shalom Foundation organizes Yiddish language courses, lectures, workshops, educational competitions, theatre and television performances, art exhibitions and festivals. One of its greatest achievements was the exhibition “I can still see their faces – photographs of Polish Jews” and an album under the same title. It showcased prewar photographs submitted in 1994 at the request of Gołda Tencer. The Foundation was established in 1987 by Gołda Tencer, actress and director and has its seat at the Estera Rachel and Ida Kamińska Jewish Theatre in Warsaw.
The greatest media success of the Foundation is the Warsaw Singer Festival, which attracts hundreds of visitors to Warsaw each year. Lectures, presentations, performances, workshops and concerts offer the opportunity to meet numerous Jewish artists, scientists and animators of Jewish culture from around the world. The Foundation also runs the University of the Third Age on Andersa Street.
Personally, I am not a fan of Jewish festivals because they often present a simplified image of “the Jew”, blurring its true complexity and ambiguity. There are many reasons to complain. However, it would be hard to deny that the festivals include important and moving events, although those may be difficult to find in a programme scheduling dozens of events for a single day. But looking through a festival booklet, I always I find a play, exhibition or lecture that turns out to be groundbreaking.
Always in the shade of the so-called Blue Skyscraper, the building of the Jewish Historical Institute has had a turbulent history. Before the war, it was the seat of the Main Judaic Library and Institute of Judaic Studies. It was cruelly orphaned during the war, when its older sister-building – the Great Synagogue – was blown up by the Germans. It miraculously survived the ensuing fire. After the war it was assigned to the Central Committee of Jews in Poland (Polish: Centralny Komitet Żydów w Polsce), and after renovations it became the seat of the Central Jewish Historical Committee (Polish: Centralna Żydowska Komisja Historyczna), transformed into the Jewish Historical Institute in 1947. The Institute took up the task of collecting the cultural legacy of prewar communities: books, archives, famous Judaica, paintings, and sculptures. To researchers of the Jewish past, this is one of the most significant places on the map of Poland and the whole world. Next to it, also in the Blue Skyscraper, there`s an office of Taube Center – A Foundation for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland Foundation.
To me, this place is associated with an empirical experience of the past. Many years ago, visiting the cluttered, slightly mysterious room of Janek Jagielski, I would run across elderly men debating something in Yiddish. Current issues of “Słowo Żydowskie”, with articles in Polish and Yiddish, heated up their tempers. Asked to leave the small reading room, they continued their debates in the dark lobby of the Institute, heedless of the fact that their language and they themselves belonged to a different world, no longer accessible to people like me. My subsequent dealings with ŻIH had the form of detective investigations. Looking through volumes of “Nasz Głos”, a Polish-language supplement to “Folks-Sztyme” from the 1950s and 60s, I searched for information about my Jewish friends from Lower Silesia and their lives before they left Poland in the wake of March 1968.
In spite of its great collection, research activities, exhibitions and library, to me ŻIH will always be associated with the archives of the Central Committee of Jews in Poland, a database made up of old-fashioned index cards containing first and last names, dates, and rarely addresses of survivors of the Holocaust and those returning to Poland, mostly from the USSR. Once, I found a card filled by my grandmother, who returned to ruined Warsaw with my dad in 1945. The database helped many people like me uncover traces of their Jewish ancestors of whom they may not have heard before.
I have worked with the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews for over eight years. I saw it through various stages of development. I believe it is a place of vital importance, connected with many expectations and emotions.
In recent years, the Museum has transformed from a small, informal association into a great, internally diverse institution. I have been watching the changes with interest, all the more so because I have played a part in them.