Joanna Baczko, antropologist and former president of the Polish Jewish Youth Organization (Polish: Żydowska Ogólnopolska Organizacja Młodzieżowa, ZOOM) in 2014-15, belongs to the third postwar generation of Polish Jews who grew up in Polish – as far as they knew – homes, among Polish schoolmates and friends. They feel far closer to the tradition of the country they were raised in than to any Jewish rites or traditions. Joanna discovered her Jewish identity gradually, a process that involved participation in various events organized by others, slowly bonding with the community, then getting directly involved in the operation of institutions co-created by her peers.
Joanna Baczko, President of the Polish Jewish Youth Organization (Polish: Żydowska Ogólnopolska Organizacja Młodzieżowa, ZOOM), belongs to the third postwar generation of Polish Jews who grew up in Polish – as far as they knew – homes, among Polish schoolmates and friends. They feel far closer to the tradition of the country they were raised in than to any Jewish rites or traditions. Joanna discovered her Jewish identity gradually, a process that involved participation in various events organized by others, slowly bonding with the community, then getting directly involved in the operation of institutions co-created by her peers.
The incredibly picturesque wooden single-family houses with gardens, situated at 5a/3 Jazdów Street, form a neighbourhood of Finnish cottages established in 1945 – a gift from the Finnish government given as World War II reparations for the Soviet Union. Originally assigned to the staff of the Office for the Reconstruction of the Capital (Polish: Biuro Odbudowy Stolicy, BOR), in later years the houses were popular with artists. Several years ago city authorities made plans to tear down the neighbourhood, which met with opposition from its residents and other Warsaw citizens, for whom this place has always been special. The Association of the Residents of the Jazdów Finnish Cottages (Polish: Stowarzyszenie Mieszkańców Domków Fińskich Jazdów), established in defence of the estate, managed to organize public consultations. The deserted buildings came to life in 2013 and became the seat of various non-governmental organizations. One of them was the Polish Jewish Youth Organization (ZOOM), whose management board I joined in the same year. The main objective of ZOOM was to create a sense of community among young Jews by organizing seminars, trips, and meetings as well as educating the public about Jewish tradition and history. The chance to move into this unique space opened great opportunities, such as the Kibbutz Warszawa project proposed by the then-President of ZOOM.
The name was intended to be a direct reference to the tradition of the Kibbutz in Grochów, Poland's most famous. Kibbutz Grochów was a well-known centre of left-wing and Zionist thought from the 1920s until 1942. It was also a centre of the resistance movement during preparations for the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto.
References to tradition have a particular significance for us, given that as representatives of the third generation we feel the need to reconnect with our past, from which history brutally cut off our parents and grandparents.
The kibbutz was the site of most of ZOOM's statutory activity, all the more unique for being open to everyone. The events at the Kibbutz were open and co-organized not only by Jewish associations and institutions, but also other non-governmental associations and residents of the capital. The activities of Kibbutz Warszawa have many dimensions, including cooperation with city authorities and more mundane problems, such as building and garden maintenance. To stand up to the task, we – city kids for the most part – had to learn the essentials, just like the residents of Kibbutz Grochów.
The Kibbutz offered workshops on such crafts as woodworking, gardening, and cooking. It was the scene of ZOOM events during the Singer Festival and the Night of Museums. Every year, the Warsaw Kibbutz organized celebrations of the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah. There were also more or less formal gatherings: lectures, debates, celebrations of Jewish holidays, film screenings, concerts, and picnics. The most important aspect of the Kibbutz was the opportunity to meet similar people and work together while showing the rest of society that young Jews are not as exotic as they might seem.
Located in the courtyard at 9 Chmielna Street, the Jewish Community Center Warszawa is a relatively new location on the map of Jewish organizations. Established in 2013, it has an open character and welcomes all members of the Jewish community as well as their non-Jewish friends. At JCC one always runs into friends, no matter what particular organizations or circles one belongs to. “Boker Tov” kosher Sunday breakfasts are among the most popular events. The offerings of this cultural centre are very diverse, so everyone can find something to their liking.
2013 was a landmark year for the Warsaw Jewish community. The numerous emerging organizations and institutions involved in Jewish affairs are evidence of a revival of Jewish life in the capital. In light of such rapid development, cooperation between different organizations is very important. We at ZOOM often used to cooperate with the JCC, for example during joint celebrations of Jewish holidays. JCC also hosts yoga classes taught by another youth organization, Makabi Warszawa, which was established in the same year as the JCC and continues the prewar tradition of Jewish sports clubs.
Nowadays, it is possible to be involved in activities in the Jewish community almost every single day. This is very encouraging and testifies to the enormous progress the Jewish revival has made in Warsaw. On the other hand, it poses new challenges for the animators of Jewish life. With the establishment of new institutions, it is increasingly difficult to come up with original, interesting, and competitive events, considering the small number of members that make up the Jewish community in Warsaw. When planning events, it is necessary to bear in mind the programme of other institutions.
“Greetings from Jerozolimskie Avenue” is the name of an art project by Joanna Rajkowska. The artist was inspired to create the famous palm tree by her journey to Israel. Let us walk 1,000 m further, where building No. 53 houses the Etz Chaim Synagogue and the Centre of the Progressive Community.
