Return to Poland|
Perhaps half of American Jews can trace their roots to Poland. Jews fleeing medieval oppression in the Rhineland and France were invited by Polish kings to settle empty eastern lands. In the 14th century, they were granted freedom of worship and other rights by Casimir the Great. Jewish learning flourished from the 16th century on; the Talmudic academies of Lublin were renowned all over Europe. Hasidism, based on the mystical 13th-century Kaballah from Spain, took root in the shtetls as Poland was partitioned in the 18th century. The highest achievements of Yiddish literature belonged to Polish writers of the 19th and 20th centuries like Yitzhak Peretz and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
And here was the center of the horror of the Holocaust. Ninety percent of Poland's 3 million Jews died during World War II, most of them at Auschwitz, a short drive from the old royal capital of Kraków. They were joined by Jews shipped from every other occupied country in Europe. Today, a visit to Auschwitz is the central experience for many Jewish Americans who go to Poland.
But there are indications that Poland is becoming more to Jews than a place to mourn. Kraków's ancient Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, has been revitalized by its role in the movie Schindler's List. There are new cafes and bookstores around the old Remuh synagogue and its adjacent cemetery, a tumult of crooked stones dating back to the 15th century.
In Warsaw, at the site of the 1943 ghetto uprising (when Jewish youths living in underground tunnels held the Nazis off for weeks), there is a memorial sculpture in the middle of a post-war housing project. Only the No_yk synagogue survived the devestation; others have been restored. Downtown is the new Jewish Theater, at Plac Grzybowski 12/16, which presents Yiddish plays year-round.