The Jewish future of Germany and Poland

I was poised, in last month’s column, to begin a four-week journey with a tri-national group of students in Poland and Germany under the aegis of York University’s Mark and Gail Appel Program in Holocaust and Anti-racism Eduction: Learning from the Past, Teaching for the Future. Now, on an airplane, returning, I’d like to share some impressions.

Our group was diverse – Canadian, German, Polish university students, including Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim students, as well as secular humanists and atheists. Some were immigrants and children of immigrants, while some were discovering a long-buried Jewish ancestry.

We ate most meals together, spent our days in seminars and visits to memorial sites, museums, documentation centres, and places of Jewish life and Jewish death. We met with site directors, local educators and community members. We met with Germans and Poles committed to acknowledging the past and to building ties among communities and countries that experienced terrible past conflagrations.

We spent Shabbat in cities with functioning synagogues, attended Kabbalat Shabbat services and ate Shabbat dinner together. For many – perhaps most – this was their first encounter with how Jews pray, their first view of the interior of Jewish prayer space, and their first look at Jewish ritual objects outside of museums – that is, as part of a living community rather than as relics of a destroyed one.

In Stuttgart, during our first Shabbat, we invited local Jewish university students to join us for dinner and to tell us a bit about their lives and sense of Jewish identity. They were a varied group. They were studying medicine, education, engineering or computer science. None grew up in families characterized by religious observance. Some described themselves as thoroughly secular with only loose ties to the Jewish community. Others spoke of an ongoing process of engagement with Judaism. One led the synagogue’s youth group, another the Jewish student group. Some saw their future in Germany, some spoke of aliyah. Several recounted immigration from the former Soviet Union and the process of acculturating to Germany.

Someone from our group asked, “Were any of you born here in Germany?” None of them were. This, early in our travels, struck our students profoundly. It was visceral evidence of the thoroughness of the destruction of the native Jewish populations during the Shoah. The uprootedness of the Jewish Stuttgart students made visible what could not be seen: the absence of Jewish communities with deep roots in the countries they inhabit.

At the same time, it revealed the growing Jewish population in contemporary Germany. It’s not, of course, a resurrection of prewar German Jewish culture, with its unique religious and intellectual traditions. It’s something different, something new: an in-process, developing German Jewish culture, whose shape, traditions, identity, influence, values – and, indeed, permanence – is yet to be determined.

Similarly, the Shabbat service we attended in Warsaw taught us about contemporary Jewish life in Poland. The lovely synagogue drew substantial numbers for Kabbalat Shabbat. The majority, however, were North Americans and most were temporary residents of the city, there for a short-term visit or a longer work assignment or academic project.

Yet in Poland, as well, one sensed that the Jewish future was not yet determined.

Someone noted that Poland is the only country where the Jewish birth rate is down but the Jewish population is increasing – that is, young people are tracing their Jewish roots, owning a connection with the Jewish past, and exploring the place of Jewishness in their lives.

We also met non-Jewish Poles committed to remembering and honouring the destroyed Jewish communities.

One of our Polish participants told me that in her town, the former synagogue is still standing. The people of her town keep it in good repair. “We have to,” she explained. “It reminds us that they are missing. It doesn’t let us forget.”

We were joined for Shabbat dinner by a Catholic woman who’s active in the Warsaw Jewish school. It was important to create hospitable community structures for the Jews in Poland today – important to make the country welcoming to Jewish life, she said. Did she think that Jews would come back to Poland, and make it a Jewish home again? She replied, poignantly, “I hope so.”