Since 2011, ZOOM has had an office at this address. The congregation was founded as a grassroots initiative proposed by members of the Jewish Religious Community of Warsaw, and attracted young people longing for a more religious life. Etz Chaim offers courses for prospective converts to Judaism. Although most of my Jewish peers are lay people, there are some who feel the need to cultivate the religious aspect of their Jewish identity for a variety of reasons. The first time I took part in a Passover celebration organized by the Jewish Community of Warsaw is a fond memory in my mind. Such festive dinners have been held for many years at the nearby Mariott hotel. These institutionalized (held outside of the family home) holiday celebrations attract entire families. They offer a chance to meet all sorts of community members: friends, family friends, and other families in the community. These events, filled with a solemn but warm atmosphere, take the place of family celebrations for many people. This manner of observing Jewish holidays is typical of the revival of Jewish life after 1989. To me, the most memorable moment was the surge of emotion I felt at a Seder dinner upon finding a flavour I remembered from my childhood. It was thanks to one of the vital elements of the festive ritual: kosher Passover matza, which next to butter and jellied fish was a staple of family gatherings at my grandparents' home. Matza found its way into my secular home because of my grandparents' membership in a Jewish organization, most likely the Social and Cultural Association of Jews in Poland (Polish: Towarzystwo Społeczno-Kulturalne Żydów w Polsce, TSKŻ). Although I did not even recognize it as such, it was the only element related to Jewish tradition in my family home, which was on the one hand decidedly secular-Jewish, on the other minimally Catholic.
Let us proceed to Grzybowski Square, one of the places in Warsaw directly associated with Jewish culture. Here, we can see the Jewish Theatre, the site of the Warsaw Festival of Jewish Culture organized by the Shalom Foundation. Every year the Singer Festival attracts large numbers of Warsaw citizens, me included, but not all representatives of the Jewish community want to participate. That is because some people do not fully identify with the revival of Jewish culture or are not able to navigate the world of Jewish tradition.
These are the same problems that plague the Kraków Jewish Culture Festival, which has been an important part of my summer holidays year after year. My interest in it is a result of cultural curiosity and fondness for the “Jewish” music and the night “Jazz Klez Sessions”. At one of the editions of this festival five years ago, I met many members of ZOOM, including my grandparents' friends' grandson. It was a particularly important event for me, because as a student of cultural anthropology with Jewish roots, I had long wondered about the lives of my Jewish peers. The starting point for my deliberations and exploration was the book “Społeczna tożsamość jednostki. W świetle wywiadów z Polakami pochodzenia żydowskiego urodzonymi w latach 1944-1955” (“Social identity of the individual. In the Light of interviews with Poles of Jewish Origin Born in 1944-1955”) by Małgorzata Melchior.
Approaching the oldest synagogue in Warsaw, the only surviving one out of hundreds of prewar houses of worship, we pass the seat of an organization with a very rich and long tradition – TSKŻ.
The route takes us to 6 Twarda Street, the seat of the Jewish Religious Community of Warsaw and the Zalman and Rywka Nożyk Orthodox Synagogue, opened in 1902. Around these two buildings of key importance to Jewish life there are a number of Jewish institutions, the Cejtel kosher kitchen and a shop.
The first Warsaw Moishe House in my memory was situated on Złota Street. I first started visiting it in 2010 after the memorable edition of the festival of Jewish culture in Kraków; that was the beginning of my involvement with the Jewish life of Warsaw youth. Early the following year I had the pleasure of participating in the first annual general meeting of ZOOM, where I was accepted as a member of the organization.
The success of the Złota Street Moishe House was largely due to its excellent location in the city centre, which caused crowds of young people to gather there on weekends. That was where the idea of the famous best hummus competition was first proposed, as were many other events that earned a permanent place in the annals of Warsaw history.
It is hard to talk about Warsaw Jews without mentioning the old Jewish quarter. At present, opposite the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, designed by Natan Rappaport, you can see one of the most important recent institutions, the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews at 6 Anielewicza Street.
Miła Street, perpendicular to Zamenhofa Street, used to hold the home of my grandmother's family in the Warsaw Ghetto, and then my former school, Fredro High School. For that reason, I had a chance to watch the construction of the museum from the very beginning. In the course of my history education, I had the incredible luck to encounter Bogusław Jędruszczak, an exceptional teacher who understood the value of the knowledge of local history. This is most likely a family value in his case, since he and his father Mieczysław Jędruszczak have for many years looked after the remains of the wall of the Warsaw ghetto at 55 Sienna Street. It is thanks to him that I am so familiar with the turbulent wartime history of the former Northern District. It was very important to me at the time and I am extremely grateful to my teacher, who despite many stupid comments from my classmates persevered in his efforts to educate us about the Jewish history of Muranów. That experience made me aware of the importance of knowledge of history and I put high hopes in the activities of the Polin Museum.
I would like to end this route in a particularly unique spot. It is located in the heart of the former Jewish district, where my grandparents lived before the war. Prior to the war, my grandma's family lived in Nowolipki Steet, and that was where she attended the H. Kalecki Junior High School for Girls. My grandfather with his parents and brother moved several times; their addresses included Dzika, Gęsia and Dzielna Streets.
On one side of today's Bankowy Square, at the former site of the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie Street, where my grandfather attended the Junior High School of the ”Askola” Society, you can see the seats of two major institutions: the Jewish Historical Institute, and the Taube Foundation.
Across the square is Bohaterów Getta Street, paved with granite cobblestones, with a disused tram track running down the middle. Before the war, most of thess types of paving stones were imported from Finland. It is a minor detail, which only grows in significance in the context of the activities organized by Kibbutz Warszawa in the Finnish cottages of the Jazdów Estate – what is now an inconspicuous stretch of street is the last surviving fragment of Nalewki Street, which used to bustle with the life of the Jewish district. Nalewki Street was also the trade hub of the district and my great-grandfather ran a business there.
I have shown you my Jewish Warsaw, and even though it does not in any way compare to what it was before the war, it is evident that the Polish capital has recently experienced an amazing revival of Jewish life. Constantly revised and re-defined, this life is filled with references to the history and tradition of the prewar Warsaw Jewish community.